RogerBW's Blog

Cold as the Grave, James Oswald 19 March 2021

2019 supernatural mystery in modern Edinburgh, ninth in Oswald's Inspector McLean series. A girl is found in a forgotten cellar, partly mummified even though she died quite recently. Then another turns up in the same state.

After the rather impressive The Gathering Dark, this feels a little more as though it's revisiting things that worked well in the past. Once more McLean meets something that has a blatantly supernatural explanation as well as a rather less plausible mundane one, but marks time on obviously dead-ended investigative work rather than follow either explanation to its conclusion, until the evidence falls into his lap. Once more the recurring figure of evil (who may also be some kind of supernatural being, or indeed the actual Devil) gets involved and seems to want something from him, though it's still not clear what. Once more he's a workaholic having an awkward relationship with his girlfriend, and nothing's really resolved. Many of these things could have been said five books ago, and were; while I don't mind unchanging iconic characters, we do see development in other respects (McLean is now a DCI, for example, and uncomfortable in the changed job) and this harping on the same themes feels deliberate.

This time it's also a little obvious that McLean and the other good guys are entirely in favour of refugees without question, and the bad guys are entirely opposed to them without question, and nobody has any more nuanced position. I don't think it's helpful to reduce politics to simple "are you on the right side or not" questions; we have too much polarisation already, and the real world is much more likely to produce a continuum than a binary choice. (And this irks me more when, as here, I'm broadly in sympathy with the positions portrayed as belonging to the good guys.)

But those are the bad bits, and the good bits are still good. The moment-to-moment descriptive writing remains excellent, particularly when poking around crime scenes; characters are getting older and shifting slightly in ways that make sense. It's just the higher-level plotting that's showing the strain a bit.

I wonder whether these books are falling between two stools: too much supernaturalism for the modern gritty police reader, not enough for the urban fantasy reader. But as someone prepared to read both I continue to enjoy this hybrid genre.

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Previous in series: The Gathering Dark | Series: Inspector McLean | Next in series: Bury Them Deep

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