Well if there is one thing that I am not very good at hiding (and let’s face it, I don’t even try) it is how much I like the Tony McLean series by James Oswald. It is one of the series which really drew me back into reading. It reintroduced me to the world of the Detective novel whilst giving me a touch of the X-Files vibe that I used to crave in my teens (before the whole alien/government conspiracy tosh ruined it anyway). I’ve since got my sister hooked on the series as well as a friend of ours, and I don’t hesitate to push it to fellow bloggers and readers any chance I get. So when I hear there is a new book on the horizon, I am very excited. As soon as it is on preorder, I’m right on it. And if there is a whisper of a book launch then I’ll be there … (still not a stalker).
So did Cold As The Grave meet my expectations? Well, I’ll tell you after we’ve done all the important bookish bits.
The Book Bits
The ninth book in the Sunday Times-bestselling phenomenon that is the Inspector McLean series, from one of Scotland’s most celebrated crime writers.
Her mummified body is hidden in the dark corner of a basement room, a room which seems to have been left untouched for decades. A room which feels as cold as the grave.
As a rowdy demonstration makes its slow and vocal way along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean’s team are on stand-by for any trouble. The newly promoted McLean is distracted, inexplicably drawn to a dead-end mews street… and a door, slightly ajar, which leads to this poor girl’s final resting place.
But how long has she been there, in her sleep of death? The answers are far from what McLean or anyone else could expect. The truth far more chilling than a simple cold case…
I have literally no idea how to start reviewing this book. I mean, I could just grab one of my previous reviews and copy and paste, because I genuinely think that there is nothing original left to be said about how much I love this series. Because I really do. I was suckered in by the perfect blend of the run of the mill police investigation and the hint of the supernatural. A brilliant combination of crime thriller and something a little more fantastical. Each book brings something a little … off kilter, pitting our dear Tony McLean against characters of nefarious intent and unearthly skills. Not everything can be written off as a display of the occult, but it’s not all straight forward criminal mastermind stuff either.
The series started off with a bang, and when it came to conveying the inexplicable, Mr Oswald has a great talent for making it all believable. This is quite a difficult series to define. It doesn’t fit squarely in any particular genre – not clean police procedural and not so quite dark as to make it horror either. It floats, beautifully in my opinion, somewhere in between. And with the last two titles there has been a noticeable loosening of the artistic reins, with the last book, The Gathering Dark and this, Cold As the Grave, returning more obviously to the otherworldly essence of the series that made me fall in love with it to begin with.
Can you tell where this is going yet? Indulge me a little and read on anyway. It’s the least you can do now I’ve found my (really really long) stride.
I don’t really want to say too much about the plot. The blurb above tells you all you need to know. Poor old Tony McLean has a real knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a chance discovery whilst watching over a march through the heart of Edinburgh, puts him front and centre in a rather harrowing investigation. Mummified remains are discovered in an abandoned room but, seeing as how this is a Tony McLean novel, you know that nothing is going to be as straight forward as it seems. Faced with old foes, illegal immigrants, travelling circuses and missing children, Tony and the team have their work cut out for them if they hope to prevent any more tragedies from occurring.
What I love about this series is the way in which James Oswald has developed the characters. They really make the series for me. Beyond the already established team of Tony, Grumpy Bob (still love that guy and so happy his retirement is only taking as far as the basement and the cold case team), Duguid who is, bizarrely, still growing on me, Kirsty Ritchie, and Janie Harrison, you have the friends who shape and inform Tony’s life – his partner Emma, Madame Rose and Angus Cadwallader. They are all so richly drawn, and add such texture to the story because I can easily make an emotional connection with each and every one of them. There is some trait in each character . that you can identify with. Hell – even Mrs McCutcheon’s Cat. I know I look forward to seeing what they will do in each book, how they will become part of the story. Sometimes you laugh with them, at other times you may cry but they are always there and it is always special.
Added to this you have those who operate on the other side of the law. In a story which mixes reality with something a little more … out there, it would be easy to make all the bad guys appear to be too outlandish. Too much of the pantomime villains in designer suits. As well as a new kind of threat, a new foe as it were, there is a familiar face back to haunt Tony once more, although you will need to read the book to find out who that is. Whether their intentions are as altruistic as they maintain … I have to say I side with Tony on being more than a little suspicious on that front, but it does add a delicious, if devious, twist to the story and I can’t to see how their reappearance plays out in future books.
This is, at times, a rather harrowing story to read. It deals with missing children, the plight of immigrants on the streets of Edinburgh, and examines a real life socio-political problem, and does so without merely turning it into a source of entertainment. It is a very current topic, although given a McLean twist, but you can’t ignore the emotional turmoil that lies beneath the surface, or how relevant the story is in modern society. The book had the ability to leave me both outraged and heartbroken, with some truly powerful scenes throughout.
James Oswald uses setting to great effect in the story. From the dark space in which the mummified body is found, to the ways in which he contrasts the relative opulence of his won home against the very basic, and in some cases, slum like conditions, or worse, that some of the other characters live in, each scene is so realistically drawn, that the ambience of the location sets not only the tone, but also the underlying atmosphere that informs the story. You get to see a far darker side of Edinburgh that is painted in the tourist brochures, and yet the prose is so wonderfully descriptive that it still takes you to the heart of what is, when all is said and done, a beautiful city. Much like the story, each setting has a kind of duplicitous nature, the facade, be it beautiful or stark, hiding the true nature of what lies within. From circus tents, to townhouses, to country estates, the vivid narrative creates an image in your mind as clear as any picture could.
The pacing in the book is perfect, fast enough to keep me totally intrigued, whilst not rushing over the quiet and sombre moments in a bid to just escalate the action. There are moments of tension that had me, as a reader, perched on the edge of my seat, wondering what may happen. Then there were scenes in which the silence and near stillness of Tony and Emma’s world was so overwhelmingly simple and honest that it was almost bruising, the emotion conveyed so convincingly that it made my heart ache. I just loved the way the author managed the balance between the two, making me both desperate to read on but almost scared to turn the page.
And that’s all I can say really. To give you more would probably end in spoilers and we wouldn’t want that now. Either that or I will sound like a stuck record, because how many ways are there to say ‘just read the bloody books because they are bloody fabulous and you know it makes sense‘?
So yes. I loved this book. Loved the blend of the magical, the villainous and the otherworldly, and loved, as always, DCI Tony McLean and his very special band of partners in crime fighting. I cannot wait for the next book, and can only take solace in the fact that although I’ve another twelve months to go until I’m reunited with Tony McLean, I can fill the void with a little bit of Constance Fairchild a later this year.
And yes. It’s getting one of these … (you knew it would)
Happy publication day by the way Mr Oswald.
About the Author
JAMES OSWALD is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling Inspector McLean series of detective mysteries. The first two of these, NATURAL CAUSES and THE BOOK OF SOULS were both short- listed for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award.
James farms Highland cows and Romney sheep by day, writes disturbing fiction by night.