The first few chapters of Cold As The Grave, the ninth Tony McLean book, encapsulate James Oswald’s delicate blend of police procedural and the supernatural. In less than two dozen pages he sets up another tightly woven plot just waiting for McLean to pull on a loose end and unravel something deeply unpleasant.
A trapped girl clutches an amulet to ward off a demon with glowing red eyes but is consumed by the evil. Newly promoted DCI McLean discovers a child is missing, a case complicated by the fact she and her mother are illegal immigrants. Then the seemingly long-dead body of a child is found in a tiny close off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, behind the office of a charity which works with refugees. That these things are linked seems obvious, but the path ahead is as filled with sharp turns and dead ends as the Old Town’s underground street network.
Also in the mix is the fragile relationship between McLean and his girlfriend, Emma, plus the return of the enigmatic Mrs Saifre, and of series regular Madame Rose. And then a circus rolls into town, bringing glittering illusion and daredevil feats, with a whiff of unreality for good measure. Suffice to say there are plenty of disparate plot strands, but Oswald has a sure grasp, carefully unspooling this novel about hope and trust and what happens when those things come into contact with destructive forces that work only for selfish ends.
There is a growing strand of crime writing that excels in examining the details and realities of social issues, from racism to domestic violence. Here Oswald takes the subject of refugees and immigration from black-and-white newspaper headlines to the nuanced greys of fiction, with the hot, dusty deserts of the war in Syria and a snowy Edinburgh winter providing the backdrop.
As the Syrians flee their homes, what do they bring with them and what follows them? The circus fortune teller, Madame Jasmina, warns McLean that a mystical creature called an afrit – essentially a demon – is on the loose. He is sceptical, but equally he knows evil is being done to those who came to his city seeking safety. As Madame Jasmina tells him: “War is everywhere. Chaos and evil… It follows the desperate as they flee, and it finds new soil in which to sow its discord.”
Chaos and evil there may be, but Oswald mostly avoids showing us violence, a refreshing contrast to those writers who describe suffering and brutality in queasy detail. That said, a brief flash of visceral description would have underlined the horrors more strongly. Also, a bit more backstory for the trafficking victims would have elicited greater empathy, especially considering the power of the opening chapter.
Overall, however, Oswald shepherds the many elements of this story brilliantly, and brings them together in a satisfying ending. - Louise Fairbairn
Cold As The Grave, by James Oswald, Wildfire, £12.99