Workmanlike” may seem tepid praise to bestow on a book. Yet if the novel is, sometimes at least, a work of art, writing a novel is a craft, and craftsmanship matters. Evelyn Waugh believed that a novel should be as well-made as fine furniture, and the first pleasure of James Oswald’s novel is that the author knows what he is doing and how to bring it off. This is satisfying, all the more so because Oswald takes risks. His novel is a hybrid. On the one hand it’s an unusually competent and humane police procedural; on the other there is an element of the supernatural. In a lesser craftsman this might make for an uneasy marriage, indeed an unconvincing one.
The novel begins with what seems a horrible accident (perhaps inspired by the Glasgow bin lorry disaster). A truck, at speed and out of control, crashes into a bus-stop at the junction of Lothian Road and the Western Approach Road in Edinburgh. It’s a hideous accident, not a crime; the driver has had a heart attack. But, as DI Tony McLean – this is the seventh novel to feature him – who happens to be on the scene, soon realises, there has indeed been a crime. The truck is carrying very dangerous toxic waste, which is not what its manifest says it was transporting. Nineteen people are killed.
One of the pleasures of the police procedural sections of the novel is that Oswald eschews the conventional clichés of tartan noir. His police officers aren’t foul-mouthed and violent. They aren’t always trying to score points off each other or putting each other down. On the contrary, they are serious people working with each other to obtain necessary results in a job that is difficult and stressful. So they are credible and because they are credible, the reader is likely to engage with them.
It’s true that McLean himself with his ample private income, large house and Alfa Romeo, harks back somewhat to the gentlemanly detectives of the Golden Age of detective fiction, not certainly Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, but the Scotland Yard inspectors and superintendents in the novels of Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, and Josephine Tey; it’s perhaps Tey’s Alan Grant he most resembles. An author of crime fiction who is good enough to bring back memories of Josephine Tey, and invite comparison with her, is pretty good.
The element of the supernatural is surprising because the police procedural element of the novel is so admirably matter-of fact; and perhaps it wouldn’t work if there wasn’t something a touch fey about McLean – again like Tey’s Grant. So while it’s disturbing that cats mysteriously appear as – perhaps – harbingers of doom in McLean’s garden, Oswald manages this so smoothly that credulity is not itself disturbed. Likewise the gnomic presence of Madame Rose, a transvestite medium, warning of “dark forces gathering on the horizon” is made agreeably acceptable; the speywife is after all a familiar figure in Scottish literature, in the Ballads and the novels of Scott and Hogg. The point is first that Oswald makes her credible, second that her presence, by suggesting that the world of everyday crime prompted by greed and callousness is shadowed by real evil, prepares us for the novel’s most mysterious figure: a young man who survived horrible child abuse, escaped, in the company of a little girl and fellow-victim, by a violent act while still a small boy, and who now pursues revenge by means of the modern magic of the digital age. What is his connection to the crash? There is another sub-plot relating to the son of McLean’s superior officer, and this too leads to dark places, though sadly only too comprehensible ones.
It takes a craftsman to fashion such different strains into a coherent narrative. There are moments when you may think the novel will break in two, but Oswald is sufficiently master of his material to hold it together. The result is something very pleasing and enjoyable. This is the first of his McLean novels I’ve read. I look forward to reading the earlier ones.
The Gathering Dark, by James Oswald, Michael Joseph, 441pp, £12.99