Written by James Oswald — Edinburgh. The present day. A busload of prostitutes is being shipped out of Leith Docks, to pastures new. Who is behind this traffic? Who is the mysterious Russian pimp who has muscled in on a local operation?
Meanwhile the man on the case, Inspector Tony McLean, is battling a traumatic personal history and is hindered by colleagues who are either indolent or corrupt. His former girlfriend Emma has somehow been reduced to a childlike state, his superior hates him, and he works in a police station full of officers who know that he’s come into money, big time. And because he’s not a complete bastard they see him as fair game for their practical jokes and set-ups.
There is an apparent suicide. But then another body, and soon yet another, are found hanged and suspended from hemp ropes. The ligatures were identically knotted, and the corpses are both those of vulnerable, solitary young men. McLean struggles to convince his bosses that they must spend valuable resources on the investigation. He’s pulled this way and that between his professional duties and a desire to liberate his former lover from the imprisonment of her current mental condition.
Afficionados of the genre will slip into this book with all the ease of putting on a familiar and comfortable jacket. All the features are present – an outwardly photogenic Scottish city with a dark criminal underbelly, the maverick police inspector, his trusted junior officer, his incompetent jobsworth of a boss, a series of suicides that only he suspects are murders, a crooked cop beating up on prostitutes, the wise but curmudgeonly police pathologist, and the fellow detectives who are either jealous or lazy. Oswald does inject some different elements into the mix too, including a transvestite medium, the ex-lover who now has the mind of an eight-year-old, and a psychic cat capable of leading a seasoned detective to a vital clue.
I enjoyed this book, and McLean is an engaging and sympathetic central character. I fell pretty much instantly in love with the waif-like former lover, Emma, but there are a few shortcomings that cannot be ignored. Firstly, the whole plot relies hugely on the back-story which you can only gain by reading the previous books in the series, Natural Causes (2012) and The Book Of Souls (2013). As manfully as Oswald tries to fill in the details as we go along it’s difficult to understand just what happened to Emma, much less McLean’s part in the tragedy. Secondly, I am not the most perceptive of whodunnit solvers, but it was fairly obvious to me early on who was behind the faked suicides.
There is a strong thread of the paranormal running through the book, and my view is that you either accept it, or you don’t. If you don’t, then close the book, go no further, and put it in the pile destined for the charity shop. I’m fine with the paranormal, and Oswald handles it well enough. The acid test is, ‘Do I care?’ Well, I did. I cared for the fallible but decent Tony Mclean, and longed to reach out and hug his lovely Emma. James Oswald talked to us about his work in 2012. The Hangman’s Song is out 27 February.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars