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Posted on 24 May 2018 in Crime Scene |

JAMES OSWALD The Gathering Dark. Review and overview by Jean Bedford

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James Oswald has been hailed as the new star of Scottish noir – with a difference.

The Gathering Dark is the eighth and possibly final book in the Inspector Tony McLean series, which has been going since 2013 when James Oswald self-published Natural Causes as an ebook; it became a bestseller and went on to be shortlisted for the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger prize. (No Time to Cry, his first book in a new series featuring a woman detective, is scheduled for publication in July this year.)

Oswald has been compared to Val McDermid and Ian Rankin and hailed as the new star in the constellation of Scottish noir. Certainly fans of this sub-genre will find many similarities – particularly to Rankin’s Rebus series.

 McLean is the same sort of world-weary, disaster-magnet copper, holding to his own instincts and his own sense of justice in the face of obstruction from senior officers and the ‘high headyins’, threats from the crooks and a fraught personal life. Like Rebus, McLean walks, and knows, the mean streets of Edinburgh with their misery-and-drug-ridden slum tenements, as well as the broad tree-studded roads lined with gracious terraced mansions.

The writing is crisp and clean, the plots are strong, characters are well rounded and original and the descriptions of Edinburgh in its various guises are evocative, sometimes lyrical.

So far, so similar, though, unlike Rebus, McLean is independently wealthy and does the job because he loves it. If ‘love’ is the word. There’s also another major difference, which we’ll come to later.

Natural Causes, the first of the McLean books, begins with a young girl’s ritually arranged corpse, found in a sealed room – a 60-year-old crime. As a wave of serial killings sweeps over Edinburgh, McLean, at this point a detective constable, is convinced they relate back to that historical crime.

The second in the series, The Book of Souls (2013), is very personal for McLean. Every year, for ten years, a young woman’s body was found in Edinburgh at Christmas time: naked, throat slit, body completely cleaned – no forensics at all. The final victim of ‘the Christmas Killer’, Kirsty Summers, was McLean’s fiancée. In a cellar under a shop, McLean had found a torture chamber and put an end to the brutal killing spree. Twelve years later, there’s an apparent copycat killer. But there might be a more sinister, frightening explanation.

The Hangman’s Song (2014) – number three – begins with the discovery of a young man who has apparently hanged himself, leaving a strange suicide note. After the third hanging it is apparent that something sinister is going on. In the middle of investigating a brutal human trafficking ring, McLean struggles to work the hanging case as well. He finds answers, but they will bring danger much closer to home than he realises.

Dead Men’s Bones (2014) is McLean’s fourth outing and by now some of the supporting characters are well established, as is the rich backstory. A wealthy politician has killed his family and then himself. The question McLean must answer is, of course, ‘Why?’ The deeper he digs into Edinburgh’s world of privilege, the more he is pressured to wrap up the investigation and the more determined he is to uncover the layers of corruption, putting everyone he cares about at risk.

McLean number five is Prayer for the Dead (2015). A tabloid reporter goes missing and McLean’s nemesis, the awful but somehow empathetic journalist Jo Dalgleish, asks for his help. The reporter’s body is found, killed in a macabre cleansing ritual, in a labyrinthine system of caves beneath the city, and he is only the first victim. McLean and his unlikely associate must track down a deluded and compulsive killer answerable only to some higher power while battling with events that are (almost) beyond belief.

In 2016 came The Damage Done (number six). With the catchline ‘No good deed shall go unpunished’ on the cover, this begins with a botched police raid and leads on to the possible discovery of what has happened to a young woman who disappeared during McLean’s early days as a cop – a mystery that has always haunted him. Again he digs into a cold case but is soon overwhelmed by a series of gruesome deaths in the present. Again he battles with the Edinburgh wealth and power network and again his career, and his life, are on the line.

Written in Bones (2017) is the seventh instalment. A naked man falls from a great height into a tree in an Edinburgh park. The dead man turns out to be disgraced former policeman Bill Chalmers, who  has reinvented himself as a wealthy philanthropist since serving his jail sentence. Tracing Chalmers’s life and associates begins a journey into the past for McLean, as well as through Edinburgh’s seamy and very dangerous underworld, assisted by another of his old enemies, the recently retired Detective Superintendent Charles Duguid.

And so we come to The Gathering Dark (2018). The catchline on the cover (they all have them) is ‘The dead demand vengeance’, and they do, as in all the best noir mysteries. An out-of-control truck, illegally carrying toxic waste, rams a bus stop, killing 20 people, including the truck driver. McLean actually witnesses the accident and is put in charge of the investigation. The spilled chemicals have rendered some of the bodies unrecognisable except through DNA tests and McLean and his team must work their way patiently down the list until they come to the last couple of unidentified victims.

Meanwhile the son of the new Chief Superintendent, Forrester, has gone missing. Could one of the unknown bodies be his? As ever, McLean has more than one major investigation competing for his time while he battles his own PTSD and tries to keep the peace with his pregnant partner, Emma, who is justifiably pissed off at his long hours and his preoccupation with work.

Unlike the previous novels, there is another point of view interpolated into The Gathering Dark – the voice of a young man with an horrific history of abuse, bent on revenge, particularly as his long-lost companion is one of the victims of the crash.

Familiar characters from previous books reappear – Grumpy Bob, the indolent but surprisingly competent sergeant; retired superintendent Duguid; Jo Dalgleish; demoted ex-superintendent Jayne McIntyre; pathologist Angus Cadwallader; the enigmatic Mrs McCutcheon’s Cat – and always there somewhere like a guardian angel, Madame Rose, the transvestite clairvoyant who seems to know more than there is to know, and whose troop of cats occasionally moves in with McLean to keep an eye on him.

And this leads to the main element that distinguishes the McLean series from the rest of Scottish noir – the underlying, though usually cryptic, presence of the supernatural. This should make for an uneasy marriage with what are otherwise strong police-procedurals, and sometimes it does, for this reader, at least. But it’s also intriguing, and adds another unexpected layer to the stories. ‘Something’ is hovering, usually something evil, and often personified by the ubiquitous and apparently immortal Mrs Saifre and her cohort. Madame Rose and her cats are seemingly able to offer some protection from, and an antidote to, this presence.

According to Oswald, writing on the deadgoodbooks blog, McLean began life as a support character in a comic strip that was never published:

In that story he was confronted with the ghost of an unnamed young man, wandering the dark streets of Edinburgh attempting to right the wrong that had caused his death. McLean’s dilemma was whether to accept the impossible existence of ghosts in a world where nobody believed in them, or never solve the case.

… when I turned away from writing epic fantasy to something a bit more contemporary and dark, I felt it was time to promote Tony to lead role. 

It took seven books before Oswald resurrected the original story as a plot strand in The Gathering Dark.

The balance between the real and the surreal is handled well. McLean’s own disbelief is never quite suspended, no matter how often he is confronted by evidence of the hidden world. He suspects, even knows, uneasily, that it exists, but he chooses not to think about it too deeply, allowing the reader the same freedom to believe or not. Oswald goes on to say:

I wanted to keep that conflict between the rational, logical world of the detective and the supremely irrational world of the occult, and so Tony is something of a weirdness magnet. He is the detective to whom strange things happen, and the one who is handed all the unusual cases.

All of the books can be read as one-offs, but I strongly recommend reading them in sequence. This is partly because the backstory accumulates richly with each novel, as do the characters and the setting. In The Gathering Dark, for example, Emma, McLean’s partner, who disappeared for two years on a round-the-world crusade of sorts, only appears here as the querulous pregnant woman, who, even though she works with the police herself, can’t seem to accept McLean’s long hours and his obsession with his cases. Her role simply seems to be as another source of stress for the already stressed-out McLean. And other characters whom we have got to know well in previous books only appear briefly here.

But reading them all is mainly recommended because it’s a terrific and very rewarding series.

James Oswald The Gathering Dark Michael Joseph 2018 HB 464pp $32.99

You can buy The Gathering Dark from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.