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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Book of Souls. James Oswald. Penguin Books (2013)

A very engaging and enjoyable police procedural that has a supernatural element carefully woven into the story. A woman is murdered in a way that mimics the work of a serial killer who was caught twelve years previously. That man has been killed in prison and the new victim creates very difficult questions as the match between the previous and current murders is too close to be coincidental. For Detective Inspector Tony McLean the case has a significant personal element, the last victim twelve years ago was his fiancee and it was McLean who found the killer. Now he has to find out if he made a mistake. The story unfolds very well, the reveals are very well staged and the plot mechanics are excellent. The conclusion is sharp and satisfying.
James Oswald takes a tremendous risk with the story and manages it with great flair and skill, a supernatural element in a story tends to dominate the story, it throws all the rules out the window by its presence which is a problem for a crime story where the rules are vital. What James Oswald has done so well is to use the supernatural element as a nicely complicating factor for events that slot nicely into a police procedural format. They supernatural is never in the foreground, it contributes effectively to motive which allows the action of the story to be firmly inside the genre requirements. This is first class mash up writing, the rules for both genres are respected and both are strengthened and illuminated by the other.
Detective Inspector Tony McLean is an engaging and interesting character, he lacks the dysfunctional traits that are often used and instead has a stubborn awkwardness that contributes to his effectiveness as a police officer while acting on a drag to his career progression. This is a very effective way to create the slightly solitary police office required to balance both elements of the story. Detective Inspector Tony McLean has the room to absorb something out of the ordinary and still be a functioning and competent police officer.
The rest of the cast are lively enough to stand by themselves, in particular a kidnap victim who proves that being down is very far from being out. The major intrusion of the supernatural is very cleverly set up, the reveals make it entirely satisfying and nicely unexpected.
A very vividly established context in Edinburgh gives the story a very strong physical anchor, the format of the police procedural gives it straight lines that James Oswald uses cleverly to bring in the unexpected and give the strength and atmosphere. Clever and unexpected, great fun.

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