Review: Cold As The Grave

James Oswald – Cold As The Grave

Published by Wildfire Books, paperback £7.99. I received a proof copy from the publisher for review purposes.

The first chapters of Cold As The Grave, the ninth Tony McLean book, encapsulate James Oswald’s delicate blend of police procedural and supernatural, and in less than two dozen pages he sets up the threads of another tightly-woven plot ready 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 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 contrasts between the hot, dusty ancient deserts and the modern war in Syria and the snowy Edinburgh winter providing the backdrop to his exploration of the issues.

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. McLean 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. However, I feel a brief flash of visceral description would have underlined the horrors more strongly. And I would like to have seen more back story for our trafficking victims to elicit greater empathy in the reader, especially considering the power of the opening chapter. But these are minor quibbles.

I feel the supernatural strand adds richness to Oswald’s elegant, unshowy style, but Cold As The Grave’s ending is perhaps all the more chilling to the determinedly sceptical: if in reality it’s not some esoteric evil creature preying on the vulnerable but that the worst pain and suffering is inflicted by other people. All in all Oswald shepherds the many elements of this story perfectly, and neatly pens them together in a satisfying ending.

This review first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 3 February, 2019. This is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used in this instance with their kind permission.

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