Review: What Will Burn

James Oswald – What Will Burn (Blog Tour)

James reading from Bury Them Deep on his launch tour for the book in 2020

Published by Wildfire Books, hardback £16.99. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Antonia Whitton at Headline for inviting me to join the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: The charred remains of an elderly woman are discovered in a burned-out gamekeepers cottage, hidden away in woodland to the west of Edinburgh. Clearly no accidental fire, Detective Inspector Tony McLean suspects that neither is this simply a grim arson attack. There is far more to the victim than her humble surroundings might suggest, and something ritualistic to her horrific murder. Nor will it be the only case of death by fire that Tony and his team will be faced with. This is only the beginning, and with such evil clouding the air, Tony begins to wonder what else will burn…

Around this time last year, James Oswald was marking the launch of the tenth Tony McLean novel, Bury Them Deep, with a series of bookshop events in Scotland, which seems like another world now. The 11th, What Will Burn, set a few months later, opens with the modern version of an ancient event, the result being an old woman’s burned body being found in a cottage in woods on the outskirts of Edinburgh – “so much a recluse that nobody noticed when her house caught on fire. Too old and frail to save herself” is the first thought, but the post-mortem swiftly knocks down any hopes of a simple accidental death case.

The team is short-handed, though there is one notable new member of staff: station chief Gail Elmwood, fresh from the Metropolitan Police in London. After Professional Standards conclude their investigation into Tony McLean’s last case (from Bury Them Deep), she has seen he is not fired, but has accepted he must be demoted to Detective Inspector (less paperwork and more actual police work – he’s happy with that) and is taking a personal interest in his work. A *very* personal interest.

McLean and acting detective sergeant Janie Harrison visit the cottage, finding one amusingly-innocent-or-is-it item and one interesting-but-is-it-relevant box of papers, and a cat that immediately adopts McLean. But their investigation into the death of the woman, Lady Cecily Slater, of the local landowning Bairnfather family, is going nowhere despite their best efforts – not helped by her nephew, the current Lord Bairnfather, being overseas on business and in no hurry to return. Also in the mix are Gary, angry at being separated from his young daughter on the advice of a lawyer suggesting a court case on his alleged domestic abuse and other issues would not go his way, plus Tommy Fielding, a father’s rights activist lawyer with friends in high places – and a group of women unhappy at his actions protesting loudly outside the hotel where he’s holding a conference. Then there’s a second death, described by the first officer on the scene as “bloody weird”, and the pressure on McLean and the team starts to build…

The prose is smooth, with an economy of language studded with more poetic flourishes and an emphasis on emotions drawing out the pain and pathos of Cecily’s death and several other moments. There are also hard flashes of genuine menace, which give a chill above and beyond that from the autumn weather. There has always been darkness in this series beyond that brought in by the investigating of crime, but in What Will Burn it goes deeper and further, tendrils creeping everywhere McLean and the team turn.

The investigations remain frustratingly light on evidence, and the black and white certainties turn greyer as we see aggressors drawn into a brotherhood become victims of what is in reality a spider’s web. But the action continues and the tension builds regardless until the suitably – inevitably? – incendiary climax. 

Power, and the manipulation of others in the use/abuse of that power, are recurring themes in the McLean novels, with Tony frequently fighting for the underdog, the unseen and unheard, against those intent on shaping the world to their liking. At the end of What Will Burn, some face justice (of a kind that doesn’t involve courtrooms) and some escape it. But justice feels very close to vengeance here, which is a powerful feeling in the moment, but deeply unsettling afterwards.

The supernatural elements are deftly woven into the narrative as ever, a bright thread shining through the pattern. If you don’t like supernatural in your crime fiction, you may not enjoy this book as much as if you do – personally I like the slight mashing of genres, particularly Madame Rose’s gnomic pronouncements and her acceptance of things as simply run-of-the-mill that to most people seem impossible. There are also a fair few “Easter eggs” – nods to previous books in the series and the wider world of Oswald’s books – which are a treat for long-term readers but shouldn’t confuse anyone new to his work. And while I’ve emphasised the serious side above, there are also lovely sparks of humour – I giggled every time McLean stepped into his girlfriend’s tiny electric car.

There is so much packed into this novel that inevitably not everything gets the same amount of attention. I feel the young men are rather same-y, though perhaps that’s a nod to the fact that this type of case is so commonplace, and the link between them and their collaborative action is also rather fragile. I also feel we’re missing a lot of Fielding’s story; he’s vile, but a little more detail and nuance wouldn’t have hurt. And I definitely wanted to know more about Burntwoods, which seemed to be a route into a fuller picture of Cecily – whom we learn little about as a person – then turned into something of a dead end. I imagine this was deliberate so as not to take away from the central plot, but one person’s tantalising is another’s frustrating. However, the unobtrusive centring of female characters – not all of them likable, but all of them far from caricatures – is something that I very much appreciated and cheered.

From the very first novel this series has had me hooked, and it goes from strength to strength; structure, plots, pacing and style all getting both more complex and smoother, more assured, as time goes on and the series builds. I’m all out of superlatives and snappy similes. What Will Burn is thoughtful and interesting and basically excellent. Get reading.

James Oswald is the author of the Sunday Times best-selling Tony McLean series of detective mysteries, as well as the new DC Constance Fairchild series. His books have been shortlisted for the CWA Dagger awards, and longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. He farms Highland cows by day and writes disturbing fiction at night.

You can follow the author on Twitter here (with lots of coo photos!): @SirBenfro
Find his website at: http://jamesoswald.co.uk/

If you want more persuasion to try James’s books, I have reviews of both Bury Them Deep and Cold As The Grave up on the blog.

You can find out more about the campaign to win pardons for all those accused and convicted under the Witchcraft Act 1563-1736 here: www.witchesofscotland.com

Check out all the other reviews on the blog tour!

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