The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald

Penguin, 2014, 321 p.

This is the third of Oswald’s Inspector McLean books. For my reviews of the previous two see here and here.

 The Hangman’s Song cover

Part of the background to The Hangman’s Song is the move from regional Police Forces to an integrated whole Scotland Police Service. Among other factors this produces in complicating a policeman’s lot it has meant McLean’s bête noire, Acting Superintendent Duguid, has been temporarily promoted to commanding officer, and has seconded McLean to work with the Sex Crimes Unit while still having a normal case load. The ongoing chaos to Edinburgh’s traffic caused by the installation of the new tram system mirrors the disorganisation within the force. In the meantime, McLean’s love interest, Emma, has only just recovered from the coma in which she ended the last book and has lost her memory, or at least the recent portion of it.

The novel starts off with an incident engaging the Sex Crimes Unit but the main plot concerns a series of suicides by hanging about which McLean harbours doubts. On this point (possible spoiler) it stretches credulity a little that once again people known to McLean in his personal life are tied up with the crimes. (Clues for this appear very early on.) Another repetition is that hints of the supernatural intrude into the narrative. (I would argue these are always unnecessary in a crime novel, tending to absolve the humans of responsibility for their actions.) McLean of course solves the crimes to his satisfaction – what else is detective fiction for? – but the world isn’t quite set to rights so there is ample scope for further novels

It is very readable stuff, though.

There’s an extract from the fourth Inspector McLean book Dead Men’s Bones making up the last 32 pages of this volume. Is there a point to this naff practice beyond the wasting of paper and shelf space? Anyone who wants more like this will most likely buy that book or read it anyway, anyone who doesn’t, won’t.

Pedant’s corner:- “the top of her piling system” (the context implies filing system, but if it was intended as a portmanteau coinage for “piled high set of files” it’s brilliant.) Otherwise:- shrunk, mementos (mementoes,) tie-died (tie-dyed,) medieval, “there were no franking mark or stamps” (I’d be happier with “was no franking mark” and a comma before the “or”,) “Aren’t I? (the Scottish usage is “Amn’t I?”) “None of the names were repeated” (none is singular, so that verb should be “was”,) sprung (x 2,) rung off (rang off,) “Let it go and move one” (on,) care off (care of,) elevator (lift,) the whole of Lothian and Borders were crawling (again; whole is singular, so “was crawling”,) a team were working (a team is singular so “a team was”,) “sixth form” (in McLean’s case, since he went to a public school in England, this is fine, but the character speaking to him ought to know the Scottish term is “sixth year”,) for you information (your.)

The Book of Souls by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 441 p including a short story, The Final Reel, which is rather abrupt.

The Book of Souls cover

This is the second of Oswald’s Inspector MacLean novels which he first electronically self-published before gaining a book contract at Penguin.

In a disturbing echo of the “Christmas Killer” murders whose perpetrator Inspector Tony McLean was instrumental in catching several years before, a succession of women is being found naked, with their throats cut, staked out under bridges over running water. A local journalist with a new book on the previous killings is suggesting the police got the wrong man, McLean’s superior Inspector Duguid keeps taking officers away from his investigation and McLean himself is forced to endure counselling. In addition to the murders McLean has a series of mysterious fires destroying old industrial premises around Edinburgh on his caseload.

The book is certainly readable if with some workmanlike prose at times – but then I’m not overly familiar with the modern crime novel so this may be what’s expected. I also felt that Oswald over-eggs the pudding a bit with the identity of the last potential murder victim.

As with Oswald’s first McLean book, Natural Causes, there is a tinge of the supernatural to the proceedings. The Liber animorum, the Book of Souls of the title, is said to weigh souls – and take over those found wanting. (My hang-up I know, but as an explanation for human depravity I have always found the supernatural a total cop-out.)

Pedant’s corner:-
One count of “sunk” for “sank”. “Ploiped” appears to be a coinage of Oswald’s but may only be a typo for “plopped.” “A half a dozen” has one “a” too many. “Happy Christmas.” (Where I’m from the greeting is “Merry Christmas.”) A judge bangs a gavel – not in a British court I’m afraid.

Natural Causes by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 448 p

So what am I doing reading a piece of straight crime fiction?

Well, one of the good lady’s blog correspondents (far away in the USA) discovered Oswald’s writing on the internet (Natural Causes was self-published and getting good sales before Penguin took it up.) When she told us Oswald (who is a Fife farmer) would be signing copies at Kirkcaldy’s Waterstone’s the good lady offered to get her an autographed copy. We duly went along to do that and so I’ve met him. He seems a nice guy. The good lady had first dibs on the book – she reads a lot of vintage crime, not so much of the modern stuff – and when she put it down I thought I’d pick it up.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Anthony McLean has the sort of problems with his bosses and colleagues you might expect from viewing TV detective series. His back story involves the death of his parents when he was four (and, much later, of his wife.) He is assigned to the investigation of a young girl found ritually murdered in a basement. The trouble is she was killed around sixty years ago and the trail is cold. Meanwhile several high profile Edinburgh citizens are being murdered in a strange way, their killers then committing suicide. As a result McLean spends a lot of time attending autopsies.

Oswald brings all this stuff together impressively well for a first novelist. If plot is the main attraction of detective stories then this one does it admirably. At times I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre but it is less cartoonish and there are fewer jokes (for which Natural Causes is the better.) What I always find difficult about this sort of thing, though, is the high body count. Edinburgh, while a Gothic novelist’s paradise, truly isn’t that dangerous a city to live in – at least since Burke and Hare were apprehended.

Oswald has a good way with description and his characters aren’t wooden. Having McLean say, “Oh no you don’t!” twice is twice too many, though. There were also a couple of times when the connections were too apparent a bit too early and at least two continuity errors which a good proof read ought to have picked up.

The hinge of the novel is the ritual killing and any connection it might have to the present day. The hint of supernatural involvement in the ongoing deaths was for me the least convincing aspect of the whole tale. But I’m even less into that sort of stuff than I am to crime novels.

While, as you may expect from a first novel, there was the odd infelicity, Oswald clearly has talent, can hold the attention and make you turn the pages. Crime readers will certainly appreciate him. I did; and I’m not his target audience.

Things that irritate pedants section:-
Sunk:sprung count, 2:1 respectively, plus the common misuse of epicentre and a “who’s” for a “whose.” Not many considering it’s a debut novel.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2003, 300 p. One of both the 100 best Scottish Books and Scotland’s favourite books.

The Cutting Room cover

A narrator known only as Rilke – I don’t believe we are ever vouchsafed his given name – is an auctioneer and valuer for a struggling auction house in Glasgow. He receives a call to inspect the contents of a house for clearance and complete the sale quickly. The contents consist of good stuff and could save the auction house’s finances. In its attic there are rare first editions of notorious books but he is asked by the deceased’s heir – an elderly sister – to destroy them. Amongst them Rilke finds some disturbing photographs which appear to show the murder of a young woman. Intrigued by this mystery he spends most of the book trying to investigate the photographs’ origins instead of looking after the house-clearance. This brings him into closer contact with the shady side of Glasgow life than is healthy before the mystery is resolved.

The Cutting Room is written with a literary sensibility, is full of well-drawn characters and has many fine descriptive passages. While it does yield the satisfaction that detective/crime fiction provides it goes beyond that. It is a novel, pure and simple. (Well, actually not that pure – and not really simple either.) And Rilke is an unusual protagonist for a crime novel. As a debut novel I found it more accomplished than Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses and James Oswald’s Natural Causes. I’ll be reading more from Welsh.

Pedant’s corner:- the Great Western Road (I’ve only ever heard this referred to as Great Western Road; no definite article,) each others eyes (each others’ eyes,) burglarised (No! The word is burgled,) two missing end [and one beginning] quotation marks, our monthly sail (sale,) “in a herd that shook the ground with the weight of their hooves” (leave aside the fact that herd is singular so it should be its hooves, it isn’t the hooves’ weight that shakes the ground, it’s the buffaloes’,) thrupney bits (yes that corruption of threepenny was pronounced that way, but it was always spelled thruppenny,) asshole (arsehole,) a boy had watched “the first moon launch”, dedicated himself to space exploration, twenty years later became an astronaut, only to vomit copiously the whole time in mission after mission; his “hermetically sealed sick bags still orbit the moon” (that would be “the first moon landing” not launch, plus; the last orbit of the moon was in 1972, only three years – not twenty – after the first. Those sick bags might be in Earth orbit but would be nowhere near the Moon.) “Other ungodly titles lesbian are known by” (lesbians; but it was in a pamphlet, these are notoriously misspelled,) “aren’t I?” (Grrr! The speaker is Scottish; she would say “amn’t I?”,) shtoom (usually spelled schtum or shtum,) “I was coming warn you” (coming to warn you,) the Ukraine (the speaker is Ukrainian; they just say Ukraine, no “the”,) medieval.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Orion, 2011, 227 p.

This is courtesy of my not-quite-yet-but-might-as-well-be daughter-in-law. She now has a box set of Rankin books and so this one, a 2011 reissue of a 1998 edition of the first Rebus novel from 1987, came our way.

As crime isn’t really my thing I’ve never read any Rankin before – I have encountered the TV adaptations – but I thought it might be interesting to compare this to James Oswald’s Natural Causes.

Knots and Crosses is a strange one and wears the author’s literature background heavily. An incidental character is named Laidlaw in honour of William McIlvanney’s eponymous detective (McIlvanney is a literary star worth following, an antecedent of Tartan Noir,) the words laughter and forgetting at the end of a sentence are repeated immediately as the whole of the next. To be fair the introduction to this edition admits the referencing may be over the top, not to mention the occasional off-nesses of tone (“the manumission of dreams.”)

As the book focuses firmly on getting into various characters’ heads the crimes seem almost incidental, their relationship to John Rebus forced. The climactic scene was also interrupted by an unnecessary info dump to allow an over-egged simile.

It all washes down easily enough though. I got through it in two sittings.

As far as a comparison between Oswald and Rankin is concerned perhaps the main difference is that Oswald knew he was writing in the crime genre. At the time of Knots and Crosses Rankin may have been intent on writing a novel featuring crime.

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ha’penny cover

The Farthing Set responsible for the peace between Britain and the Third Reich in 1941 has parlayed the murder of Sir James Thirkie (which kick started Farthing, the first of Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy) into a takeover of the government of the UK.

As in Farthing, first person narration by a female alternates with third person chapters again concentrating on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard. The woman narrator here is actress Viola Lark, one of the aristocratic Larkin sisters (who are clearly modelled on the Mitfords.) In this respect the failure to mention the British Union of Fascists or Oswald Mosley in Farthing is partly explained. In her acknowledgements Walton says she avoided the use of real names for those with speaking parts in the narrative. (There is one glaring exception to this, but in our real world he was dead by 1949 when this book is set.) In Ha’penny the attraction of fascism for one of the Lark sisters, Celia, has gone so far as for her to have married Himmler but it is another sister, Cressida, the communist one, who draws Viola into a conspiracy to murder Hitler during a visit to the theatre on his trip to Britain.

Ha’penny does not work quite as well as Farthing. Partly this is because the setting has been established and we are working through its ramifications but more importantly it is that the whodunnit element is wholly absent. We know from the first sentence that Viola has been apprehended and the plot motor, the conspiracy, is also revealed early on. Viola’s narration is also not as fresh (though less twee) as was Lucy Eversley’s in the previous book. The insidious creep of authoritarian measures, the poisoning of public attitudes, is well brought out, though. The new Prime Minister says, “‘we don’t want them to be able to say that we’re using these laws to shut people up, especially when we are.’” It was particularly salutary to read this so soon after the House of Commons debate on bombing Syria and the prior comments about those against it being “terrorist sympathisers”. The web of complicity woven around Carmichael is drawn tighter, however, as he is offered the oversight of a new law enforcement agency, The Watch, an analogue of the Gestapo.

Pedant’s corner:- Viola’s Britishness is questioned when she reveals she was born in Dublin (in 1917). Since Ireland was part of the UK then that would make her British no matter her ancestry. There were no opening quotation marks when a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “‘There’s a Joe Lyons automat on the corner of Charing Cross Road.’” (A Lyon’s Corner House I’d have accepted. I don’t think automats made it to Britain till the 1960s.*) Station wagon (OK the book has the USian text but Viola is supposed to be an English aristocrat, she’d have written “estate car”.) Was it necessary to transliterate a Spaniard’s pronunciation of the city as Barthelona? National Service. (In our time-line, yes. Would they have kept it on in this one?) “The report on the bomb and bodies were waiting for him” (the report was waiting,) Boedicea (it was generally spelled Boadicea in those days [Boudica or Boudicca now]) Canada is referred to as part of the Commonwealth (just scrapes by for 1949,) “‘He’s an ASDIC man. Radar you know.’” (ASDIC was a sonic technique, radar uses radio waves.) “There were a series” (there was a series,) the German Embassy in London is described as if “made over by some mad devotee of monumental Bauhaus” (the Nazis shut Bauhaus down,) the French for lark is rendered alouetta instead of alouette, vol-au-vents again (I still think the plural is vols-aux-vents,) come-out (the entry of a debutante to society was known as a coming out. Walton perhaps used “come-out” to avoid any inference of being gay by the modern reader.) The lower case sergeant is used for the police rank while Inspector is capitalised; they both ought to be so, “the Home Secretary’s backup were violating police tradition” (the backup was,) Inspector Jacobson from Hampstead seems to know what The Watch is but Carmichael had only just found out himself.
*Of course, it’s an altered history, maybe that’s part of Walton’s scenario.

Farthing by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Returned to a threatened library.

 Farthing cover

An altered history country house mystery, Farthing is not the cosy murder story you might associate with the time in which it is set. Farthing, here, is not only the smallest denomination coin of pre-decimal British currency but also the country house where the murder has taken place, whose name has also been given to a “Set” of like-minded politicians and wielders of influence. The murder victim was Sir James Thirkie – bringer back of “Peace with Honour” after Hess’s mission led to Churchill’s overthrow and talks brought about an accommodation with Germany in 1941. Thirkie’s body was left with a dagger in its chest, affixed through a yellow star, suggesting the involvement of Jewish activists.

The narrative is carried by the first person of Lucy Kahn, Eversley as was, daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley and wife of David, a Jew to whom Lady Eversley has never become reconciled, taking alternate chapters with the third person viewpoint of the investigating officer, Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael of Scotland Yard. Lucy Kahn’s voice begins as irritating but seems well captured. It may well be a reasonable reflection of how daughters of the upper crust spoke in the 1940s.

Tightly and intricately plotted, the book is also deeply embedded in its parallel world; the crime(s) committed in it arising out of its particular circumstances. Normally it is the duty of the detective in a crime novel to put the world to rights. (Spoiler.) In this case, due directly to Walton’s setting and purposes, that isn’t possible.

To a British reader it did seem strange that a book set in such a time and place could go by without a single mention of Oswald Mosley or the British Union of Fascists (though Walton’s conspirators echo them clearly enough.) There is also a simplification of the mechanics and ramifications of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons and no feel at all for the process by which leaders of the Conservative Party “emerged” in those times. I suspect both of these caveats would have been of little or no interest, or perhaps relevance, to Walton’s mainly USian readers. (The book is printed with the USian text – a minor irritant.) The degree of prejudice towards Jews prevalent by all levels of society in Farthing is perhaps a little at odds with the history of the Britain of our world (though such prejudice manifestly did exist) but in this respect, and substituting Muslims for Jews, the book has perhaps even more resonance now than it did when it was first published in 2006. A slide towards greater authoritarianism is all too evident in the UK at the moment and the phrase “if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear” is always chilling.

Another irritant was that characters refer to the country as England which is in one sense fair enough; most of them are English and would almost certainly have done so unthinkingly, but the new Prime Minister in his first PM’s speech to the House of Commons refers by that name to the whole of the country he has just taken over. I doubt even a crypto-fascist politician would have made such an error.

Nevertheless, I’ve already taken the second in Walton’s so-called Small Change trilogy, Ha’penny, out of a local library.

Pedant’s corner:- “But in the Battle of Britain, when the Heinkels were thick on his tail, I dived and strafed them to draw them off” (Heinkels were bombers and incapable of such a feat, Messerschmitts is more like it; strafing is done from air to ground, not air to air,) halftime (in a concert? That would be “the interval”,) “and all he died possessed but ten thousand pounds” (I get the gist but the phrase is missing something.) I wondered, would an English aristocrat name a horse Valley Forge? The spelling license was used for the noun (licence,) “which puts as back” (us back,) “and now he’d employed full time” (he’s employed,) taxicabs (cabs, or taxis, but not taxicabs,) no “?” at the end of a question, “I saw it during the war, looking at the way society interlocks at the bottom, talking to the other pilots (most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were not from the bottom of society) and either Lucy as narrator or Walton as author seems to be under the impression that the moment of conception occurs simultaneously with climax.

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