Monday, January 5, 2015

Scottish Slumgullion in the CID

James Oswald, The Hangman's Song

Detective Inspector Tony McLean angers his superiors easily. His headstrong policing techniques, trust in justice over procedure, and frequently lethal resolutions tax Edinburgh’s finest leaders beyond breaking. So they’ve seconded this veteran homicide detective onto sex crimes. But when a suspicious string of hangings overlaps with a human smuggling operation, McLean finds his loyalties torn. He starts working two cases, in two divisions, simultaneously. That leaves him defenseless when seemingly supernatural events invade his house.

If that sounds excessively complex, I certainly won’t disagree. Scottish sheep farmer James Oswald exploded onto literature’s map under two years ago when his self-published first novel outsold bestsellers by established veterans. He sparked a bidding war, every self-published author’s dream, which few seldom achieve. Now his publishers, confronted with a complicated manuscript of George RR Martin-level volubility, seem afraid to ask him to pare it into bite-sized chunks, lest they alienate their golden goose.

Oswald floats three parallel stories. In one, Scottish pimps are secretly shipping Eastern European prostitutes from Edinburgh to parts unknown. Since that’s the opposite direction from where human smugglers usually travel, Inspector McLean’s spidey sense goes bonkers, especially when one prostitute proves British-born. The Sex Crime Unit detectives consider tracking the mastermind very low priority, even after Edinburgh’s flashiest pimp gets slaughtered. McLean suspects inside corruption, which may extend all the way to the top.

Meanwhile, several hangings occur across Edinburgh in quick succession. Every death involves hempen rope, a rare commodity anymore, and the knots appear identical. McLean’s station chief, a bureaucratic placeholder who considers McLean an unreliable Dirty Harry type, squelches the investigation as mere predictable suicides. Each successive hanging, though, brings circumstances closer to McLean’s door. Between managerial incompetence and criminal shrewdness, McLean must decide who he can trust, before he faces his own personal hanging tree.

James Oswald
Elsewhere, McLean’s sometime girlfriend, a dedicated crime scene tech, awakens from injuries sustained in Oswald’s prior novel. All isn’t well, though: all memories of her last fifteen years have vanished. Unable to resume adult life, Emma moves into McLean’s house, striving to get well. But as days turn into weeks, then months, things get only worse. Why won’t Emma heal? What bizarre lengths will McLean attempt? And why does Emma’s live-in carer ask such questions?

Somebody should’ve asked Oswald to subdivide this nearly 500-page book, enormous by genre standards, into two volumes. And then kill one. The sex crimes story has gripping themes, engaging characters, and genuine detective work. The hanging story sprawls out, leaving massive plot holes, until McLean tumbles bass-ackward into the accidental truth, which Oswald pinches from a CSI episode I found scorn-worthy ten years ago. McLean’s pseudo-scientific resolution, once finally achieved, elicits not catharsis but laughter.

And Emma’s story… well. It starts strong, channeling the pain and trauma that linger with anybody who’s ever been victimized by violence. I assumed Oswald must’ve spoken extensively with trauma specialists and victims, because initially, it precisely resembles the efforts I’ve undertaken to guide loved ones back to productivity. Then, sadly, it turns silly, incorporating unearthly woowoo concepts pinched whole from George Romero films. I pulled a facepalm and moaned: “I had such high hopes…”

That Oswald uses supernaturalism in a noir mystery doesn’t bother me. I love authors like Jim Butcher and Greg van Eekhout, whose novels are fundamentally hardboiled thrillers, where magic (or magical realism) plays the same role guns do for Dashiell Hammett. Oswald, though, doesn’t integrate the themes. We’re trucking along, immersing  ourselves  in gritty procedural horror, when—wham! Devil worship! Trapped souls! Demonic artifacts! Particularly since Oswald kicks the resolution into sequels, it doesn’t fit.

This really hurts, because Oswald writes so well, I want to like him. His characters have unique personalities, with motivations often invisible until the truth emerges. Tony McLean’s tortured struggle between justice and law reflects issues Americans will recognize, particularly after Sandy Hook and Ferguson. Emma’s suffering, before it turns terminally silly, will ring bells for anyone who’s ever suffered violence, and those who care for them. I desperately tried to like McLean, and Oswald.

Basically, between the overlapping stories and unmotivated cross-genre borrowing, Oswald attempts too much. Like a goulash with too many ingredients, even Oswald’s best efforts vanish into a bland, soggy mess. This really pains me, because he offers so much to like, that seasoned mystery readers find themselves rooting for him. This should be a much better book. But if Oswald cannot bother separating his best gems from the surrounding dross, I shouldn’t have to either.

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