The Damage Done by James Oswald

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James Oswald is no longer a well-kept secret for fans of slightly off-beat crime fiction. Now publishing his sixth novel in the Inspector McLean series, he has been called ‘the new Ian Rankin’ and ‘the next big thing in crime fiction’. We spotted his talent and interviewed him back in 2012, when he had just self-published his first crime novel. We’ve also reviewed Prayer for the Dead (2015), The Hangman’s Song (2014) and The Book of Souls (2012).

But for this reviewer, The Damage Done is my first contact with the author and I was enchanted, intrigued and hungry to catch up with the rest of the series. All the more surprising, because I normally steer well clear of the kind of paranormal elements that the author is know to weave into his tales.

So how was I converted? Well, Oswald handles the paranormal with the lightest yet most confident of touches. It isn’t overdone at all; it simply hangs over the story like a brooding and threatening mist. Most of the narrative reads like an intricate, well-plotted police procedural, but every now and then there are horrific visions from the beyond. Just brief flashes, so that we are never quite sure what to make of it, but it adds an edge to the story and makes the resolution rather less emphatic or clear-cut than most of us expect from crime novels.

When an Edinburgh Vice Squad raid goes embarrassingly wrong, McLean feels there is more to it than meets the eye. The private home was operating as a brothel, according to an informant, but the police discover very little to suggest that. Are they being set up? And what is the link between this ‘group of consenting adults’ and a case of child abuse he was involved in 20 years ago? Concurrently, a series of strange accidental deaths rocks the city. The sexual nature of these deaths becomes almost a joke for most of McLean’s male colleagues, but he is uneasy. No one is willing to talk, but it’s clear that something sinister is going on, and that it’s linked to the past.

This is a rock-solid police procedural, with many insights into police work, and both endearing and annoying colleagues and bosses. McLean straddles several cases and police units over the course of the book, moving between Vice and Murder. Needless to say, the cases end up being connected. Some readers will be exasperated at how long it takes him to figure out just where he knows one of the main female characters from, and that is one of the book’s weaknesses. However, with a girlfriend still missing in action somewhere in the world, a heavily pregnant friend descending on him and a tentative romance developing, as well as all the usual politicking and intrigue within the force, you might think McLean is too distracted to think clearly.

I can safely say that this won’t be the last James Oswald book I read. I do think that I would have benefited from reading the previous books in the series, which begins with Natural Causes, although the author does try to bring you up to speed on what has happened in the past. McLean is a loner, but he has a sensitive side which can never say no to a person in need. Over the course of this book, we see him re-assessing his friendships and opening up to new life (through the birth of a baby) and new possibilities. This adds a happier domestic note to a tale which is otherwise reminiscent of the stormy winds and insane passions of Wuthering Heights.

Michael Joseph

CFL Rating: 4 stars

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