Written in Bones

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Written in Bones, James OswaldWritten by James Oswald — When the body of a man is discovered in Edinburgh parkland called The Meadows, Detective Inspector Tony McLean is called in to solve the puzzle. Because nothing is ordinary about the case central to James Oswald’s seventh DI McLean novel, Written in Bones.

The corpse was found high up a tree, impaled on the branches, by a boy out walking his dog. Evidently, it was deposited there from a great height. The dead man is gamekeeper turned poacher Bill Chalmers. A corrupt ex-cop, jailed for dealing drugs, he’d subsequently turned to the life of a philanthropist and had been helping users through a charitable foundation. And the boy who made the grisly find is the son of a local gangster Tommy Johnston who’s been dead for a decade, found murdered in mysterious circumstances. That case remains unsolved. McLean thinks the location of the body is no accident and that this is a carefully constructed message – but from whom, and what is it about?

The media immediately take an interest and Chalmers’ identity is splashed all over the papers. Soon they learn the boy thought the corpse was dropped into the trees by a dragon. But McLean’s research shows no trace of any aircraft flying over Edinburgh at the time the corpse was dropped.

A post mortem discovers a cocktail of drugs in Chalmers’ system. And reports are coming in from all over Edinburgh of people with symptoms similar to withdrawal from drugs – people in senior positions like police and judges.

McLean soon finds himself in a difficult position, running a high profile case which none of the top brass want to openly support because when Chalmers was still an officer he worked directly with many of them. However, these same officers appear keen to put the brakes on the investigation and steer McLean down dead ends. Everywhere McLean goes it seems someone else has got there first. And all the case data on Tommy Johnston’s death has disappeared, deleted or destroyed. It seems everyone involved in the case has something to hide… Can McLean get to the truth?

Though it’s the latest in a series, Written in Bones can largely be read as a standalone; however there are references to previous investigations and a knowledge of them and the characters is somewhat pertinent. Still, the story is readily accessible and highly readable. This is because James Oswald’s writing is of the highest order. This is a well-constructed, taut crime novel with very well-rounded characters and an unfolding plot which remains a mystery right to the end. There’s corruption, murder and mayhem throughout.

McLean is a great character. A driven, no-nonsense cop who wants the truth out, regardless of the consequences. Sounds a bit familiar? Maybe, but Oswald’s execution of his protagonist avoids the clichés. McLean is a wealthy man, he doesn’t need to spend his time digging into the misfortune of others. He has enough money to pretty much do what he likes. Yet he chose CID and continues to. He’s an interesting, three dimensional creation who jumps off the pages.

The novel’s ultimate outcome does feel slightly unrealistic and not entirely credible when the final explanations come out. Without drifting into spoilers, it involves power, influence and secrets with some money thrown in. Now, it should be said that I probably drew this conclusion because of a lack of knowledge of the previous novels; nevertheless it left me a little disappointed. Others may not feel the same way.

Regardless, it’s no surprise why previous instalments in the series have been bestsellers, and deservedly so.

We’ve previously reviewed several of the author’s previous books, including Prayer for the Dead and The Damage Done. An interview with James Oswald can be found here. Written in Bones is on sale 23 February.

Michael Joseph

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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