Sunday, April 17, 2016


PRAYER FOR THE DEAD by James Oswald (Michael Joseph, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A missing journalist's body is found in a sealed chamber deep in of Gilmerton Cove, a mysterious network of caves and tunnels sprawling beneath Edinburgh. Inspector McLean knew the victim, and feels there's a lot more to the bizarre and baffling murder than meets the eye. A lack of forensics due to the cave environment is only one problem, and McLean finds himself teaming with an unlikely and unwelcome ally as he tries to track down a killer driven by the darkest compulsions. 

With the fifth book in the Inspector McLean series, James Oswald has crafted a wonderful, twisting crime tale full of both interesting characters and a gripping plotline that underlines the Scottish farmer-writer's growing place in the upper echelon of the genre.

In a crowded and diverse genre, there are those authors who seem to have an innate touch for balancing character, plot, narrative voice, setting, tone, and theme/issues. They craft crime fiction that is well-rounded, that delivers across the board, rather than leaning too heavily in one direction while overlooking other aspects of storytelling (there are plenty of authors who do the latter too, of course, many of which are still enjoyable to read for what they are).

Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Tim Hallinan, and Mark Billingham are a few good examples of the type of crime scribes who offer plenty on all fronts, whose books always leave me broadly satisfied: great characters, intriguing plots, thought-provoking issues bubbling away beneath the storyline, a nice evocation of the physical and social geography of the setting. I raise this point because after reading Prayer for the Dead I think Oswald slots into that same 'talented all-rounder' or 'overall master' category: he puts a strong tick in each box in this assured tale.

In Prayer for the Dead, Oswald brings hints of something larger and broader than just the crimes under investigation to his story, with touches of the supernatural, along with possible links to the Freemasons and religious fanaticism. I found that he did this adroitly, and it all adds to the police procedural aspects, never getting too gimmicky. I was also impressed by the intriguing cast of characters that orbit Inspector McLean, from his fellow coppers like Grumpy Bob, Sergeant Christie, and PC MacBride to transvestite fortune teller Madame Rose. There's plenty there to hold readers' interest through this book and beyond, as the various personalities clash and combine.

Overall I felt that Oswald draws the reader in with intriguing early scenes, creating a real narrative drive, and powers his story with quality prose and characters. In a crowded field of crime writing, which can range from superb to sub-par, the Scotsman has pushed himself towards the upper tiers.

I read this book in March 2015, and wrote a short review elsewhere, but hadn't yet written a more in-depth review of the book here on Crime Watch. This review is based on my original thoughts, notes, and further reflections. 

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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