Book review: All That Lives, by James Oswald


James Oswald PIC: Lisa Ferguson

There is no romanticizing of Scotland’s capital in James Oswald’s 12th novel following the investigations of Inspector Tony McLean. The narrative digs into the bowels of Edinburgh, and mixes crime gangs, corrupt policing, forensics and a very dodgy line in public-private finance.

The first body to turn up is that of a young man, Rory Devlin, found in an abandoned and derelict timber yard in the north of the city amongst discarded needles, used condoms and graffiti. His injuries of him are mysterious, his body twisted and bent as if he were the victim of a vicious punishment beating but his face of him is unmarked aside from the bulging and bloodshot eyes of him. And there is a pungent citrus tang hanging in the air.

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Speaking to his family, who describes him as a good son and brother whose personality very recently changed for the worse, the police suspect that he may have been the victim of an overdose, using an as-yet unidentified drug which causes the body to thrash so violently that the injuries sustained look like those found in a case of assault. A second death by catastrophic seizure, this time in a public place so – inevitably but sickeningly – filmed and uploaded onto social media, feeds this theory and soon the press are asking questions.

All That Lives, by James Oswald

As the investigation continues, two more bodies are discovered, seemingly unrelated to the case. These are by no means fresh, and there is a feeling that Old Edinburgh is giving up its dead as the city modernises for the 21st century. One is at least 700 years old and found in a Leith kirkyard being excavated for the tram extension. The other has lain for 30 years and is unearthed during the building of a housing development, but both seem to have been ritualistically buried in the same way.

The investigation draws together nonsense threads as Detective Sergeant Janie Harrison takes a lead role, but in the fine tradition of Edinburgh crime novels, the city is the star, and Oswald carefully tracks his characters’ routes so you can imagine exactly the map of the action .

He is clearly not a fan of some modern additions to the city, and his descriptions are a delight. Commenting on one controversial new landmark building, he writes “Up ahead, the shiny bronze spike of the hotel at the center of the new St James Quarter development rose into the sky like the artistic leavings of some monstrously large metal dog.”

But he also has a fine descriptive way with scenes, smells and noises – the groans that a dead body emits when lifted, the creaks of McLean’s old injuries and the Chief Superintendent’s particularly farty chair. It is certainly not a novel without humour, although the closing scenes also have the power to terrify.

The story is told at a cracking pace, with plenty of possible suspects along the way, and as a reader you learn a huge amount of information on subjects as diverse as planning law, chemical warfare and the cut-off time for murder investigations – apparently a body 70 years-old or more no longer is deemed to no longer warrant police time.

Being the twelfth book in a long-running series, there are inevitably nuances that those who are new to the characters will miss, and some clunky lines catching us up with what has gone before. When told that the Chief Superintendent is back at work, McLean muses: “’Really? After what happened to her? I thought burns took years to heal.’ And never mind the mental scars from being tied up in a makeshift pyre by some lunatic extremists men’s right activist determined to burn her as a witch.”

But such callbacks to previous installments – and the glimpses of intricately woven relationships between the main characters – only made me want to go back and start the series from the beginning.

All That Lives, by James Oswald, Wildfire, 432pp, £16.99

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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