The Hangman's Song, the third book in James Oswald's enjoyable Inspector Tony McLean series, is another very strong offering from a writer who has carved himself a comfortable niche in the supernatural crime corner of the genre.
While the supernatural angle is not as overt as it is in the work of John Connolly, by way of one example, it's a key element in the hold that Oswald can exert over a reader. In fact, throughout most of The Hangman's Song the influence is very subtle, but as the tension builds and the pulse quickens so does the pull of the other side.
The story picks up just a few weeks following the events of The Book of Souls, in which McLean nearly dies at the hands of a killer under the demonic influence of the eponymous book and in which his girlfriend Emma is also nearly killed. All is chaos within Scottish policing as the force prepares for its unification into Police Scotland and in the administrative hiatus, McLean finds his bete noire, DCI Charles Duguid, made acting Chief Superintendent. and himself immediately dispatched to Vice, out of sight and out of mind.
But McLean is not one to make life easy for himself or his superiors and quickly finds himself embroiled in two cases, one at Vice where his team breaks up the apparent export of a dozen Edinburgh prostitutes, and in quick succession the murder of his pimp. In parallel he is drawn into a pair of suicides which he regards as suspicious, but which Duguid, muttering about budgets, demands that he ignore.
In the meantime, Emma finally wakes up from her coma but without her memory and moves in to McLean's house as she continues her treatment.
It's a pretty involved plot, to say the very least - and at times it feels less like one novel than a series of stories shoehorned into one book. Oswald manages the threads well though, with each of the three storylines rattling along at a fair pace. Both his previous novels have enjoyed strong and dramatic finishes and Oswald does not disappoint here.
One pretty good measurement of how much I'm enjoying a book is how often I pick it up. If I'm taking it to breakfast every day - as I did this week - it's a pretty good sign. One of the advantages of having so much going on is that there's rarely any pause for breath in the story and that makes it a real page turner.
In my review of the first book of the series, Natural Causes, I attributed some of the success of the book to Oswald's strong characterisation, and that continued to be the case here. McLean is a strong leading man, an independent soul with both style and smarts, even here where he is off colour from a professional point of view. Many of his colleagues are also well drawn, particularly Jo Dexter, his boss in Vice, who struggles with the moral ambivalence of working in a unit that often demands hugely uncomfortable compromise.
Where this book doesn't quite stack up is in McLean being in permanent and open rebellion against Duguid. This was a strength of earlier books, but here it just begins to feel unrealistic and unnecessary. Perhaps there are just too many incompetent senior officers in the crime fiction world and too many rebellious subordinates and I've just become bored by it. Surely the entire force cannot be like that? Whatever the reason, here it was just too much.
That didn't detract too much from what was a very enjoyable and compelling book that will add to Oswald's growing reputation. I like this series a great deal and look forward to future installments.
The Hangman's Song is published by Penguin in the UK in February.