Most long-running and successful crime series have a moment at which they come of age. I'm not exactly sure at what point in the exhilarating fourth book of James Oswald's Tony McLean series this came about, but by the end I was left in no doubt whatever that this series has graduated from "full of potential" to "top tier".
The three previous novels in this series have been good, but there is a confidence in the story-telling in Dead Men's Bones that suggests Oswald, who somehow finds time to farm Highland cattle when he's not writing, is hitting his stride. If Book 5 in the series had been available to me immediately on finishing Dead Men's Bones, I'd have been prepared to pay handsomely for it.
There are three particular factors that make this a stand-out series. The first is the detective, Tony McLean. If the reader is going to spend dozens of hours in the company of a leading man or woman, they have to be likable, believable and interesting. Like Rebus, Alan Banks, Roy Grace, Guido Brunetti and many more, McLean has all three. He's an open-minded copper with integrity, honesty and a suspicion of bureaucracy and politics.
The second factor is the story itself, and this is an absolute humdinger. A powerful and wealthy Scottish politician is found dead at his secluded estate, with his wife and children dead inside the house in what looks like a fairly clear cut case of murder-suicide. That is certainly what the law enforcement and political establishment would like to see stamped on the case closed folder. But McLean, dogged and cussed as he is, refuses to take appearances at face value and begins to dig into the case. In this he is encouraged and aided by a shadowy figure apparently from the intelligence services, who lets himself int0 McLean's home at will to drop new clues into the hunt for an explanation.
Finally, there is the supernatural element to these stories that is gradually coming into sharper focus and playing an increasingly important element in the narrative, and dialling up the intrigue and tension. It's not easy to do this in the context of a police procedural without derailing the story or diverting from the path of credibility. But Oswald does it well and in this novel it's superbly handled, featuring one of the most chilling characters I can recall.
In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won't say more than that, but recommend instead that you out and read it. It kept me gripped from start to finish and left me ready for more.
Reviews of previous James Oswald novels:
The Hangman's Song (2014)
Natural Causes (2013)