A Fever of the Blood | Oscar de Muriel | 2016 | Michael Joseph | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
On New Year’s Day 1889, a patient escapes from a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh, leaving a nurse brutally murdered, gripped by a poison so severe that her contortions snapped her spine. The manhunt is given to local Detective Adolphus ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Inspector Ian Frey, who has been banished to Scotland from London and sees little hope of return. Frey does what he can to get on with McGray, a detective of undoubted skill, but Nine-Nails is not an easy man to befriend. There’s a rage in him and a good part of the reason for that lies in this very asylum. A young female patient was kept in the room next to the one occupied by the man who escaped. Just before he fled, his whispered conversation with the woman was overheard. Nothing extraordinary in itself except the young woman is never known to speak and, even more than that, she is McGray’s sister and the fact that he is known as Nine-Nails and not Ten has rather a lot to do with this silent patient.
So begins a cat and mouse chase across Scotland and the north of England during one of the worst winters in living history. Tormented by blizzards and false clues, McGray and Frey follow a trail of blood in pursuit of the mysterious patient that both know to be a nobleman, consigned secretly to a madhouse by order of his bitter mother and to the horror of his daughter. Here is a man with something to prove and he will let nothing stand in his way, least of all the people that our detectives find slain or vanished. McGray believes that his sister holds the clue but getting her to speak again seems impossible. Rarely has McGray felt so desperate. Frey has his work cut out to hold the investigation together while following McGray to the very fringes of superstition and madness on Pendle Hill, the home of witches.
Having not read Oscar de Muriel’s first novel, The Strings of Murder, A Fever of the Blood came as a fabulous surprise. The story is deliciously sinister and creepy, the atmosphere is thick and heady with Victorian superstition and melodrama, and its characters are second to none. I immediately liked McGray and Frey very much and the fact that they almost never see eye to eye – and are not averse to throwing punches at one another – makes for not only a thoroughly entertaining mystery but also an involving one. These two detectives, both of whom carry a lot of baggage, couldn’t be more different from one another, as seen for example in something as simple as language. The hostility between the two only seldom lifts but we get an inkling of what Frey feels about his partner from his narrative which forms the larger part of the novel. Frey is our eyes and ears but it’s McGray, a rough diamond with quite a turn of phrase, that I warmed to the most.
A Fever of the Blood has just the right amount of melodrama and witchery. The superstition is counteracted by a detective’s cynicism but there’s still enough to chill, particularly when the action takes us up into the snow-blasted moors and hills. The settings, both town and country, are wonderfully drawn and they are populated by a host of fascinating and strange characters.
McGray and Frey are marvellous creations and Oscar de Muriel has put them within a story that’s worthy of them. I lapped it up, was constantly surprised by its twists and turns, and I am so looking forward to meeting the two of them again. I bought The Strings of Murder this week and I can’t wait to read it.