Penguin | 2017 (6 April) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1889 and Edinburgh is alive with a theatrical fervour – Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, those most glamorous and famous of actors, are bringing Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the city. The Scottish Play is coming home! Unfortunately, they’re bringing with them murder and mayhem.
The production’s closing night in London had been spoiled – or enriched (depending on your point of view) – by the unnatural shrieks of a banshee, accompanied by unclearly targeted death threats against members of the company. Irving is not going to let this stop the production’s move and so the company heads to Edinburgh where, during rehearsals, more banshee wailings and death threats promise dire consequences for the cast and crew on the opening night of Macbeth. Some might say that this is no more than The Curse. Others might even suggest that this is better than any bought publicity could be. Detective Nine-Nails McGray, however, can always be relied upon to find the unnatural and supernatural in most cases, while Inspector Ian Frey, whose Englishness continues to cause him a great deal of trouble from McGrey, is determined to prove these threats have a more mundane origin. They even put a bet on it. But who will win the wager? And will the threats come true – will there be murder on the opening night of Macbeth? One thing’s for sure – the theatre will be absolutely packed to the rafters.
As soon as I heard about A Mask of Shadows I couldn’t wait to read it. Its predecessor, A Fever of the Blood, was one of my top reads of 2016 and I was more than ready to spend more time with the incorrigible and ever battling Frey and McGray. Frey might be the voice of reason – or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think – but McGray, with his tartan, strong accent and feisty attitude, is a scene stealer if ever there was one. I love the banter between these two men. It’s never too clear just how much all this professed hatred is genuine but one can’t help thinking that deep deep down McGrey doesn’t entirely despise his colleague from the wrong side of the border.
McGray and Frey have certainly met their match in this case. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry are extraordinary personalities, both intimidating and charismatic. It is true that Ellen Terry frightened me in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. And observing it all is the production’s manager Bram Stoker, yet another person we know from history who also shouldn’t be taken too lightly. The mood of this novel is so dimly lit and intensely spirited that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dracula prowled the theatre’s wings.
I really enjoy Oscar de Muriel’s writing. This is Victorian melodrama at its richest, darkest and most enticing. The dialogue is full of colour and wit (and imaginative insults). The costumes, both on and off stage, are vividly described. The streets of Edinburgh come alive, walked upon by people in top hats and crinolines. You can almost feel the city’s need for the heightened excitement and thrills of the play’s arrival in its grandest theatre. The atmosphere and mood ooze from the pages in the most delicious fashion.
But there is a dark reality here, too, removed from the melodrama of the stage. We meet people, children even, who have been badly harmed. We learn of secrets and deceits. Real personal feelings have been hurt. At times this is a tragic read for all of its glamour and theatricality. I love this mix of reality and imagination and that sums up perfectly the relationship between Frey and McGray, two of the most wonderful and original detectives you could meet in historical crime fiction.
Oscar de Muriel has established himself firmly as one of my favourite authors. His books will always go to the top of my reading pile and it’s a pleasure to write about them.
A Fever of the Blood