Orion | 2019 (8 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1889 and Madame Katerina is about to hold a séance for three of Edinburgh’s most well-known and well-to-do families. They are all related to Grannie Alice, a formidable matriarch who has recently died, taking her secrets with her to the grave. Having tried everything else, these six people feel they have no alternative but to call Grannie Alice from the ‘other side’ so that she can communicate with them. But the next morning, when the room is opened, all six are found dead in their seats, only Katerina is alive. Katerina is the obvious suspect, not least because these are supposedly enlightened days in which gypsies have no place, but her friend Inspector ‘Nine Nails’ McGray does not believe she’s guilty. Somehow, somebody, something killed these people, something that has terrified Madame Katerina and for which she must face trial and punishment. McGray summons his colleague Inspector Ian Frey from England where he is dealing with the death of his uncle. Together they must try and solve an unsolvable puzzle, while journeying deep into the dark, frightening world of Madame Katerina and late Victorian mysticism and superstition.
The Darker Arts is the fifth novel by Oscar de Muriel to feature his irresistible and troublesome detectives, one English, one Scottish, one polite, one a whole lot less polite. McGray and Frey form an unlikely alliance, based in the cellar of Edinburgh’s police station where they tackle inexplicable crimes. McGray’s past is a dark place (hence the ‘nine nails’ and not ‘ten’) and he is determined to understand it. He must know what happened during this séance . Frey, on the other hand, feels far closer to the dead than he’d wish.
This is a wonderful ‘closed room’ tale of murder, with a premise that is immediately appealing, so much so that I began it the day it arrived. I’ve loved all of these books. I love Oscar de Muriel’s writing, which has such a sparkle to it even when he takes us into such dark and dangerous places and his detectives are both remarkable and completely convincing. The case they must solve now is worthy of them and I do believe that The Darker Arts is my favourite of the series so far.
We are presented with a superb cast of characters! These interconnected families are at war and it’s a pleasure getting to know the kin of those who died. It’s an outrageous crime, children have been left orphaned while mothers have lost their children. The impact on their lives is devastating but all the time we are aware that these are no straightforward lives. There is much to learn from them and they fascinate every bit as much as the extraordinary, fabulous McGray and Frey.
The setting of late Victorian Edinburgh is impeccably drawn. It’s also extremely atmospheric, moody and dark, just as you’d hope for from the title, premise and stunning cover. It’s also witty and at times melodramatic. The séance is essentially an act of theatre, Madame Katerina is hard to know, essentially an actor, but the reality is that a hangman’s noose now stalks her and so there is tragedy and pathos to be found as well as melodrama, superstition and ghostly tales.
This series goes from strength to strength. It’s one of the very best Victorian crime series there is – it is, I think, a worthy contender to take the title – and The Darker Arts is a spooky pleasure from start to finish. I hope we’ll be spending much more time with ‘Nine Nails’ and ‘Percy’.