The Darker Arts

Oscar de Muriel

Orion, £18.99

Even casual readers of crime fiction must feel like they’ve been spending an awful lot of time in Victorian Edinburgh recently, thanks to such books as Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying, Kaite Welsh’s The Wages of Sin and The Unquiet Heart, Vanessa Tait’s The Pharmacist’s Wife, David Ashton’s Inspector McLevy and Jean Brash series, Carole Lawrence’s Edinburgh Twilight and Edinburgh Dusk and even Anthony O’Neill’s Robert Louis Stevenson sequel Dr Jekyll & Mr Seek.

Not that it’s a bad place to be. One could argue that even London can’t match it as a setting for Victorian-era detective stories, the post-Enlightenment rationalism and refinement of the New Town only a footstep away from the dark and bloody legacy of its medieval predecessor. Consequently, it’s becoming increasingly crowded with sleuths.

This is the fifth of de Muriel’s Frey and McGray novels, but the first to come my way. Luckily, it’s not hard to catch up. The genteel Englishman Ian Frey is a former Scotland Yard detective banished to Edinburgh where he formed an odd-couple partnership with his new boss, Adolphus “Nine-Nails” McGray, a rough diamond usually seen in “gaudy tartan trousers, ragged overcoat and grimy shirt”. They work from a basement office in the City Chambers as The Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly, a unit set up by McGray himself “for the sole purpose of finding what had driven his sister insane” the night he saw the devil and lost one of his fingers.

So it’s very much an X-Files set-up, the sceptical Frey tagging along behind his worldly, foul-mouthed companion whose longing to see his sister’s sanity restored drives him to consult psychics and explore supernatural explanations.

In The Darker Arts, they’re presented with a tricky conundrum. The morning after a séance arranged by a well-to-do family, all six participants are found inexplicably dead around the table, the only survivor being the medium, Madame Katerina, an old friend and useful contact of McGray’s. Naturally, she is charged with their murder. Her defence is that they were killed by the spirit of Granny Alice, the old relative they were trying to contact. With a death sentence almost inevitable, it’s up to McGray and Frey to sort through a seemingly impossible case and defy an odious, gloating prosecutor to prove her innocence.

Even those who, like myself, haven’t read the previous novels can appreciate the ongoing character development: how the chalk-and-cheese McGray and Frey have somehow gelled into an effective team, occasional flare-ups notwithstanding; and how a more violent Frey is beginning to emerge after recent traumatic experiences. Mexico-born de Muriel drops anachronisms into the dialogue with abandon (“serial killer” and “liaise” certainly weren’t around then, though “psychosis”, first recorded in 1847, scrapes through), but it doesn’t mar this terrifically entertaining and creepily atmospheric novel, an exuberant escapade with such vividly-drawn characters that even a player as minor as Malcolm the jailer gets to make an impression.