For Our Sins

James Oswald

Wildfire, £20

Juggling livestock farming with crime writing sounds so exhausting that it’s hard to imagine how James Oswald finds the time and energy, but he’s somehow reached the thirteenth volume of his acclaimed Inspector McLean series. Tony McLean himself, however, has had enough, having packed in the police force to look after his wife as she recovers from a stroke and leaving the heavy lifting, for the first half of the book at least, to his protégé, DS Janie Harrison.

Called out to a derelict church off Ferry Road in Edinburgh, Harrison finds the body of an older man, his head pulped by falling masonry. It’s not long before another body appears, again in a church. This man’s head is intact, and police find that the sign of the cross has been literally branded into his forehead.

Someone appears to be killing associates of the ageing crime boss Archie Seagram, and Seagram is most likely in their sights too. Known for decades to be the mastermind behind organised crime in Edinburgh, but never convicted of anything, Seagram reaches out to the retired Tony McLean, urging him to use his influence on his former colleagues to find the killer. McLean realises that Seagram knows why these men are being targeted, if not by whom, but that to give the police too many clues would risk incriminating himself. All he’ll say is that it has something to do with religion.

The Herald: James Oswald's For Our SinsJames Oswald's For Our Sins (Image: free)

What readers have gleaned from the outset is that the murders stem from the sexual abuse of boys at the church of St Aloysius in the early 1980s by Father Eric O’Connell, who was brutally beaten by a burglar in 1983 and never recovered consciousness. But quite what the connection is between an abusive priest and senior figures in Edinburgh’s gangland is unclear.

The investigation takes place against a backdrop of staff shortages and dwindling resources. The police force in Oswald’s books is in a clear and very believable decline, something readers in this cash-strapped age can easily identify with, and McLean’s resignation has left them a DI short. The case should really be helmed by a DCI or a superintendent, but the fact that they’re overstretched means that DS Janie Harrison is pushed into leading the investigation, possibly before she’s ready.

Oswald’s Inspector McLean mysteries have always had an eerie quality to them, hinting that just beyond the ritualistic murders and haunting cold cases there may be supernatural forces at play. With its sex-trafficking, priestly abuse and religiously-themed murders, For Our Sins is typically dark. There are shadows within the department too, cast by Nelson, the misogynistic new DS brought in from Aberdeen, who lusts after Harrison and belittles her for her lack of interest in him, making her an acting DI mainly, it seems, so he can criticise her performance.

In a strikingly female-dominated work environment (including new addition Cerys, a Welsh pathologist who looks set to play a larger role in future books), the creepy Nelson brings as much darkness with him as the mysterious murderer, the long-dead molesting priest, the sex-trafficker and the gangster.

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Oswald has built up quite a cast of characters over the past dozen books, including the legendary Grumpy Bob and even a medium, Madame Rose; so many, in fact, that it can be hard to keep track of the various superintendents, DIs and DSs as they flit in and out of the story. Even so, this darkly compelling thriller isn’t a bad place to start if his books haven’t cropped up on your radar before now.