23257047Edinburgh, 1888. A virtuoso violinist is brutally killed in his home. Black magic symbols cover the walls. The dead man’s maid swears she heard three musicians playing before the murder.But with no way in or out of the locked practice room, the puzzle makes no sense…
Fearing a national panic over a copycat Ripper, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Ian Frey to investigate under the cover of a fake department specializing in the occult. However, Frey’s new boss – Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray – actually believes in such nonsense.
McGray’s tragic past has driven him to superstition, but even Frey must admit that this case seems beyond reason. And once someone loses all reason, who knows what they will lose next…

Regular readers of my reviews should be strongly aware that I very rarely read historical crime fiction despite my love of Poe and Conan Doyle. I rarely stray further back than the 1940’s, so sirens should be sounding that this was something special to tempt me out of my historical boundaries. In the first instance, this was recommended to me by a crime author, and then I had the delight of seeing Oscar de Muriel at the CrimeFest crime writing convention in Bristol recently. Feeding off his enthusiasm and passion for the crime fiction genre, and intrigued by how a young author of Mexican heritage would go about writing a Victorian supernatural thriller set in London and Edinburgh, I couldn’t refuse a read of this one…

The author’s love of, and passion for, Victorian crime fiction comes shining through the book, garnered by his childhood reading, growing up in Mexico, of Sherlock Holmes. He recreates with ease all the sights, smells and atmosphere of London and Edinburgh, as the story pivots between the slums and gentrified locales of both cities during this period. Indeed, sometimes the writing is realistic enough of the lowdown dirty streets, to make your nose wrinkle, as our indomitable detectives, Frey and McGray, navigate their way through the filthy highways and byways, and the equally malodorous residents. Equally, de Muriel perfectly captures the snobbery and superiority of the upper classes, as they become inveigled in this testing investigation, which revolves around ghastly murder, and haunted violins…

The plotting is superb throughout, suffused with all the familiar tropes of a traditional locked room mystery, with a good smattering of red herrings and false alleys along the way. I remained in blissful ignorance of how the crimes were committed until close before the end of the book, and enjoyed the air of ghostly goings-on, and twisting plot reveals that drove the action on throughout. My enjoyment of the book was further compounded by the brilliant characterisation of de Muriel’s ill-matched detective duo. He played them off against each other beautifully, pitting the uptight namby-pamby London detective, Frey against the rough, plain-speaking Scottish detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray. The ill tempered banter, and rivalry between the two was beautifully played throughout, even extending the north-south divide to their quibbling servants, and the way that they were perceived by the more well-to-do members of the cast in the course of their investigation. With de Muriel’s liberal use of the Scottish vernacular in the case of McGray, compared with the southern nicety of Frey, their voices rang loud in my head as I was reading, and I learnt some wonderfully earthy Scottish insults along the way! By depicting these two so colourfully throughout the book, there can be little doubt that this partnership will run and run, underscored by the resentment but grudging respect that defines their personal and professional relationship.

Being a musician himself, has also added a terrific sense of realism to the plot in the way that the world of music, and more specifically violins, feature in the story. Drawing on real life virtuosos, esteemed makers of musical instruments, and the fantastical stories that have accompanied some of these instruments along the way, there is an added depth and interest to the central plot, at their role within it. Indeed, a friend of mine, an adept violinist himself, was thoroughly intrigued when I mentioned this book, and was quick to verify the veracity of the facts that de Muriel interweaves into the story. So more brownie points for de Muriel…

So all in all a bit of a find this one, threaded with humour, intrigue, colourful characters, and a real sense of time and place. A very impressive debut, and I cannot await the further adventures of Frey and McGray. A cracking good read, and a case that Holmes himself would love to have flexed his detective skills with.

(I bought this copy of The Strings of Murder and it is published in the UK by PenguinRandomHouse)

 

Just for fun I thought I’d post de Muriel’s biography from his website Oscar de Muriel.com here too. One of the most amusing I have read…

“I was born in Mexico City in 1983, in the building that now houses Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum (some people claim to see a connection there…). I had a very happy childhood even though I did not try refried beans until I was six (I refused to eat anything brown and gooey).

My first attempt at writing stories, aged seven, was a tale about a triceratops and a stegosaurus battling a very hungry T-Rex. Their three-page, ten-line long adventure was profusely illustrated by the author. Stegosaurus was extinct millions of years before the first T-Rex hatched, but I still consider it a milestone.

When I was ten, Jurassic Park (the novel) scared the Jesus out of me – reminiscent of that Friends’ episode where Joey Tribiani hides his books in the fridge (I blogged about that here). I’d never thought that written stories could have such a thrilling effect, and as soon as I got JP out of the freezer I decided I wanted to become a writer.

After a few fiascos and blatant steals, I managed to produce a few decent novels in various genres. However, I found myself particularly comfortable writing historical fiction.

I came to the United Kingdom to complete a PhD in Chemistry, working as a free-lance translator to complement my earnings (I was responsible for some cool Johnnie Walker’s ads for Colombia). During this time I produced a handful of academic papers, and the idea of a spooky whodunit started to take roots in my head.

After several visits to Edinburgh, the city struck me as the perfect setting for a crime mystery. The entire concept of Nine-Nails McGray came to my head while eating pizza with a couple of friends [guys, do you remember Cantina Los Perros and the sea monster?]. For years I’d been meaning to write a story about the Devil’s sonata (I am a violin player myself, which I should have probably mentioned earlier…) and it fit perfectly as McGray’s first case – hopefully the first of many.

I went through the literary agent hunt (I will definitely blog about that some day!) until Maggie Hanbury rescued me from the slush pile and lent me her very professional hand. I currently live in Lancashire in a lovely house that overlooks Pendle Hill, a field of limping sheep, and a very creepy-looking manor I aspire to own one day.”

 

 

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