Oscar de Muriel- A Fever of the Blood

Fever_of_the_BloodNew Year’s Day, 1889. In Edinburgh’s lunatic asylum, a patient escapes as a nurse lays dying. Leading the manhunt are legendary local Detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray and Londoner-in-exile Inspector Ian Frey. Before the murder, the suspect was heard in whispered conversation with a fellow patient – a girl who had been mute for years. What made her suddenly break her silence? And why won’t she talk again? Could the rumours about black magic be more than superstition? McGray and Frey track a devious psychopath far beyond their jurisdiction, through the worst blizzard in living memory, into the shadow of Pendle Hill – home of the Lancashire witches – where unimaginable danger awaits…

Having been singularly impressed by de Muriel’s debut, The Strings of Murder, introducing uncouth Scottish detective ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray, and softy Southern detective Ian Frey, there was more than a hint of excitement when A Fever Of The Blood arrived, replete with a raven’s feather- perfect marketing for this blogger. So how did our tenacious, and wonderfully ill-matched detective duo fare in this new instalment of de Muriel’s Victorian inspired series? There is dark witchcraft afoot, and Frey and McGray find themselves in more than a spot of peril…

One of the joys of a second book in a series is to see how the author further develops their characters, and the shades of dark and light they apply to their central protagonists. This is certainly true of this book, as the asperity and bravery of Frey increases in his tussles with his obnoxiousness and fearless counterpart McGray. However, by the same token there is a slight softening of the edges of McGray himself, as details of his family background come into focus, and a new, dare I say it, more touchy feely side is exposed. Yes. What are the odds of that? Admittedly, some switches in their characters can be explained by the dark forces of witchcraft that are at work upon them throughout this murderous adventure, but I liked this little teasing of our perceptions about the pair, that de Muriel has woven into the book. The book is again infused with the crude wit and ripostes of McGray, when frustrated by the buttoned-up protestations of Frey, and these moments of humour are perfectly placed throughout. Equally, in true pantomime style there is a boo-worthy crew of baddies to thwart and torment our heroes, and the grotesque Lady Ardglass makes a reappearance but with little change in her own character- once an old crone, always an old crone- and whose blighted family history lays at the centre of this latest devilish tale. There are evil witches, good witches, lunatic asylum patients and ineffectual policemen, and a wonderful manipulation of our senses as to who is good, who is bad, and who is actually more than a little bit of both. The characterisation is lively, playful, and at times incredibly dark and chilling, and de Muriel balances all these contrasting aspects of his protagonists and antagonists with an assured air.

There is an unrelenting pace to the book as Frey and McGray embark on a game of cat and mouse as they seek to track down asylum escapee Joel Ardglass, offspring of the hideous Lady Ardglass, but find themselves in the sight of some unholy creatures, and a final denouement in the shadows of Pendle, Lancashire, with all its allusions to the famous witchcraft case. Indeed, the majority of the book sees Frey and McGray in a state of frenetic perambulation, led onward by the mysterious green glow of witches’ beacons, and the will o’ the wisp tendencies of their fugitive from justice. It’s fair to say that more than one mishap befalls them along the way, and there are some real nerve-shredding moments as the plot progresses. So in addition to being a real tale of ominous derring-do, there is, as explained by the author’s notes, the careful inclusion of factual reference to witchcraft and its practices in days of yore. Also, de Muriel has taken a little bit of artistic licence drawing on his Mexican heritage, and integrating some little details of the dark arts that herald from his own homeland, which adds to the overall colour and interest of the witchcraft narrative.

So, it’s all deliciously dark, violent and compelling, with new nuances to the characters of, and the relationship between our earthy Scotsman McGray, and his rather reluctant counterpart Frey. There are dark arts, light humour, and a sense of unrelenting excitement and danger. It’s a romp, and a very enjoyable one at that.

(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)

Oscar de Muriel- The Strings of Murder

 

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.”

 

 

Guest Post- M. J. Carter on Edgar Allan Poe

carterThe Infidel Stain is the second book in M. J. Carter’s Blake and Avery mystery series, following on from CWA New Blood Dagger shortlisted and Bailey’s Women’s Prize long- listed The Strangler Vine. In this special guest post Miranda shares her thoughts on all things Poe, and his influence on the early days of the detective fiction genre…

“The Infidel Stain is set in 1841, the same year—not altogether accidentally—that what is arguably the first detective story was published. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ was written by Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer, poet and genius known best for his brilliant gothic short stories and poems and—quite unfairly as it turned out—for his short, syphilitic, drug-addled, mad life. But that’s another story. This very blog is named in honour of his great poem, ‘The Raven’.

At the heart of the story is an impossible crime: two women brutally murdered in a 4th floor room locked from the inside. Neighbours think they heard the voice of the murderer but they cannot agree what language was spoken. C August Dupin, gentleman of leisure who lives in self-imposed seclusion with his friend the narrator, and goes out only at night, is intrigued by reports and offers his services to the Chief of Police. The solution is clever, extremely creepy, entirely satisfying and Dupin arrives at it with a succession of brilliant imaginative deductions.

Poe wrote two more stories about Dupin. He called them his ‘tales of ratiocination’, Dupin’s name for his method —the idea that through close observation, careful research, the ability to put himself in the mind of the criminal, and deductive reasoning, he can see connections where others cannot.

The point about ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ —apart from the fact that it is still a terrific read—is that in it Poe invented so many of the classic ingredients of the mystery story as its come down to us: the conundrum of the unsolvable crime (‘locked-room mysteries’ are themselves a whole sub-genre), the atmosphere of claustrophobia and night, the clod-hopping police, the clues which the reader can follow, the solution announced at the end and then the reasoning behind it explained. And of course the prototype of the brilliant amateur detective —years before the word ‘detective’ was actually coined. Dupin is an eccentric gentleman outsider who likes puzzles and codes, and closes himself off from human interaction—apart from his unnamed friend who tells the stories. He regards the cases as intellectual challenges to which he applies his method. You can immediately see him in Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Margery Allingham’s Campion and a slew of others. Conan Doyle acknowledged the debt. He wrote of Poe: ‘Each (of his stories) is a root from which a whole literature developed.’

Even today it is, I think, almost impossible for a mystery writer to completely avoid Poe’s long shadow. Almost inadvertently I find in my own books that I’ve followed him. I have a brilliant detective and a less smart narrator. I made my detective deliberately working class and grouchy, but he is still a classic outsider and I prize his cleverness, his ability to read faces and tells, his creative imagination, and his ability to put himself in other’s shoes. Vive Mr Poe!”

M. J. Carter is a former journalist and the author of two acclaimed works of non-fiction: Anthony Blunt: His Lives and The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One. Follow on Twitter @MJCarter10

Check out a Guardian feature here on Carter’s penchant for historical crime fiction.

Reviews of The Infidel Stain can be found at:

For Winter Nights

Crime Fiction Lover

9780241146231Calcutta 1837. The East India Company rules India – or most of it; and its most notorious and celebrated son, Xavier Mountstuart, has gone missing. William Avery, a down-at-heel junior officer in the Company’s army, is sent to find him, in the unlikely company of the enigmatic and uncouth Jeremiah Blake. A more mismatched duo couldn’t be imagined, but they must bury their differences as they are caught up in a search that turns up too many unanswered questions and seems bound to end in failure. What was it that so captivated Mountstuart about the Thugs, the murderous sect of Kali-worshippers who strangle innocent travellers by the roadside? Who is Jeremiah Blake and can he be trusted? And why is the whole enterprise shrouded in such secrecy? In the dark heart of Company India, Avery will have to fight for his very life, and in defence of a truth he will wish he had never learned…

9780241966631It’s 1841, and three years after we left them at the close of The Strangler Vine, Blake and Avery are reunited in very different circumstances in London. There has been a series of dreadful murders in the slums of the printing district, which the police mysteriously refuse to investigate, and Blake and Avery must find the culprit before he kills again…