The Darker Arts

Written by Oscar de Muriel
Review by Douglas Kemp

Edinburgh 1889. In the fifth in the Scotland-based series, detective inspectors Adolphus McGray and Ian Frey are summoned to investigate the mysterious deaths of six members of a family in the respectable Edinburgh district of Morningside. An old ally of McGray – the fearsome clairvoyant gypsy Katerina Dragnae – is involved, having been present conducting a séance when all the deaths occurred. She is the main suspect, and McGray and Frey have the seemingly impossible tasks of preventing her conviction for the murders, in the face of aggressive populist mob-rule sentiment against Katerina.

McGray (nicknamed Nine Nails) is a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking Scottish fellow always on the cusp of violence, while Frey is rather louche and patronisingly English, which of course does not go always down terribly well north of the border. They are indeed an odd pair, but have some high-ranking connections which allow them to investigate some of the more outré and puzzling murders that afflict the country. Despite his loutish behaviour McGray has a longstanding conviction in the existence of the powers of the occult and is determined to extract his ally Katerina from her invidious position. Their role reminds me of Christopher Fowler’s modern Bryant & May series, with McGray and Frey similar to Fowler’s protagonists. It is all gothically over the top and gloriously preposterous, but an enjoyable, entertainingly and well-written historical romp nonetheless.