I really, really wanted to love this. James Oswald is one of my favourite authors, and although I didn’t enjoy the first Con Fairchild book as much as his Inspector McLean series, I hoped that this second Con Fairchild book would be different.
It wasn’t, only more so.
I shall therefore attempt to unpack why this is a three-star review for a book by someone I consider to be a five-star author.
Con Fairchild, the main character, is from a rich aristocratic family: she’s actually Lady Constance Fairchild – although her father’s title hasn’t been mentioned. She is also a detective constable in the Metropolitan Police; in the last book, she was instrumental in breaking up a ring of corrupt police in her own unit. Now she’s suspended from duty and pretty much all her colleagues dislike her. This dislike is supposed to be because of what she did, but to be honest, the way she’s written, it comes across far more as if Con Fairchild is the kind of colleague whom, while you wouldn’t wish them to die in a fire, if you heard they’d been involved in a tragic accident you wouldn’t lose much sleep over it.
Con Fairchild is supposed to be a strong, independent woman, a maverick who goes her own way. To me, she comes across as a spoilt, entitled little rich girl playing at being ‘one of the people’ to annoy her family. She goes her own way not because she’s committed to the goal, but because she thinks the rules don’t apply to her. However, when things get difficult, she doesn’t hesitate to rely on the resources of her rich family – whether that’s contacts, money, or property. Despite being 30 years old, she also comes across as rather immature: possibly because so much of what she does is directed against her family, and partly due to her admitted lack of desire for responsibility. Once again, it’s that entitled-rich-girl vibe: she knows her family has enough money that she doesn’t need to work, and even if she’s abandoned (or so she pretends to herself) them, they haven’t abandoned her. So she doesn’t need to take responsibility, doesn’t need to think about her career. It’s all a game to her, and she can give it up if she wants with no real consequences. The family will always be there to catch her when she falls.
Con also sees misogynism and sexual harassment wherever she goes. Despite the fact that she’s not written to be particularly beautiful or sexy, nearly every man she encounters is apparently objectifying her or making a pass at her, or about to attempt to attack her – even random blokes she sits opposite on public transport. To be honest, Con Fairchild is the kind of person who’d be a nightmare to work with. She seems to treat most of her colleagues as if they’re rather unsavoury lower life forms, and automatically assumes that if a man so much as makes eye contact, he’s got sex on his mind. Then she wonders why they don’t like her…
Other characters don’t really get much page-time. PC Karen Eve is back, and I expect she will be a fixture in the series. To honest, I think that will be a good thing – part of the reason Con seems so self-absorbed, I think, is because she doesn’t have a sidekick/friend. Not only does having a friend to relax with make a character seem less uptight, but it also performs the valuable narrative function of allowing the main character to discuss her ideas. Con doesn’t, at present, have that, which probably contributes to her seeming stand-offish.
There are also hints that other characters will become more important – Superintendent Diane Shepherd and DCI Ed Bain (a side note – I wonder if Oswald has read the Dan Shephard and Ed McBain books?) are promising, although in this book they only flitted on and off the page.
To be honest, I could live with Con’s tiresomeness (thankfully I can shut the book and not have to deal with her) if the plot had been as exciting/dark/weird as Oswald’s McLean books. Unfortunately, Con is not in McLean’s league in any respect. She doesn’t appear to be much of an investigator – she spends much of the book wandering around aimlessly, occasionally stumbling into a clue. She also goes to a family wedding and two funerals, and stays with family friends. At no point did she seem to really care about the murders she was allegedly investigating (or indeed about her job).
The plot… lacked. I kept waiting for Con to start acting instead of reacting, or actually investigating – about the most investigative thing she did was to watch some CCTV footage. Even the grand finale isn’t due to anything she did, but due to her wandering aimlessly and then having the narrative equivalent of a piano fall on her head.
When Con does stumble across a clue, she often doesn’t follow it up – on several occasions, she notices something important, and I expected that the next scene would show her investigating further – but she never did.
Mostly this is set in London, although you can’t really tell. It’s obvious that for Oswald, Scotland is where his heart lives; London is just somewhere on the map. If you’re paying attention, you can tell the difference in the narrative: London gets just enough description so you know the action isn’t taking place in a black room, like a minimalist play with no scenery. However, when the action shifts to Edinburgh, you get a breeze blowing across the Firth of Forth and ‘traditionally Scottish ornate cornicework’.
The fact that I finished this book at all, and until near the end was contemplating giving it four stars is a testament to Oswald’s skill as a writer. I don’t like Con Fairchild, but the story kept me going until close to the end – it was only then, and when I sat down to think about what I’d read, that the weaknesses became apparent.
If you’ve never read any of Oswald’s books before, this is not a good place to start – not only is this not the first in the series (although it will stand alone) but the McLean books are a much better display of the author’s talent.
Will I carry on? I honestly don’t know. I hope that this series gets better; I wonder if some of the weaknesses come from the difficulty inherent in trying to write a police procedural when the main character isn’t on active duty for most of the book, especially with a main character who seems to have no friends to interact with.
In short, I think Con Fairchild could learn a lot from Tony McLean!