Book Review: Loch of the Dead by Oscar de Muriel

Loch of the Dead by Oscar de Muriel is the fourth book in the Frey & McGray series, where Edinburgh’s most famed detective duo face their most metaphysical mystery yet as they investigate a series of crimes surrounding the miraculous waters in the remote Loch Maree.

The silence was absolute, broken only by the occasional crackle of the fire. I was barely managing to keep myself awake, feeling a pleasant sway, as if sitting in a boat on that gentle loch outside.

 

McGray picked up his glass, but then halted. He stirred in his seat and then rose like a spring.

 

‘What is it?’ asked Mrs. Koloman as McGray strode to the window.

 

Mr. Koloman and Uncle Maurice followed. I joined them clumsily, my four limbs slightly numb, but then I too saw plainly what was happening out there.

 

It was Natalja, dragging half her shawl as she ran desperately across the lawn.

 

She was screaming.

Inspectors Adolphus “Nine-Nails” McGray and Ian Frey have barely recovered from their last investigation when the mysterious Miss Fletcher begs for their help.

Her illegitimate son’s wealthy father has recently passed, and the Koloman family—who she still serves as housekeeper—now wants to welcome him into the fold.

All well and good, except for the death threats Miss Fletcher has received.

KEEP YOUR BASTARD AWAY
OR I SHALL KILL HIM.

In return for McGray and Frey’s assistance, Miss Fletcher promises them a cure for Nine-Nails’ sister. There is an island in the Kolomans’ loch in northern Scotland where an ancient well is reputed to cure madness. As proof, she offers up the strange family—the Nellys—who cured their sick father at the well and still live nearby, tending goats.

McGray, obsessive as ever, promptly sets out to escort the teenaged boy to the loch, while Miss Fletcher, Frey, and Frey’s Uncle Maurice travel to Loch Maree. Maurice even thinks it will be a fun holiday—a diversion—before Frey learns of his ultimate fate with the Scottish police force, given the current bureaucratic turmoil around his unorthodox division.

But within hours of arriving, Frey finds the loch much eerier than relaxing. Pagan acts are clearly still practiced on the islands, dotted with deer skulls and candles. The Nellys family is strange, their skin mottled and bodies aging at a faster-than-normal rate. Blood-drinking bats flutter among the trees.

And the rich, refined Kolomans are odd, too. Their manor home is filled with bizarre scientific instruments, the twin daughters are almost unnaturally beautiful, the son is a suspiciously smooth character, and the servants are all strangely devoted to their masters. Uncle Maurice is quickly charmed by the lovely Veronika and the family’s infamously delicious wine, but Frey has a bad feeling.

Meanwhile, McGray’s job collecting Benjamin Koloman is complicated by a brutal death, which only underscores the reality of the threats against the boy’s life. And within hours of arriving at the Kolomans’, another death follows.

But who is to blame? The Nellys? The Kolomans? Someone else from the village? Someone not quite human?

Are the Inspectors being manipulated into a cover-up, or is something far darker and bloodier at work here?

That night there was nothing but misery in the manor. You could feel it in the air, in the profound hush that had crept all around.

 

I swirled the wine in my glass—the one thing I would miss from this place—as I stared at the quiet loch from my room’s window.

 

No wonder I felt that oppression in my chest. Under this roof, miles and miles into the Scottish wilderness, were a dying man, a decaying corpse, three murder suspects, a handful of distraught women and men, and two wary CID inspectors who were simply waiting for somebody else to come and take charge. I’d be only too happy to leave.

 

I finished the wine and went to bed, but I tossed and turned for a long while. I could not stop picturing that strange skull and its refulgent eye sockets. Witchcraft, I thought with a chill, thinking of Miss Fletcher’s words. Could there be something else on those islands? Something we were yet to meet?

 

I shook my head at the idea, but an ominous feeling crept through my body, clutching at my heart like an invisible claw. A foreboding I can only explain in hindsight…

In the fourth installment in the McGray and Frey series, de Muriel twists the gothic dial all the way to 11. The fog-shrouded Koloman Manor is equal parts ominous castle, cabinet of curiosity, and bizarre laboratory. Nearly every character gives off a slimy or suspicious air, leaving us wondering if we can trust anybody beyond Frey and Nine-Nails. And with the bats, blood, and strange ceremonies, we’re at the heart of penny dreadful territory.

De Muriel does a grand job of playing off expectations to deliver a series of satisfying and surprising twists throughout the story. No sooner has he given one totally plausible, fitting take on the events before he zags into a different direction with another explanation. Absolutely nothing is what it seems in Loch of the Dead, and the intermingling of science and superstition makes for a knockout of a climax.

Frey and McGray are both in fine form, each given moments to shine: Ian with his quick-thinking and scientific reasoning; Nine-Nails with his fists and physicality. There are tragic and monstrous figures aplenty in the supporting cast, and it takes a careful eye to discern one from the other.

But, as always, the greatest draws here are the evocative atmosphere and the tight plotting. De Muriel sprinkles in just enough details, clues, and revelations to make everything come together in a bloody knot by the epilogue, and the pervading unease and unearthly chill of the setting will linger long after the book has been set down.

Loch of the Dead is another solid installment in an always satisfying, supernaturally-tinged series—just the thing for those who like their historical mysteries with a Gothic twist or wonder what Sherlock would’ve been like if penned by Stoker.

Check out Kristin Centorcelli’s review of A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel

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