The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel is a 2015 mystery novel, the first in the “Frey & McGray” series of books. Set in 1880s, the story follows Ian Frey, an inspector for London’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID). After a series of personal disgraces largely outside of his control, Frey is sent by Scotland Yard to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they fear a copycat Jack the Ripper has made his first murder. With the Ripper still eluding apprehension in London, the pressure is on to solve the case quickly and quietly. This will not be easy however, as the violinist victim was somehow butchered in his own sealed bedroom, after taking all of the keys inside with him. There’s no clear evidence of how the murderer got in or out, and the presence of occult symbols at the crime scene only serves to excite the interest of Adolphus “Nine-Nails” McGray, the head of the paranormal subdivision leading the investigation, much to Frey’s chagrin.
As far as the mystery is concerned, there’s a fair bit I liked about this book. Despite the sensationally gruesome premise and locked-room setup, compelling on their own, the actual detective work Frey and McGray get up to was refreshingly grounded. The leads they follow don’t depend upon wild intuition or uncanny deduction, but more straightforward police work: asking a lot of questions and following up on research. I enjoy tales of super sleuths as much as anybody else, but I liked that that neither inspector was especially exceptional, just generally talented enough to get the job done. The investigative parts of the story I enjoyed most. For most of the book, I was genuinely intrigued with how the mystery would unfold and liked how the two inspectors worked off of each other, despite their differences.
Unfortunately, the way the two are characterized is where I started to falter very early on, especially since it took about 100 pages for the characters to actually start their investigation. Frey is a posh Englishman, prim, proper, and tightly wound, while McGray is a boisterous, foul-mouthed Scotsman, and each is prejudiced to the other for where they come from. They’re an example of the odd couple trope if I’ve ever seen one. The problem is, their characteristics and dynamic are leaned in to far too much. There are lighter smatterings of it while they’re investigating, but when they’re not actively engaged in the field, which was more often the case, I almost always wished their behaviour and interactions were dialed back, especially in the case of Frey.
I could sometimes connect and sympathize with Frey, but more often he just came across as a dick. This was occasionally offset by his more progressive views or acts of compassion, but the former felt more like details inserted to make him more palatable, while the latter were too few and far between. He seemed almost constantly on the verge of raging and continually complains about where he is and the people around him. As a character who is in no way where he wants to be this is understandable, but as the perspective character transcribing everything in the past tense it became almost insufferable. I definitely blame some of this on the formatting, as his exclamations are often written like this! I don’t know about you, but with so much of his dialogue written this way, my internal reading voice had him emphatically screaming his head off half of the time.
McGray was a more rounded character, coming across as genuinely warm and empathetic towards others at times (not Frey) in a way that contrasted well with his rowdiness. It helped that the story was never told from his perspective either, so I was not inundated with his judgements on everything around him. Nevertheless, his continued berating of Frey for being a “dandy” from London got tired really quickly.
I actually perked up once when he called him “laddie” while parting ways (instead of the usual “lassie” as an insult), hoping that it marked a turn in their relationship, but it went by without either characters remarking on it and their usual rapport fell back into place later on. I’m fine with two characters having a combative relationship, but with so much time spent with these two outside of the investigation I’d hoped it was going somewhere. It just felt like their disdain for each other was being reiterated over and over with little purpose.
Without getting into the details, I want to talk about the mystery’s resolution a bit too, as I said I enjoyed most of it but not all. On the one hand, I did like how horrific of a turn the mystery slowly took, thrusting the characters into some truly macabre situations. On the other hand, the perpetrator came out of nowhere. A rogue element was introduced toward the end that I doubt anybody could have seen coming. There were hints, but they were so slight that I’m not sure they count. Some may find it a compelling reveal, but it just cheapened things for me. Other elements of the mystery inspired genuine “ah ha!” moments, but this felt too much like it came out of nowhere.
The Strings of Murder is an okay mystery novel, but considerably rougher around the edges than I was hoping. The actual investigating the characters undertook made for good reading, which is a decent mark in its favour, and the historical setting had a rawness to it that left a significant impression, but the core characterization of each of them was too overdone that it grated. Furthermore, what I presumed to be subplots were left open-ended in a way that had me wondering why they were included as much as they were. With a disappointing resolution to the mystery to cap it all off, I’m not sure if I’ll continue this series or not. I want to give it another chance to smooth out its rough edges, but I’m in no hurry.
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5