Ed James’ Ghost in the Machine is a self-published police procedural crime novel, and the first in the Scott Cullen series. The author asked for an honest review.
The story opens with a murder, the first of many to splatter the novel. Scott Cullen, under the stewardship of cantankerous bastard Bain, investigates a number of nightmarish murders, all seemingly connected to each other through Schoolbook. It looks like a vendetta. The first suspect is the initial victim’s ex-husband, whom Bain determines to collar. However, as certain clues don’t add up and even get personal, Cullen doubts his superior’s reasoning.
Cullen is another Scottish detective pounding Edinburgh’s pavements. He’s not an unwelcome addition. In fact the book has a variety of memorable characters, with Bain the main one. His explosions always raise a smile, though the trade-off is you might not take him seriously. But I enjoyed how he puts Cullen down, while also having a begrudging admiration for him. Bain is a bull-headed nutter with a badge, but he’s the sun the other characters orbit, and I hope he plays as much of a role in the other three books in this series. I’d also like to see more of DC Chantal Jain. A female Indian-origin copper in a hard male Scottish environment can only make for some fantastic situations.
I enjoyed the novel a lot. Though it doesn’t reach Ian Rankin’s heights, it deals with numerous themes in entertaining fashion, such as police laziness. Miller personifies this, an aspiring detective who cannot concentrate on detail because football keeps invading his thoughts. The theme runs through Bain too, though I’m not sure if Bain’s actions constitute laziness or corruption. His intent on using circumstantial evidence to use against a suspect, for a quick result, in order to further his promotion prospects does feel a little forced sometimes. Everything certainly points at him, but as Cullen points out – make that bloody evidence hard. However, as events such as the Hillsborough Disaster fiasco show, some coppers just follow their nose and merely aim to be ‘seen’ to get results, or try to favourably shape their cock-ups to excuse poor judgement.
The novel explores maturity, and sometimes the lack of it. There’s a sharp contrast between Cullen’s professional and personal life. Matt Haig recently twittered a joke on how to write a police procedural: the detective must redeem his disastrous personal life by finding the killer. Thankfully, James does not soak his hero’s sorrows in Scotch, and he is hardly suicidal. He merely has relationship problems with an ex, a woman who claims a stake in his present, and a colleague he hopes is in his future. His lame response to women is in sharp contrast to the determination he shows in looking for firmer evidence in his work. This extends to looking after Bain’s back, a superior you guess Cullen wouldn’t mind throwing to the wolves. Yet his professional pride pushes him to the right thing.
Cullen is emotionally stunted, finding it difficult to get over an ex, and treating a love interest so cold you wonder why, after he talks so dismissively about her, a new potential lover doesn’t reject him.
So, I thought the novel was fun, and I can see the series developing into something deeper and more nuanced. It did have some problems. It didn’t pull me into Edinburgh, a city of such strong character you expect it to play a stronger part. Some victims also seem a little naive, considering none are teenagers. We’re all aware of social media dangers, so I’d expect the victims to show a more savvy awareness. Still, that could be harsh – you read about desperate people all the time.
Overall, an impressive first novel. The ending pulls you in deeper and gets the nerves on edge, and I didn’t guess the killer.
I’d like to read the rest of the series now.
Note: Image taken from Goodreads.