Book Reviews · Crime

Natural Causes and The Book of Souls – Book Review

The Book of Souls
















If you’re a Scottish crime writer then it’s a given that newspapers will refer to you as ‘the next Ian Rankin’ or the ‘natural successor’ to Ian Rankin.

I’ve seen similar book blurbs for Alex Gray and lately Gordon Ferris and the latest star of Tartan Noir has joined them.

Yes, James Oswald has written a trilogy (so far) of detective novels and yes they’re based in Edinburgh, but they’re in no way derivative.

With so many detectives on the shelves it’s easy to imagine writers going through a check list of items they really should avoid before putting pen to paper. It might look something like this:

  • Alcoholic (well definitely, but that wasn’t a fresh idea when Bergerac stumbled around St Helier)
  • Divorced (inevitably, but they all are aren’t they?)
  • Workaholic
  • In a gritty, urban setting

The trouble is perhaps these elements are almost inevitable. Murder enquiries don’t close down at 5pm and wives and husbands don’t appreciate bank holidays and weddings being interrupted by stabbings and muggings.

Detective Tony McLean works too many hours, likes a drink and his wife was murdered – an emerging theme in the back story and critical to the second novel The Book of Souls. He drives an ancient Alfa Romeo (many detectives love a classic car – check Morse’s Mk 2 Jaguar and Bergerac’s Triumph Roadster) that belonged to his grandmother and seems to have inherited a huge amount of money.

I like McLean because Oswald’s handling of character treads a tricky but convincing line between a caring and sympathetic, yet struggling (emotionally, at least) detective. McLean throws his body on the line to protect others but he fails to visit a constable in hospital who was seriously injured when they went to a fire-ravaged building together. He’s human, not superhuman, like the rest of us. He doesn’t find time for relationships, but it isn’t just his workload it his past that overshadows any chance of moving on.

Edinburgh is important in these novels but it doesn’t come through perhaps as much as in Rankin’s writing. Instead it is Oswald’s interest in the magical and supernatural which makes these books exciting and adds a new and fresh dimension. Crime fiction can be extremely gritty and dark – certainly recent TV seems obsessed with truth and reality – but a sprinkling of MR James in these books is a welcome development. It’s ironic that reading Oswald’s website it was this successful element that led to many early rejections.

I enjoyed these novels so much I read the first two back to back. I’m looking forward to reading the third – The Hangman’s Song and will be doing so in Oswald’s native Fife.