Fresh Blood

Name: James Oswald

Title of Book: Natural Causes

'There is great excitement about this book and I can see why.'

DI Tony McLean is a copper through and through. Even when off duty he can’t help finding out if he can be of any assistance at the scene of a brutal murder. A well-known local figure has been found in his study, sat in a chair, naked and with his throat cut. The killer also placed a slice of the victim’s own body part in his mouth. This new killing leads to other murders that bear a remarkable similarity and as they are all well-known figures in the community, the big names from on high want a fast result.

In amongst all this killing DI McLean is given a very cold case indeed. The mummified remains of a young girl are found in a sealed room in the cellar of a house which once belonged to a famous family. As the victim was murdered about 1945 the force are not so worried about finding the killer who is more than likely to be dead themselves. However, as facts start to trickle in McLean finds that one case may very well be the catalyst for the other. At the same time McLean’s grandmother dies and with it a wealth of questions die with her but the scant information McLean finds out about his own family’s past leads to awkward and unsettling questions about his own identity.

‘Natural Causes’ was originally released solely as an e-book and has taken some years to finally be published within these paperback covers. It is strange that this gripping tale has taken so long to be discovered. Oswald has a natural talent for dialogue and for moving his story along at a steady pace. Thankfully this isn’t a lovechild of the ‘breakneck’ speed novel that has arisen in recent years, but a measured investigation which implores you to continue turning those pages and finding out not only about the cases in hand, but about his main protagonist, James McLean himself. I was pleased that Oswald has given many teasers regarding McLean and hope that many, if not all will be revealed in future books.

Oswald’s strength is in timing his surprises with precision and like a cat with the proverbial mouse, entices you on and on so you cannot stop until you are virtually at the finishing line. Despite the savagery of the murders, humour is scattered amongst the pages in the form of McLean’s team who comprise of Grumpy Bob and Stuart MacBride (we all have our heroes but whatever next… Chief Constable Ruth Rendell??). Grumpy Bob is a find and is portrayed as a dedicated if very lazy policeman. I look forward to hearing more about Grumpy Bob in other books.

There is a slight word of warning – there is a spark of the supernatural within but I promise you won’t find vampires appearing or plots of the Dan Brown ilk. No, the supernatural part is left up to the reader to decide if the perpetrator is purely human or if there ever could be something classed as malevolence personified.

Oswald juggles several cases and there were moments when I felt an echo of Reginald Hill in some of the phrases and characterisation and I believe that with a little refinement Oswald could well emulate this great, much-missed writer.

‘Natural Causes’ is a sterling tale and after a long journey from rejection to e-book now finally to print, this book can only find a new and bigger audience. There is great excitement about this book and I can see why. This is a very strong debut and I look forward to reading the rest of the McLean instalments.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What first inspired you to write your debut novel?
I’ve been writing for years - way too many to remember when I actually started. Apparently my uncle told my mother I’d be a writer when I was about four - probably on account of the monstrously tall stories I used to tell. I initially wrote comic scripts, and even had one published by 2000AD back in the early nineties, but when my career as a comic writer failed to materialise, I started writing novels.

‘Natural Causes’, my debut as you call it, is actually the eighth novel I have written, but my first foray into crime fiction. Before then I was writing mostly science fiction, fantasy and something I thought I’d invented myself, but which most people would call Urban or Contemporary Fantasy.

My good friend Stuart MacBride suggested I give up writing such nonsense and have a go at crime fiction - advice he’d been given by his agent at the time and which had worked out rather well for him. I couldn’t quite shake my fantasy and comics roots though, which is why ‘Natural Causes’ and the other books in the series all contain a subtle shading of supernatural influences in them.
2) You have had a long journey to being published. ‘Natural Causes’ was originally available solely as an e-book. Can you tell us a little about how you came from starting your book to being an e-book to being picked up by Penguin?
I originally wrote Natural Causes as a short story, which was published by Spinetingler Magazine in 2006. I wrote half a dozen short stories featuring a character I’d developed initially in a comic script and then included in a couple of my urban fantasy novels - DI McLean. He was called John at first, until I realised the Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard movies is John McClane. He was also older, and a chief inspector when he first appeared. His curse was being able to see the dark underbelly of the world, where the ghosts and ghouls and demons lurked. I’ve always liked the idea of someone in authority having to deal with the supernatural in a world where most people can’t or won’t accept that such a thing exists. How do you write up the incident report?

‘Natural Causes’ was short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2007, which I thought would lead to instant publication and fame. Alas, it didn’t, with most editors not liking the mix of genres. I shelved the book after a couple of dozen rejections from publishers and agents both, and got on with writing something else. Then a chance conversation with Allan Guthrie alerted me to the possibilities of e-books.

I’m reasonably web-savvy, so rather than trying to find an e-book publisher, I rolled up my sleeves and did it myself. I paid for a properly designed cover, persuaded several friends to proof read the manuscript, and then launched the book on an unsuspecting public last February (2012). I didn’t have much of a marketing strategy, but as I had the second book in the series already written, I decided to try giving ‘Natural Causes’ away for a while, in the hope people would like it enough to pay for ‘The Book of Souls’. Downloads of the e-book hit 50,000 in the first month it was free, and carried on at that level for three months. Almost 300,000 copies had been downloaded from Amazon alone by the time Penguin took over, and sales of ‘The Book of Souls’ were very good too.

Before self-publishing, I didn’t even have an agent. The success of the books brought me to the attention of Juliet Mushens (then at PFD, now at The Agency Group) and she managed to drum up enough interest for a five way auction for the UK and Commonwealth rights. We’ve subsequently sold translation rights around the world.
3) Can you tell us a little about the ‘jumping off’ point for ‘Natural Causes’?
The story revolves around the discovery of a young woman’s remains. She has been brutally raped and murdered in what appears to be some kind of bizarre ritual, then walled up in a basement in an old mansion house in Edinburgh. Uncovering her remains is the catalyst to a series of murders, too similar to be coincidental but with no obvious link between them.

In the short story version, I opened in the present day with the body being discovered. When I submitted the novel for the CWA Debut Dagger award, I wanted a more shocking and immediate opening to make the book stand out for the judges, so I added a scene where the young woman is ritually raped and murdered - written in the present tense and from the victim’s perspective. It was effective, but also put a lot of people off the book, if my Amazon reviews are anything to go by.

I wasn’t all that happy with it, either. It’s a powerful bit of writing, true, but it’s also somewhat gratuitous, written purely to grab attention. After a certain amount of discussion with my editor, we have decided to take it out - it’s only about 500 words - and revert to the original from the short story. The opening scene is included as an addendum at the end of the book for the curious and not easily shocked.
4) Your detective, DI Tony McLean has had a very traumatic life already with huge personal losses to deal with at such a young age. Why did you choose such a traumatic history for your detective? Will we be learning more of McLean’s past over future books?
Tony McLean has rather drawn the short straw in life, hasn’t he! I’m not sure why I was so cruel to him, except perhaps to show that it’s possible to deal with these things and not come out of it a complete emotional cripple. I lost both my parents in a car accident a few years back, and one of the things that struck me about it was that the world didn’t actually end. When you imagine something like that happening, it’s the worst possible thing. And it is terrible in many ways, both obvious and surprising. But when it does happen (and I sincerely hope it never happens to anyone) you still have to eat and sleep, you have to go back to work, you have to walk the dogs and feed the cows. You can either accept that and get on with it, or wither away and die.

McLean had a bit of a wobble when his fiancée was murdered ten years before the first story begins - something which is fairly central to the plot of book two in the series, ‘The Book of Souls’. His friends and colleagues helped him get through it, and he developed coping strategies. But these tragedies obviously shape his character and inform many of the decisions he makes.

As an interesting aside. that crucial incident that formed McLean’s early character came to me out of the blue whilst I was writing the first draft of ‘Natural Causes’ - one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments, or so I thought. When Stuart MacBride’s near-future thriller, ‘Halfhead’, was published in 2010, I re-read it, having read the original manuscript many years earlier. Lo and behold (and without too many spoilers, I think), Special Agent Will Hunter’s wife was murdered some years prior to the opening of the tale, something that forms a substantial part of his character. I’d forgotten most of ‘Halfhead’ by the time I was writing ‘Natural Causes’, but obviously that idea was still lurking in my subconscious.
5) ‘Natural Causes’ begins with a skeleton found in a bricked up room of an old house. How easy/difficult was it to make sure you had all the facts right to allow McLean and his team to investigate this case thoroughly and use the correct procedure and methods used by today’s police force?
To be honest, I make most of it up. There are some aspects of police procedure you need to get right - the hierarchy of ranks, the difference between plain clothes and uniform and so forth - but the vast majority of readers don’t know what actual police procedure is. And if you tried to write true procedure it would end up as a very dull book.

I try to avoid getting bogged down in details, and where necessary I infer a lot of procedure from other fiction sources - TV detective shows and other authors. This might sound like cheating, and to a certain extent it is, but I really don’t think it’s important to know that modern day uniformed officers wear black fleeces and hi-vis jackets, or that they get their boots from some particular supplier. However hard you try, you will always get something wrong and someone will always point it out.

A case in point - one incident in ‘Natural Causes’ involves a young woman jumping off North Bridge, crashing through the glass roof of Waverly Station and then being hit by the train just arriving from London. McLean and the team investigate this, but in reality it would be up to the British Transport Police to lead, liaising with Lothian and Borders where necessary. This was pointed out to me by a reader of the e-book version, but alas too late to make the first printing of the paperback. It will be corrected in later editions!

I’m more interested in characters - how they interact with each other and how they react to events - than with the minutiae of procedure. A retired detective inspector from Lothian and Borders contacted me, wanting to know who my inside source was, as he felt I’d got the management structure and internal conflict just right - he was almost fishing to find out who DCI Charles Duguid was modelled on. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d based everything on my own observations of management and office dynamics. He didn’t say anything about whether or not I’d got the procedure right, and I don’t think it was that important to him (although he did want to know where McLean’s station was - hint: it doesn’t exist.)

On the other hand, if you’re writing about Scottish policemen and women investigating Scottish crimes, you need to know a little bit about the Scottish Police - or Police Scotland as it has recently become. On April 1st (honestly) the regional Scottish police forces were all merged into one, with new divisions set up for investigating serious crime, drugs and so on. At the moment it’s all a bit of a mess and very inconvenient for us writers whose characters are based in Scotland. I’ve cheated a bit with the third book in the series, setting it just before the change, but I’m going to have to roll up my sleeves and do some proper research for the next one.
6) There is a hint of the supernatural in this book. Have you always enjoyed a dash of the supernatural in your books?
I am heavily influenced by comics, and particularly the DC Vertigo line, with titles like Swamp Thing and Hellblazer regular reads. Comics are much more open to messing with reality, introducing paranormal and superhuman elements, and I’ve always been comfortable playing around with them in my own writing.

Tony McLean first appeared in a comic script I pitched to 2000AD in the early nineties (which they didn’t buy, I hasten to add.) He was always the copper who could see things his colleagues couldn’t see, having to deal with demons and still write up the report at the end of the day. I hope to be able to develop that conflict as the series progresses - in the early books he is very much in denial about the supernatural, but eventually, reluctantly, he will have to start to accept it.

I don’t go out looking for books with a dash of the supernatural in them, particularly. Mostly I just like a good read. John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels are the most obvious examples of subtle paranormal influences at play, but crime fiction with a supernatural twist seems to be getting more popular these days - Ben Aaronovitch and Sarah Pinborough are two writers whose books I’ve enjoyed recently who I don’t think would have been published seven or eight years ago. I guess I was just ahead of my time.
7) You originally wrote Sci-Fi/Fantasy. What made you pen a crime novel?
See my earlier answer - It’s all Stuart’s fault! I’ve read a bit of crime and some thrillers over the years, and I enjoy the best of them as I enjoy any well-written tale. My dad was a great Ian Rankin fan so I picked up most of the Rebus books when he was done with them, and I went through an Agatha Christie phase as a teenager. I’m not enormously well-read in the crime fiction genre though.

Since ‘Natural Causes’, I’ve written a straight thriller with no supernatural elements in it at all, and the first three books of a fantasy series with dragons and magic in it. I’ve half-finished what might loosely be described as a literary novel (although I’m uncomfortable with genre classifications) based on my ten years living in rural Wales. I still have several comic scripts in development and would really like to try writing a film script. In short, I tend to write whatever takes my fancy at any point in time, and crime has held my interest for longer than most. My biggest problem is that there are so many writers out there I would like to read, and so little time in which to read them.
8) You interweave several cases throughout the book. Was it difficult or easy to keep a tight rein on the different strands of the story?
‘Natural Causes’ went through many, many drafts to get to the finished article, and keeping track of all the different strands is always hard. I have copious notes and frequently use a large whiteboard to try and impose order on the chaos of my thoughts. Even then I sometimes get things wrong. Perhaps one of the best things about the publishing deal is having a professional editor go over the manuscript with a microscope, pointing out all the places where I’ve lost the plot.
9) The second book of the series, ‘The Book of Souls’ will be published in the summer and I hear that you are currently writing the third in the series. Can you tell us a little of what to expect?
‘The Book of Souls’ gives us a bit more insight into Tony McLean’s past, as it comes back to haunt him with a vengeance. The third book, ‘The Hangman’s Song’, sees a new evil stalking the streets of Edinburgh, preying on the hopeless and disaffected.
10) What three crime novels would you say have made a lasting impression on you?
Not being what you might call an obsessive crime fiction reader (sorry) I’m hard-pushed to answer this. Perhaps I can cheat and mention authors, rather than specific books.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d have to say Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae books have made a huge impression on me and influenced my own writing - perhaps a bit too much although I’ve a long way to go before I’m as good as him.

RD Wingfield’s Frost books, recommended to me by Stuart, are excellent police procedurals that dwell very little on the procedure part and are much more about the interaction between the characters and their reactions to the events as they unfold. Quite unlike the TV series, I can thoroughly recommend them.

And finally stretching the question beyond breaking point, I’d say the collected series of Hellblazer (all twenty plus years and countless writers of it), featuring the anarchic modern magician and con man John Constantine. Not really crime fiction, certainly not a novel in the traditional sense, but perhaps the biggest influence and most lasting impression on me in terms of storytelling. And both Ian Rankin and Denise Mina have written Constantine stories, so that sort of counts.