Natural Causes by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 448 p

So what am I doing reading a piece of straight crime fiction?

Well, one of the good lady’s blog correspondents (far away in the USA) discovered Oswald’s writing on the internet (Natural Causes was self-published and getting good sales before Penguin took it up.) When she told us Oswald (who is a Fife farmer) would be signing copies at Kirkcaldy’s Waterstone’s the good lady offered to get her an autographed copy. We duly went along to do that and so I’ve met him. He seems a nice guy. The good lady had first dibs on the book – she reads a lot of vintage crime, not so much of the modern stuff – and when she put it down I thought I’d pick it up.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Anthony McLean has the sort of problems with his bosses and colleagues you might expect from viewing TV detective series. His back story involves the death of his parents when he was four (and, much later, of his wife.) He is assigned to the investigation of a young girl found ritually murdered in a basement. The trouble is she was killed around sixty years ago and the trail is cold. Meanwhile several high profile Edinburgh citizens are being murdered in a strange way, their killers then committing suicide. As a result McLean spends a lot of time attending autopsies.

Oswald brings all this stuff together impressively well for a first novelist. If plot is the main attraction of detective stories then this one does it admirably. At times I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre but it is less cartoonish and there are fewer jokes (for which Natural Causes is the better.) What I always find difficult about this sort of thing, though, is the high body count. Edinburgh, while a Gothic novelist’s paradise, truly isn’t that dangerous a city to live in – at least since Burke and Hare were apprehended.

Oswald has a good way with description and his characters aren’t wooden. Having McLean say, “Oh no you don’t!” twice is twice too many, though. There were also a couple of times when the connections were too apparent a bit too early and at least two continuity errors which a good proof read ought to have picked up.

The hinge of the novel is the ritual killing and any connection it might have to the present day. The hint of supernatural involvement in the ongoing deaths was for me the least convincing aspect of the whole tale. But I’m even less into that sort of stuff than I am to crime novels.

While, as you may expect from a first novel, there was the odd infelicity, Oswald clearly has talent, can hold the attention and make you turn the pages. Crime readers will certainly appreciate him. I did; and I’m not his target audience.

Things that irritate pedants section:-
Sunk:sprung count, 2:1 respectively, plus the common misuse of epicentre and a “who’s” for a “whose.” Not many considering it’s a debut novel.

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