Review: Natural Causes

James Oswald – Natural Causes

Published by Penguin, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook and audiobook. I bought this book second hand. Natural Causes was my choice for the November 2021 edition of the Bloody Scotland Book Club, and you can watch the panel discussion on the festival’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORhmVOxZmg

First, the official blurb: A young girl’s mutilated body is discovered in a sealed room. Her remains are carefully arranged, in what seems to have been a cruel and macabre ritual, which appears to have taken place over 60 years ago. For newly appointed Edinburgh Detective Inspector Tony McLean this baffling cold case ought to be a low priority – but he is haunted by the young victim and her grisly death. Meanwhile, the city is horrified by a series of bloody killings; deaths for which there appears to be neither rhyme nor reason, and which leave the police at a loss. McLean is convinced that these deaths are somehow connected to the terrible ceremonial killing of the girl, all those years ago. It is an irrational, almost supernatural theory. And one which will lead McLean closer to the heart of a terrifying and ancient evil…

A friend of mine nagged me to read James Oswald’s Tony McLean books, and I wish I could remember who it was so I could thank them! I’ve reviewed several previous ones on the blog – What Will Burn, Bury Them Deep, Cold As The Grave – and had the privilege of hosting James as a Five By Five Interview guest in February. There will be reviews of All That Lives, the latest McLean, and Nowhere To Run, the third in the Con Fairchild series, at some future point, but for today I’m stepping back to the start after rereading Natural Causes as my choice for the Bloody Scotland Book Club in November.

DI Tony McLean started life in a comics script, but while that version saw ghosts, the novel version is more Scully than Mulder – though sometimes he has to believe what he’s told and what he’s seeing in front of him, his job demands the sceptic side is in control.  The reader is free to be sceptical or believe as they wish, but if grey areas, nuances and supernatural possibilities are not something you are open to, you may not love this series as much as I do.

The series is set in Edinburgh, but it’s a very different city to that of Doug Johnstone, Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and other writers, taking us to little-visited woods, a former asylum, Gilmerton Cove and other intriguing spots. There is also often an unsettling jumping-off point, from the legend of cannibal Sawney Bean to a Middle Eastern djinn being brought to the city.

But at its heart it is a series in which awful things happen to ordinary people, and McLean and his team endeavour to bring justice. The corrosive effects of power, and how those with it use it to manipulate others, is a recurring theme, with McLean battling to protect the ordinary, the vulnerable, the underdog. There’s a strong and satisfying sense of justice needing to be done in the series which appeals to me – it just happens to come with a side order of the odd.

Natural Causes begins with, in quick succession, McLean at a crime scene, bloody and violent, and then a portrait of the McLean his work colleagues don’t see but which the reader can’t help be drawn to. Then we have a neat reminder of Edinburgh’s divisions: a burglary victim with a safe full of share certificates, and a body found by builders on a site in the less than salubrious Sighthill area. The pathologist believes the girl has been dead for around 50 years – her hands nailed to the floor, her internal organs removed. The floor, in what had been a hidden room til the sledgehammers broke down a wall, has symbols around the body.  This was a ritual killing. So is there more being disturbed by the room being opened up than just the body? As McLean says at one point: “Just because demons don’t exist, it doesn’t mean someone can’t believe in them enough to kill.”

Then there’s a second murder of a wealthy citizen; the case closed quickly after a suspect is identified – but it’s rather too conveniently tidied up to McLean. A link between the rich male victims is found, and the high society burglar is apprehended. But is there someone else linked to these victims? Then a teenage girl goes missing and everything moves up several gears. And then McLean learns the hardest of hard ways that his actions have consequences, and it may not be him who pays…

The style is quiet and unhurried; the several plot strands are by turns brought to the fore then left to simmer in the background; the characters are rounded, with humour and tension well placed, and feel like people you might bump into on the street. (Most memorably, we are introduced to Madame Rose, who becomes a recurring character. There’s caricature to her depiction, but underneath that theatricality is a character full of warmth and drawn with empathy.) 

We start with the trope of a male cop standing over the naked body of a young woman, but are then thrust into a plot where most of the victims (and there are enough to make a Taggart scriptwriter blush) are male. A neat shift from a thoughtful writer. There is also plenty of action and tension, but also just about enough moments for the reader to catch a breath and process what has happened. McLean’s background and personality are slowly revealed, and items familiar from later in the series are brought together: the house in an elegant part of the city; the Alfa Romeo car; the fondness for a takeaway curry, and Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. It’s always a treat to re-read a book and remind yourself of what seeds were planted so long ago.

Both the current and the cold cases are solved and resolved, and the reader is left satisfied – well, apart from the fact that all I wanted to do on closing the covers of this one was brew a fresh cup of tea and settle down with book two, and carry on through the series all over again.

James Oswald is the author of the bestselling Inspector McLean series, and the DC Constance Fairchild series. James’s first two Tony McLean books, Natural Causes and The Book Of Souls, were shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award. The Damage Done and Bury Them Deep were longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, as was the first Con Fairchild book, No Time To Cry. He also created the fantasy series, The Ballad Of Sir Benfro. James farms Highland cattle by day, and writes disturbing fiction by night.

Follow him on Twitter (with lots of coo pics) here: @SirBenfro
Find his website at: http://jamesoswald.co.uk/

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