The Edinburgh police procedural is tough terrain for a debut author. The comparative literature in the police detective segment is as celebrated as any series in British crime fiction and so James Oswald has his work cut out.
In my idle moments I imagine Rebus slouching into an Edinburgh pub and confronting the newcomer - Oswald's Detective Inspector Tony McLean - with a gruff, "this is my patch, son".
Oswald proves, however, in Natural Causes that Edinburgh is more than big enough for both of them. His first novel, an online publishing sensation before Penguin stepped in to present it to the traditional market next month, takes the best elements of a procedural and ties them into a fascinating plot with promising characters and a narrative pace that never lets up.
Tony McLean, newly called to the ranks of Detective Insepctor, is called in to investigate the discovery of a young woman's mutilated corpse in the locked room of a long forgotten house. The body, which has been in situ untouched for decades appears to have been arranged as part of a cruel ritual.
McLean is handed this coldest of cases while his immediate superior DCI Duguid investigates a spate of vicious, inexplicable killings of old men, many of them notable Edinburgh citiizens. Duguid clearly does not appreciate having the youngster on his patch and the clashes between the two men - refereed by Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre - are among the most enjoyable passages in the book.
And it is largely the strong characters that carry the book. McLean himself is the anti-genre copper. He's an independently wealthy, well-educated, charming and largely calm man who appears to have no destructive relationships with addictive substances. His sidekicks, Constable Stuart MacBride and the sergeant Grumpy Bob (the nickname is used consistently and somewhat annoyingly throughout the book) are well drawn and the cast of supporting characters including the pathologist Angus Cadwallader and some of McLean's friends add a little zest to the dialogue.
If the writing is a little ragged in places and if some of the scenes feel just a little too over-engineered, it's of no great detriment to the whole. Overall, Natural Causes is a highly enjoyable read and a promising addition to the crime fiction fold. A sequel, The Book Of Souls (review to follow, but better than the first) is to be published in July with a welcome third to follow.
In an interview with Oswald, published at Crime Fiction Lover, the author explains that he did not promote his work through social media during its amazing rise up the bestseller charts because, 'Im just not very good at blowing my own trumpet'.
Well, I have no hesitation in doing that here: If you like Rankin, you'll like Oswald.