Natural Causes is a self-published crime novel by James Oswald, an author whose main job is farming, and a triumph for do-it-your-self writing (it was short-listed for the CWA Debut Dagger).
Set in Edinburgh it’s about Inspector McLean’s investigation of a decades old ritual murder, which seems to tie in with some present day mayhem, as a spate of killings afflicts some of the city’s high end residents. The story grabs your ears and makes you stare at it from the start, with a murder so foul you cant help looking, even if through screwed-tight eyes. McLean is an entirely sympathetic character (which is not necessarily a must for me as I like the devil Pete Bondurant in James Ellroy’s deranged novels) who has to solve a number of cases, while helping, and getting obstructed by, an incompetent superior who despises him and a station chief with one eye on politics. I like how his past is slowly revealed throughout, to show a tragically familiar, but not cliched, protagonist.
The story is fast paced, but the occasional reflective scene lets the story breathe, giving it soul, and later shredding your nervous system in fear for the man. The murders are gruesome, and their reasons satisfying, the plot structured beautifully. You’ll see the ending, but then you won’t.
I’d read, before downloading it, that it had elements of the supernatural, which put me off a little. Not knowing the fine points I dreaded a psychic detective who solved it all by contrived visions. Or, God help us, with a hand from vampires. Thankfully, it’s subtle, and it leaves you guessing. Ambiguity is often far more chilling – just look at how more unsettling The Others is than the Saw films.
The only criticism I have, and I’ll tread carefully here as my novel sees the light of day, is the number of typos, of which there are a few. However, the story is so strong, up there with the best of Rebus, that you can forgive it all. As many have – the book has been downloaded over 100,000 times, and has tons of five star ratings.
It’s 5 out of 5 without typos. With the typos, it’s still 5/5. I can’t wait to read the follow up Book of Souls.
Overall, I recommend it if you love character-driven crime fiction and love that sense of dread in a story. It’s not recommended if you like the supernatural to get in your face.