Iain's Leisure Reading


James Oswald - the Inspector McLean books   






In May, 2013 I read an article in the Daily Telegraph about James Oswald, a Scottish farmer about to become the next "big thing" in Scottish crime fiction - writing a series of books featuring Inspector Anthony McLean of Edinburgh. I have enjoyed reading about two other Edinburgh detectives - Inspector Rebus, by Ian Rankin, and Chief Constable Bob Skinner, by Quintin Jardine, and so I thought I would give the Inspector McLean books a go, to see what I thought.

Strangely I haven't been able to find out too much about James Oswald - he is probably not famous enough yet. He was born about 1968, and graduated from my old university (Aberdeen) in 1990. He worked on a series of farms, and then settled in rural Wales, working as an agricultural consultant. About 2008 he had just bought a house there with his partner Barbara when he got the shock news that his parents had been killed in a car accident, and that he had inherited their 350 acre farm. And so he now has a sheep and cattle farm in Scotland, overlooking the river Tay, and some 20 minutes drive south of Perth.

He had always wanted to write, but his first efforts were rejected by publishers. At the Harrogate Crime Writers Festival he got talking to the author Alan Guthrie, who suggested self publishing for the Kindle market. He had been writing fantasy books about dragons, but his friend Stuart McBride, author of the Inspector Logan McRae , books set in nearby Aberdeen suggested a switch to crime fiction. Soon he was shifting 2,000 copies a day of his first book "Natural Causes". People liked his main character Tony McLean, who combined old fashioned sleuthing with supernatural intuition. And so the main publishers started a bidding war, which was won by Penguin, and a hefty advance rescued James from tedious farm chores in bitterly cold fields. He could never give up farming, but could now afford hired help.

I am a bit wary of the supernatural element in the books - this rather put me off the early Peter James/Inspector Roy Grace books, but I'll give them a go.





Natural Causes,     (2012)


I read this book in February, 2015.

It's always interesting to read book one of a new series of crime fiction. This one features a DI in Edinburgh - DI Tony McLean. So this is the third Edinburgh detective I have read about - ie joining John Rebus, and Bob Skinner. I did like Tony McLean, and we are introduced to him in a leisurely way, picking up bits and pieces as we go. Tony lost both his parents when he was four when they died in a plane crash. (James Oswald's parents died together in a car crash). He was then brought up by a well off grandmother. The story opens with her lying in a coma in a hospital - taking 18 months to die. He then inherits her considerable wealth - but almost nothing is made of this in the opening book. He also inherits other money - so he can retire any time he wants to. As an aside, Jackson Brodie also exited book one as a millionaire.

Tony is subordinate to DCI Duguid with whom he does not get along. Above Duguid is D. Super Jayne McIntyre, a reasonably able and fair detective. Tony heads a small team comprising DS Grumpy Bob, and DC Stuart McBride - yes obviously named after Oswald's good friend, the author of the Logan McRae , books. Tony McLean had a girlfriend years ago, but Kirsty died in tragic circumstances. In this opening book, Tony takes the first steps to having a new girlfriend - Emma Blair, a SOC officer on the Edinburgh force.

So far, so good. I like the main character, and the supporting cast. And the writing is good - although James Oswald seems to be competing with the author Stuart McBride in his love for the gruesome. But, there was one very unattractive side to the story - a love of the supernatural. Here we are dealing with demonic possession - we even have Tony McLean chatting to the evil spirit towards the end of the book. This spoiled an otherwise attractive book.

The story flashes back to the brutal rape and cruxifiction of a young girl some 60 years ago. Her body is found when an old house is being renovated. The body is surrounded by signs of the occult, some hidden from all except Tony McLean ! Now, 60 years later, a series of similarly gruesome deaths take place, each followed by the apparent suicide of the murderer. DCI Duguid is in charge of the investigation, but of course, it is McLean who gets all the breakthroughs, further alienating McLean and Duguid. Is Tony McLean discovering these clues through "second sight" ?

I also liked the pathologist, Cadwaller, a dry old stick, and Tony's friend.

80% of the book is good, but let down for me, by the 20% supernatural. I have already got the next 3 books in the series, so I'll read on.






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The Book of Souls,     (2012)


I read this book in May, 2015.

I read this book whilst on holiday in Fuengirola, in Spain in May, 2015. It's nice to read of cold places when on holiday enjoying 27 degrees C weather.

"The Book of Souls" is book two in the series featuring DI Tony McLean of Edinburgh police. I read about 8 books a month, usually from well known, high selling crime fiction series. Most are at least OK / good, but sometimes I come across a book or a series just that little bit better. I think this is going to be such a series.

It's a strong cast - DI Tony McLean, DS Grumpy Bob Laird, DC Stuart Macbride (yes, the author of the Logan McRae books is a good friend), and SOC officer Emma Baird. Emma and Tony are sort of linked romantically, but mostly Tony refuses to commit and treats Emma almost with indifference. We now find out why. Ten years ago, a young DC Tony McLean's beloved fiance Kirsty Summers was the final victim of the Christmas Killer. Hers had been a wicked cruel, tortured death. Tony caught the killer, and watched him sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Christmas Killer was one Donald Anderson. Now, 10 years later, Anderson is killed by a fellow prison inmate, and McLean attends the burial . A local DS Richie from Grampian police asks Tony who he might be. This same DS now transfers to Edinburgh police, and becomes one of the gang. Her first name is Kirsty, but Tony can't bear to call her that. Even 10 years later he has not got over the loss of his deloved Kirsty.

Tony McLean's immediate superior is DCI Duguid (Dagwood), and Tony and Dagwood simply don't get on. Higher up still is D Super. Jayne McIntyre, who is a good police officer, and friend to Tony when he needs one.

The story is about a new mass killer who has taken over from and is copying the Christmas Killer. There is talk in the press that perhaps the police got the wrong man in convicting Donald Anderson. Inspector McLean knows he got the right man ! Its now a 100% effort to catch the "new" killer before he strikes agqain - but sadly his final female victim is once again someone very near to home for Tony McLean.

There is quite a fair bit of the supernatural in this story. There is mumbo jumbo about a book that reads your soul, and if you are found wanting, takes over your being. And there is a strange old monk. But the supernatural element is not overdone, and I didn't mind too much. But I would prefer if James Oswald could tone down these elements.

Book one opened with Tony McLean's grandmother in a coma in hospital, and he visited her most days for 18 months. She never regained consciousness, but died, leaving her fortune to Tony. Tony McLean is a very rich man - he doesn't need to work for a living. I like symmetry, and this book ends with someone else in hospital in a coma, and Tony probably is going to visit hospital every day once again.

It's a very well written book, lot's of tension, and it builds to an explosive climax at the end. There is also a reference to Ian Rankin , the leader of the pack of Scottish crime writers. I liked it all. It's a terrific read, and a real page turner. Roll on the the next in the series. Will there be a Tony / Emma Baird / Kirsty Richie love triangle ? Finally, Tony seems to have acquired a cat - like Elvis Cole, the LA detective.






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The Hangman's Song,     (2014)


I read this book in May, 2015.

"The Hangman's Song" is book three in the series featuring DI Tony McLean of Edinburgh police, and it's another cracker of a book. I am really enjoying this series - even though I don't really like the supernatural bits. There are quite a lot of these strange "happenings" but what softened the blow for me was that Tony McLean himself doesn't believe in the supernatural. He says, and I paraphrase "Evil is an adjective, not a noun. I catch evil people who do evil things, and the law punishes them. Evil is not a being that stalks the land, possesses people, and forces then to do terrible things."

All the gang are here again, bar one. Tony, his sort of "girlfriend" Emma, his police colleagues grumpy DS Bob Laird, young DC Stuart MacBride, and DS Kirsty Richie. D Super Jayne MacIntyre has been promoted / seconded to the Police Scotland project, and Tony's protagonist DCI Duguid (Dagwood) is temporary acting superintendent and in charge. Poor Tony has been transferred to help out a shortstaffed Vice Squad working for Jo Dexter, an old friend of his, but it seems he still has to do his former job too. So there are lots of stories to follow - in Vice, who killed the pimp Malky Jennings, is DS Buchanan corrupt as well as useless, etc, and in his old job, are a series of apparent suicides linked, and what is going on, who or what is persuading people to commit suicide.

In his personal life, Emma has come out of a coma after three months, but has a peculiar kind of amnesia, and has regressed almost to her childhood. Tony has taken her in, and has hired a carer (Jenny Nairn) to look after her, but Emma creeps into his bed each night like a child into a parents bed, whimpering and shaking with terrible nightmares. We meet Madam Rose, a transvestite medium, who knows Tony McLean and wants to help Emma. And there is a stange presence at work possessing depressed people, getting them to strip naked, put a hemp noose around their necks, and jump.

Tony is overworked, but can't get a good night's sleep because Emma is keeping him awake each night, Dagwood is impossible as well as incompetent, and Tony's wealth (an inheritance from his grandmother) causes envy in his work colleagues (not Bob, Stuart, Kirsty of course), some of whom are playing tricks on him / want him to resign. But Tony is thrawn and stubborn - the more they want him to quit, the more he wants to hang on.

It's a terrific story that builds to a huge climax. There is another book in the series, so I am not giving anything away when I say that Tony survives, but it looks as if Tony and Emma must part - perhaps temporarily, and Tony will need time to recover. So, it will be interesting to see where everyone will be when the next book opens.

Finally, Tony's cat. It was a neighbour's cat - Mrs McCutcheon- and the cat seems to be devoted to, and very protective of Emma. It reminds me of Sonsie, Hamish Macbeth's cat. Madam Rose refers to Mrs McCutcheon's cat as Emma's familiar. I hope it survives into the next book.






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Dead Men's Bones,     (2014)


I read this book in June, 2015.

This is book four in the Inspector Tony McLean series, set in Edinburgh. It is bang up to date in that Tony no longer works for Edinburgh, nor Midlothian police, but the amalgamated Police Scotland. He now reports to D Super Duguid, and usually he and Duguid (Dagwood) don't get on, but Dagwood is almost on Tony's side in parts of this story. Grumpy Bob, Stuart MacBride, Kirsty Ritchie are all still here again too.

It's a well written series with lots of good characters, but I don't share James Oswald's love of the supernatural. It's sort of kept in check in these books, but we all know what the subtext is. Tony seems to atract wierdness, and this usually puts him, and his colleagues at great risk. Tony is a very wealthy man, but there seems to be less envy in the police station, and the series of tricks and jokes played on Tony seem to have abated.

Tony's girlfriend Emma is still touring the world, trying to cure herself, and get her old self back. Tony gets a series of postcards from Emma saying she is slowly getting there, but that it is a slow process - very slow. I wonder if she will be back in the next book ?

The story is about a rich MP Andrew Weatherly who seems to have lost his mind, has killed his two young daughters, then his wife, and then shot himself. The high profile case is given to lowly DI Tony McLean. He is definitely being set up for failure.

The powers on high at the police force want a quick verdict, and Tony is told to prepare a report for the procurator fiscal stating Andrew Weatherly did it. He is told not to investigate why he did it. But is seems McLean may have been chosen because he just cannot leave it at that. And even when Tony finds this out, he still cannot leave it at that. He has to dig deeper.

Tony is also working on a case of a battered corpse recovered from a river - the corpse of a male, completely covered in full body tatoos, and recently done. What is the story here ? And of course, we know that the two cases will eventually turn out to be related.

We also meet the mysterious Mrs Saifre, radiating sexual allure, but how old is she ?

Lots of wierd things happen. Tony is not religious, but he does accept that there may be powers at work that he cannot comprehend. Is he dealing with the devil, and if so, how can he fight that.

It's all terribly far fetched - but the possibility of rational explanation is always left open. The strange wierdness may be only in Tony's mind as he tries to make sense of what seems to be happening. I think this helps James Oswald get away with pitching Tony McLean against "supernatural " forces.

It all sort of works, and I like the series.






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Prayer For The Dead,     (2015)


I read this book in September, 2015.

This is book five in the excellent series about DI Tony McLean of Edinburgh, and his crew - grumpy DS Bob, DS Kirsty Ritchie, and DC Stuart MacBride. I like the series even though it is riddled with a strong supernatural element that I don't really care for. What makes it acceptable is that few of the main characters, and especially Tony McLean, believe in the supernatural. I think Kirsty is wavering, though - she knows that Tony saved her life by an "alternative" treatment that he won't disclose. Madam Rose, the transvestite, plays a main part in this book. Although she also has hidden resources, here she is under attack from an unknown source (one of her cats is killed), and one night she turns up at Tony's new house asking for refuge. This Tony gives with pleasure. Later in the book, Madam Rose tells Tony that he has earned her gratitude, and her resources are his to call upon should he ever feel the need. I wonder when that favour will be called in ?

There is a terrific main story, but there are also so many other things happening that the book is jam packed incidents and surprises. Once I picked the book up, I simply had to carry on reading to see what happened next.

The main story concerns a couple of bizarre murders by a serial killer / insane lunatic, who talks to us, the readers. He is delusional, and thinks he can see peoples' souls. When he finds a perfect soul he feels it is his mission in life to kill these people to preserve their perfection before they might become sullied. It's ridiculous, but suspend your disbelief, and go with the flow. Ben Stevenson, the gutter press reporter, is his first victim. Although he has trashed the police and also Tony's friends, Tony still thinks that his murder must be solved as quickly as possible. In this Tony has a surprise ally - Ben's reporter colleague Jo Dalgleish. Surprisingly Jo and Tony work together reasonably well.

Another story line is one where two shady property developers try to force Tony to sell his old tenement property to them - but he just wants his flat restored. Tony still has to put up with lots of unpleasantness at work from D Sup. Duguid, and DCI Brooks. Stuart Macbride is also now being picked upon - let's hope he is as stubborn as Tony, and does not let the bullies drive him out the force. I had thought that Kirsty might be a future love interest for Tony, and that might still be the case, but here she has the start of a romance with a curate at the church just down the road from Tony's. Sadly there is not a happy ending (yet) for Kirsty and the curate.

Finally ex Super Jayne MacIntyre reappears as a demoted DI - she had made a mistake, but was pillaried in the press and exposed by Ben Stevenson for being a lesbian.

A fuller summary of all that is going on would probably put you off the book - it would put me off too. But somehow, all the nonsense works. It's great story telling. I look forward to the next episode to see what happens to everyone, and will Tony's girlfriend Emma finally return to Edinburgh cured, or at least reasonably at peace ?






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The Damage Done,     (2016)


I read this book in September, 2016.

This is book six in James Oswald's series about Edinburgh detective DI Tony McLean. As usual, James Oswald thanks his friend Stuart MacBride for suggesting that he give up writing dragon fantasy books, and turn his hand to crime - but this time he admits to only half following the advice. Straight away we come to the one aspect of these books with which I am uncomfortable - the supernatural, and wierdness that usually surrounds Tony McLean. There is no problem at all when it is just suggested, but can be dismissed. Here though, it does go a bit further, and it almost spoiled the book for me. Otherwise it's a terrific read, with strong characters, a good plot, and a fascinating crime.

We are introduced to a wierd pair of mysterious twins - Alice and Iain - who appear throughout the book, exude a strange hypnotic aura, and bring death with them.

D Super. Duguid has retired, and promoted D Super Brooks is now in charge, with his bully buddy DCI Spence. Both hate Tony McLean, so he has got in first, and transferred out to the vice (CSU)squad, working for DCI Jo Dexter whom he likes and respects. DS Kirsty Ritchie has also transferred. Later she will be made up to acting DI, of equal rank to Tony, and he will even manage to call her by her first name, Kirsty - you need to know Tony's history to appreciate why up to now, he has always found that difficult. Based on strong evidence Jo and Tony's team raid an up market Edinburgh brothel, but find instead a private party - guests of a high up corporate lawyer Heather Marchmont. Tony thinks he knows Heather from somewhere, but he cannot quite place where.

Meanwhile a wierd death is being investigated by Tony' old team, and Tony turns up to "help" - so we meet grumpy Bob again, and Jayne MacIntyre, and DS Stuart MacBride. All familiar characters, and it's nice to keep in touch. Tony is not exactly welcomed by some - Brooks, Spence and a new DCC - but as always, he won't be warned off in spite of a very well connected cover up. So Tony gets transferred once again - this time to a cold case section, where Duguid is working, post retirement. Soon Tony is working on three separate cases - which of course will turn out to be connected. Strangely, the very first case that Tony worked on a fresh PC recruit was the Headland's House raid that was also covered up. Tony had found and rescued a young girl from a cage in the attic. Duguid was in charge of the raid, and to his credit, hated to be warned off. His return to the cold case section may enable this old case to be re examined. Surprisingly, Duguid and MacLean are now allies !

Tony's private life is still a bit of a lonely mess. He still sleeps in the small bedroom of the huge mansion that he inherited from his grandmother - and searches the post each evening for a postcard or news from Emma, but there has been nothing for ages. Meanwhile Phil, Tony's best friend is still in the States, but his wife Rachael turns up back in Edinburgh, very pregnant. Tony puts her up - he has plenty of room - and tries to get in contact with Phil. Soon the house is full of life with Phil back, and Jenny visiting her sister Rachael. There is food in the house, and a good home cooked meal waiting for Tony. When did take away curry Tony last have a home cooked meal? Tony and Jenny seem to be hitting it off - is Tony's luck about to change ?

At the every end, when Tony has the house to himself again, but is shattered mentally and physically by his latest battles, he calls Jenny, wanting company. He hears a car on the drive, and goes to let Jenny in, but ...................... Just like buses, none for ages, and then two turn up at the same time. We simply must read on to find out what happens next - roll on the next book say I !

It's a great series - don't let the supernatural put you off.






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Written in Bones,     (2017)


I read this book in August, 2017.

This is book seven in James Oswald's series about Edinburgh detective DI Tony McLean. It's a good straight forward crime series with a strong and interesting main detective, but it adds an element of the supernatural that I don't really like. Up to now it has not been too obtrusive - it's been suggested, and hinted at, but could be ignored and set aside. Now its getting too strong to dismiss, it's really spoiling the series, and this is a great shame. I started the write up to book six by referring to a preface to the book where James Oswald thanked his friend Stuart MacBride for suggesting that he give up writing dragon fantasy books, and turn his hand to crime. He added the joke that he only half followed this advice. Now we have in book seven almost "dragon fantasy meets crime fiction". This is the one aspect of these books with which I am uncomfortable - the supernatural, and wierdness that usually surrounds Tony McLean. There is no problem at all when it is just suggested, but can be dismissed. Now though, in books six and seven it does go too far, and it spoiled the book for me. I say it's a pity, because otherwise it's a terrific read, with strong characters, a good plot, and a fascinating crime.

As a second preamble to this write up, I would like to thank a Mr J.D.Dyer, a semi retired cattle farmer in the States, who got in touch with me with a very interesting question. I love it when someone gets in touch ! Anyway, he had noticed that the police character "Stuart MacBride" had disappeared from the gang of Tony's colleagues - did I know why ? I had to confess my ignorance, but I wrote back saying that Scotland is a small country and all it's crime writers must surely know each other well. What probably started off as a joke might eventually wear thin, and it would possibly leave James Oswald in an awkward position if he wanted to do terrible things to the "Stuart MacBride" character in some story. Perhaps it was just simpler to drop the character from the book. There was one reference to him when Tony and new detective DC Janie Harrison visited Bo Inks Tatoo Parlour. Eddie there asked "Hang on. What happened to the wee ginger lad you had with you last time ?" Reply :- "He moved on, which means I have to break in a new detective constable. Be nice to her, OK ?"

And now to what I thought of the book - it's main plot, and the further episode about what is happening in Tony's private life. In the main plot it's Tony's first day back after 3 months suspension, psych evaluation and interviews with Professional Standards. But it's not a quiet day. A small boy finds a body dangling from some trees in a park. The body had been dropped from the skies, and the terrified wee lad fled thinking he had seen a dragon which was after him. Of course we know there are no such things as dragons, and there are lots of jokes about Police Scotland and dragon hunts. As damage and giant claw marks appeared I thought it was all just James Oswald's love of hinting about wierd happenings, especially as one other reliable ex pilot witness said he definitely smelled aviation fuel when the so called dragon flew over. But the dragon theme reappears and we are not sure what we are meant to believe. Is it a wicked manifestation of evil, or just delirium in Tony's drugged state ? The dead body in the trees was that of a former senior police superintendent Chalmers who was drummed out of the force and jailed for selling drugs, but on release apparently reformed and set up clinics to help druggies kick the habit.

So the story is about drug crime, and the evil fabulously rich people who exercise great control. Sadly we meet once again an arch enemy of Tony's - the "witch" like "soceress" Mrs Saifre. And now truly we are in the realm of the supernatural and in short its not "my cup of tea".

It's an interesting book for all the further developments in Tony's private life. As hinted at the very end of book six, Tony's girlfriend Emma has returned at long last. After the fearful happenings of the earlier books she had left to try to find her "soul". She has aged terribly and her hair is mostly grey, but there are occasional glimpses of the old Emma, and with his 3 months suspension, Tony and Emma have had time to get to know each other again. Happily they still care for each other, and although Emma has serious relapes, at the very end of the book there is a happy ending which I will not spoil. As Mr Dyer noticed there are lots of new characters in the story - after 3 months away Tony is amazed at all the new faces. But there are lots of a old faces too (just no Stuart MacBride). The chief new face is Tony's new assistant DC Janie Harrison. It's now acting DI Kirsty Richie, Grumpy Bob is still there, and DCI Spence and Superintendent Brooks still hate Tony. Ex Super (Dagwood) Duguid is still in the Cold Case Unit but surprisingly Tony and Dagwood are now almost in harmony. Not all these characters make it to the end of the book. Reporter Dalgleish is still as well informed as usual - she finds it safer to go "missing". The pathologist is still Tony's friend Cadwaller. And talking of friends, Tony's chums Phil, and his wife Rachel, and baby are all back on the scene. DCI Jane McIntyre is the friend Tony turns to for help at work and Mrs McCutcheon's cat still guards Tony in ways we probably don't know about.

In short, I loved the story, I like the private life back plot, but there is now far too much of the supernatural. I won't give up on the series yet.






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