Saturday, 1 February 2014

Book Review: "Natural Causes" by James Oswald

When a young girl's disembowelled and mummified body is found nailed to the floor of an old house in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector McLean is assigned the case. It soon becomes clear that the girl died sixty years before. But if that is true, then why are similar murders occurring?

I bought this book on an impulse; it was on a display stand whilst I was queuing to buy another couple of books. The front cover proclaimed it to be a Richard & Judy Book club winner, and that it was by "The new Ian Rankin"

I see the latter as high praise indeed, so I bought it and started reading. And yes, the book could almost have been written by Rankin. It is set in contemporary Edinburgh, and features a newly-promoted Detective Inspector, Anthony McLean.

Sadly, Mr Oswald does not manage to get the same 'feel' of Edinburgh that Rankin does. Rankin treats the city as if it was a living creature, and manages to perfectly capture the soul of the city he loves. In comparison, this book seems to present a more one-dimensional view of the city and its people. Despite this, it was a very good effort.

As usual with such central detectives, he has a tragic history which is slowly unveiled: his parents died when he was four, and his fiancée was tragically murdered before their marriage. Also like many detectives, he argues with his superior officers, is unattached and not particularly interested in a partner. And as is also common, he has a partner (or at least sex) before the end.

The book also features lots of crimes. There are at least a dozen deaths, all singular, many of which are disembowlings. Add in a kidnapping and a hit-and-run, and you probably have more murders than occur in Edinburgh in a year. And yet the investigating officers (excepting the hero) do not link the deaths.

Interestingly, the author's text at the end of the book, and reader's comments, imply that the first chapter in this paperback edition is not the same as in earlier hardback editions - he has significantly altered it. The original is now reproduced at the back. If this is correct, then it is an interesting course to take: which one is the real story? This matters, as the original first chapter was a much darker beast - it put many people off reading the book, which is why he changed it.

In terms of prose, this book is better than Rankin's worst Rebus books, but worse than Rankin at his best. Although that might sound backhanded, it is meant as a compliment


**** Spoiler ***

Despite the above, this book was a real disappointment. Everything about the cover screams moody, dark crime novel, with heinous deeds waiting to be solved by an intrepid detective, preferably along with a gullible sidekick. And that's exactly the way "Natural Causes" starts. Unfortunately the supernatural starts to creep in, until eventually the culprit turns out to be a demon.

Such genre shifts are tricky to pull off. The reader has had turkey for the Christmas dinner, and instead of a nice fruit-filled Christmas pudding for dessert, he gets an ice-cream sundae. Some will enjoy it, but others will feel let down.

In my case, I felt let down. I have read other detective stories where, midway through the tome, the plot points towards a supernatural cause, only for a very rational explanation to come through in the end. They can be tremendous fun as you try and work out how a seemingly inexplicable crime has been committed. As I was reading this book I was considering all the possible drugs, mental illnesses or threats that could explain the crimes. In the end, as the blurb says, it is the most irrational answer.

It would be better if it had been left open to either a natural or supernatural cause, and a quick check on Amazon shows that some people think it has. But I cannot see how the events could have unfolded as described, unless the protagonist is insane or an exceptionally unreliable narrator. Using the supernatural entity as the criminal is also a lazy way to write - you can get away with anything. It is one of the most intrusive deus ex machina I have read for some time.

It is not that I am against supernatural crime thrillers: I loved the wit and inventiveness of Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London'. It is just that the genre shift proved much too sharp for me.

For prose, I would give this book four out of five. As a detective story, one out of five.

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