James Oswald is a Scottish livetock farmer who raises pedigreed Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep. He’s also a writer with several different genres  under his belt, who happens to be friends with crime author Stuart MacBride. (MacBride writes a wonderful series featuring DS Logan McRae and several other stand-alones which Auntie M has reviewed at times; check him out.)

Oswald credits MacBride with pushing and supporting him as he turned his hand from other novels, comic scripts, an epic fantasy series, and even a travel book to writing a crime series. Readers will be happy that MacBride has such discerning taste.

Each of the first two books in Oswald’s series featuring DI Anthony MacLean have been shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award. It should be noted that in his own series, Oswald named a character DC MacBride for his friend and supporter. Ian Rankin gets a mention, and perhaps a character named Dalgliesh is an homage to P D James, although the name is of Scottish origins.

A SCOTS farmer dubbed the new Ian Rankin celebrated his six-figure crime book deal - by buying a new tractor.Natural Causes opens the series and introduces MacLean, man whose grandmother lies in a coma months after suffering a stroke. MacLean has his own demons to deal with in the form of the gruesome murder years before of his fiancee, Kirsty, killed by The Christmas Killer whom MacLean helped put behind bars.

Oswald starts off with one of the most horrifying and gripping first chapters Auntie M has read in a long time, reminiscent of Denis Mina’s early books, with powerful imagery of a grotesque act that is as haunting as the evil that MacLean seems to feel.

This is the same Edinburgh of Rankin, but vastly different in tone with the cast of recurring characters and a fantastical element that doesn’t hit the reader over the head but serves to give pause.

The killer of a prominent city elder is found less than a day after the murder and commits suicide. It appears as if this case closed itself, until  a second murder days later bears haunting similarities to the first, even though once more the murderer swiftly confesses and then kills himself. These scenes are horrifying in their own way as the reader is privy to information that eludes MacLean at first.

Meanwhile McLean is investigating the discovery of the body of a young woman who has been walled up in the basement of an old Edinburgh mansion. She had been brutally murdered, and her internal organs removed and placed around her in six preserving jars. Forensic evidence suggests this happened over sixty years ago, and MacLean’s research shows is possibly linked to an attempt to re-enact an ancient ceremony to trap a demon in the dead girl’s body, thereby conferring immortality on the six men who each took one of her organs.

McLean’s grandmother, who raised him after his parents were killed when he was a young boy, finally dies. When he’s handed the investigation of a series of unusual, violent suicides, plus that of a cat-burglar who targets the homes of the recently dead, he feels fragile and overloaded, unable to process his grief.

Then another prominent Edinburgh businessman is killed, and McLean suspects there may be a connection between the murders, the suicides and the ritual killing of the girl found in the basement as the same names repeatedly appear. What he needs is a rational explanation as to how that connection works. But how can he stop the evil force he feels is behind these coincidences?

MacLean’s supporting cast is well-drawn: Emma, the SOCO he has a loose relationship; pathologist Angus Cadwallader; his friend and old school roommate, Phil; and of course, DC MacBride. They provide a counterpoint to MacLean and feel believably drawn.  Dark Edinburgh, as conceived by James Oswald, provides an excellent setting for this crime series. The multiple plot strands all come together  to create a tight, plausible tale of murder and deception that is as unusual as it is complex.

In the second MacLean outing, The Book of Souls,  it’s the Christmas season, a particularly difficult time for MacLean, as this was when      The-Book-of-Souls

Kirsty was murdered. The manner in which MacLean found Donald Anderson is unclear; most of all, to McLean himself. Something took him to the man’s antiquarian bookshop, and something else made Anderson, the Christmas Killer, let down his guard. In a cellar under the killer’s shop, his torture chamber was found. Anderson went to prison and the yearly murders stopped.

Then Donald Anderson is murdered in prison, and MacLean knows he lies in a grave. But soon after, another young woman is found murdered in the same manner as Kirsty: naked, her body washed, her throat slit, all after being kept prisoner and raped.

Did MacLean put the wrong man behind bars? Or is this a copycat killer? In MacLean’s mind he keeps seeing Anderson on the streets of Edinburgh, but he’s seen the man’s grave and knows he’s dead and buried.

Instead of the once a year murders of Anderson, similar abductions and murders start to pile up. Facing added stress from his nemesis, DCI Duguid, MacLean is tasked with investigation a series of arson fires, and these end up including MacLean’s own tenement home.

Once again, those responsible are too close to home and perhaps too close to people MacLean is growing to care for, so the stakes are upped. The fantastical element is subtle and yet the plot has twists and turns that will make it difficult for readers to put this one down. If anything, Oswald’s second is even stronger than the first.

There are two more in this series which will be reviewed at a future date: The Hangman’s Song, and not in print until this July, Dead Men’s Bones. Auntie M can’t wait to share these with you.