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The Book of Souls
on 26 July 2012
James Oswald's first foray into crime fiction, Natural Causes, has become a bona fide word-of-mouth hit. With over 100,000 downloads in a couple of months it dominated the Kindle free chart and received rave reviews. That all of this was achieved with no advertising campaign and a minimal online presence is testament to the quality of Oswald's work. Now he has released his second Inspector McLean novel, The Book of Souls.
Set six months on from the events of Natural Causes it finds McLean gradually coming to terms with the murder of his fiancée, not moving on but accepting the hole in his life. When Anderson - the Christmas Killer, responsible for her death - is himself killed in prison by a fellow inmate, it seems as if the demons can finally be put to rest. However, within hours of the funeral a woman's body is found, left in a culvert, bearing all the hallmarks of an Anderson victim, and McLean is faced with the prospect of a copycat continuing the man's work.
Meanwhile decommissioned factories around Edinburgh are burning down. Ten and counting, each locked up tighter than Fort Knox and stripped of combustible materials. The fire officer is at a loss as to the cause, but they keep burning and people keep dying. Are the construction companies developing the sites responsible? Or is something more sinister at work? Witnesses give strange accounts, akin to spontaneous combustion, like the buildings wanted to die. But that's just dementia and alcohol talking, surely.
As more young women turn up dead the pressure is on McLean from all angles. His boss needs a result, his psychiatrist wants to see a catharsis, and an elderly monk with some very strange ideas about a missing text from Anderson's shop, The Book of Souls, wants MacLean to understand that he is dealing with an ancient evil which can consume anyone who reads it. Our hero brushes the old man's theory aside and tries to concentrate on the facts of the case; what other explanation could there be but a copycat drawing inspiration from a high profile serial killer? Then McLean starts seeing Anderson on the streets of Edinburgh and the book builds to a genuinely shocking denouement.
Successfully weaving supernatural elements into a police procedural is a tall order and Oswald gets the balance exactly right with The Book of Souls, giving little glimpses behind the veil, just enough to make sure you're never comfortable about the outcome. As a straight crime novel it works perfectly. We have an engaging central detective in McLean - damaged but determined to survive - and a team of well-defined officers around him and plenty of sparky internal politics. The pace is fierce, the plotting tight and there's not a slack word anywhere.
Put aside any reservations you may have about self-published authors, The Book of Souls is as good as, and in fact better than, much of what the major houses have on offer. I'll be amazed if James Oswald doesn't find himself being courted by them very soon.