In this the third in the DI McLean series from James Oswald, the DI has been seconded to the Sexual Crimes Unit (SCU) and so finds himself working on some harrowing cases such as the death of a pimp and two suspicious suicides.
Set in Edinburgh like the earlier books in the series, you really have to have read the first ones to fully understand some of the references or at least to understand the development of the characters as more is revealed of DI McLean in particular which is very interesting.
The Hangman’s Song picks up pretty much where the Book of Souls left off and it grabs you with the scruff of your neck. But this trip to Edinburgh is murkier and more gritty that the others. It’s raw and graphic in places so not for the faint hearted. And DI McLean is understandably a bitter man.
The supernatural aspect to the book is what makes it perfect that it is set in Edinburgh so you should definately go on a ghost hunt or just to walk the same streets that McLean does at night to feel the fear.
A lot of the characters are going through changes and so is the police department so everything is up in the air which provides for even more chaos in McLean’s life.
Another great chilling trip to Edinburgh’s darkest and dingiest streets
Sitting with James here with a steaming cup of coffee and his books – now where were we…a few more questions if I may……ahh yes….
6. How do you create your characters and where does McLean come from?
I tend not to base my characters on people I know, so much as steal individual traits and mash them together to form someone new. I might, when writing a scene, consider how my younger brother might react in that situation and use that as a template. I have stolen a few names of friends – notably DC Stuart MacBride – although Professor Matt Hilton in The Book of Souls was created before I’d ever heard of, let alone met the thriller writer of the same name.
I don’t really know where McLean comes from – there’s undoubtedly bits of me in him, but he’s more than that. I first used him as a character in a comic script I wrote over twenty years ago, and he’s been in several other stories since, each time changing a little, his character slowly developing to fit new ideas and stories.
7. I enjoyed the supernatural ingredient to the police procedural one. Why did you want to write and mix both?
Probably because I didn’t know better? I started off writing comics, and reading far too many of them as well. Titles like Hellblazer, Swamp Thing and Sandman were my favourites, and all of them to some extent blend supernatural elements with the everyday.
What I didn’t know, when I first embarked on the story that would become Natural Causes, was how resistant to genre mixing the publishing industry was at the time. That book, and its follow-up, The Book of Souls, were both short listed for the CWA Debut Dagger award, something that usually gets publishers very interested indeed. My experience was almost universally one of ‘we like the writing, but can’t see a market for the mixed genres.’
I find the whole concept of genre profoundly irritating and unhelpful. I read a wide variety of different authors, and don’t really care if it’s a historical novel, something ‘literary’ (and there’s a can of worms best left unopened), hard science fiction or anything else. The only thing that I’m interested in is a good story well told.
8. How do you spread your time between writing and farming? It’s quite an unusual mix.
I’m at my most productive, writing-wise, in the evening. Farming is an activity that takes place mostly during daylight hours. I try to get the bulk of the daily farming jobs – checking and feeding livestock, mainly – done in the morning, giving me the afternoon to edit and the evening to write.
There are times when the farm demands more of my attention – sorting lambs for selling, dosing animals for worms and so on. These tend to be non-writing days, as by the time I’ve been working manually for twelve hours, sitting at the computer for another four tends to be unproductive!
I don’t get to watch a lot of telly these days, and I’ve not been to the cinema in a while either. Now that the books have been far more successful than I could have dreamed, I can afford to hire help in for some of the more time-intensive farming jobs and concentrate more on the writing. I’ve just signed a new deal with Penguin for another three McLean books, and they want one every six months, so I’ll be contracting out a lot more of the farming in the next eighteen months!
9. Tell us a little about the next installment of Inspector McLean – The Hangman’s Song
I wouldn’t want to give too much away! The story revolves around a series of suicides, seemingly unlinked and yet too similar to be coincidental. Already under pressure from dealing with the fallout at the end of The Book of Souls, Tony McLean is put under even greater strain as he struggles to investigate these suicides despite being told to do only a basic investigation and wrap everything up quickly. At the same time, he is on secondment to the Sexual Crimes Unit, investigating the strange case of a group of young prostitutes being trafficked out of the city and back to Europe. His team has been split up, too, adding to the stress, so it’s hardly surprising that he starts to make bad decisions.
10. Have you always been interested in books about gruesome murders and which writers inspire you?
I sort of stumbled into writing crime fiction by accident. I’ve know Stuart MacBride since long before either of us were published. We used to give each other critiques of our manuscripts, and collaborated on a comic strip a very long time ago. Like me, Stuart was writing SF and Urban Fantasy novels, but was advised by his agent at the time to write something contemporary – the result being Cold Granite, the first of his phenomenally successful Logan McRae series of Aberdeen based crime thrillers.
Stuart passed on the advice to me, and persuaded me to go to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, back in 2006. I knew very few people there, but found all the writers really friendly and supportive – even people I have subsequently discovered to be big names. I came away from the festival determined to have a go, and dusted off an old character I’d come up with many years earlier – Detective Inspector Tony McLean. He’d been a supporting character in that comic script Stuart and I had collaborated on, and I’d used him in a couple of other novels as the token policeman. This time I decided to give him his own starring role, and the result was Natural Causes.
Because I’d not been a massive fan of crime fiction, my knowledge of the genre was limited to a few of Ian Rankin’s books, some Agatha Christie when I was young, the Hardy Boys, of course, and all of Stuart MacBride’s novels, which I’d read as early drafts. I’d also picked up and enjoyed RD Wingfield’s Frost novels, but apart from taking some cues from them, I don’t think I could say I was inspired by them. My major influences are from comics, fantasy and SF. Writers like Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, John Wagner, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis are probably my biggest inspiration.
11. At a dinner party on your farm – which 4 writers would you invite living or dead and why?
That’s a thorny one. Only four? Who will I offend by not inviting them? Alas, all-too-recently dead, I would have loved to have been able to spend some time with Iain Banks, so he’d certainly be on the list, as would Neil Gaiman (may he not be dead for very many years yet). I think JK Rowling would be an excellent dinner guest, and since she was a great friend of my grandfather, perhaps Dorothy L Sayers could make up the numbers.
Thanks so much James. Really enjoyed chatting with you. It’s been a pleasure
Thank you first of all for your kind interest in wanting to do this interview and for taking the time to answer the questions with such interesting answers. I have hungrily read both of your books and promptly jumped on a train in order to do the book trail! I thought I knew Edinburgh well having lived there as a student but, oh no, I hadn’t experienced it through the eyes of Inspector McLean!!
1.You lived in Edinburgh as a student. You capture the spirit of Edinburgh very well. How did you go about getting this detail right?
What not a lot of people know is that I wrote the first two books, Natural Causes and The Book of Souls, whilst living in mid-Wales. I bought myself OS Landranger maps of the city and surrounding area to make sure I got the names right, but the rest was just dredging up memories. I studied for an MSc in Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University in the early nineties (alas, a course I never completed, lacking sufficient natural intelligence.) I also spent five years living in Roslin to the south of the city, commuting in by bike. I’ve known the city a long time, though even I get things wrong from time to time.
2. Do you think Edinburgh lends itself well to gothic, supernatural murders? How important were the settings in your book to reinforce the dark content?
Edinburgh is a very old city, with many layers to it both geographically and socially. It also has a long and bloody history and countless tales of ghosts, ghouls and foul goings on. It’s the city of Burke and Hare and Mary King’s Close, the Black Museum at the Surgeon’s Hall and countless horrifying tales. Ghost walks around the Old Town are enormously popular, and walking those dark narrow streets, shadowed by tall tenements, it’s not hard to see why. The settings I use for the books undeniably help to build the atmosphere, and the joy of using the city is that a lot of my work is already done for me.
3. What was your experience of E-Publishing and how do you feel to be a published author now with Penguin?
E-publishing was very easy to do, especially given my background in website development. An e-book is basically a specially formatted web page, so making my books look good on an e-reader wasn’t hard. Making sure the words were all spelled correctly, the punctuation was right and there were no continuity errors was not so easy, and that is where a lot of self-published authors fall down. Proof reading your own work is nigh-on impossible. Designing a cover that is both arresting enough to grab someone’s attention in a fraction of a second and easy enough to be read even in small thumbnail size is another skill most authors don’t have. I paid for professional cover design – not as expensive as you might think – and had several friends read the books for typos before I put them out there. Even so, the finished result wasn’t perfect.
Working with Penguin has been a joy. I always wanted to be a writer, not a publisher, and having professional editors go over my manuscripts has improved them immeasurably.
Holding a print edition of my first book in my hands was undeniably a high point in my life, but the best moment was a couple of months later when I got onto a train in London, heading back to Edinburgh, and sat down opposite a woman who was reading Natural Causes. And yes, I did introduce myself! (Book trail note: Quite right! I would have loved to have been there to see their face!)
4. Any advice to give an aspiring writer?
Finish the book. So many people I know have started writing a novel and then given up after a few thousand words. People often go back and endlessly rewrite what they’ve done so far. Don’t. Leave it alone. It’s far more important to get the whole, finished story down. It will be rubbish, but it will be a starting point for the other key job of an author – that of a rewriter.
Having said which, I would add that you should never take any piece of writing advice as gospel. It’s just advice. Weigh it up, try it for yourself if you think it might help, but don’t struggle with it if it doesn’t fit the kind of writer you are.
5. Are any of your characters based on people you know or have known? McLean especially interests me. Oh and I love the name Grumpy Bob.
Grumpy Bob’s name comes from the nickname of an acquaintance of many years ago. I don’t think he knew that was what everyone called him. I love the way the sound of it rolls off the tongue. Grumpy Bob is, of course, notable for his lack of grumpiness, and apart from the name is entirely made up.
There are so many good and interesting answers to my questions that I just had to savour them and share them in two parts. Come back tomorrow for some more insights into McLean’s Edinburgh. In the words of the man himself!
Mclean remembered a time, not so long ago, when all the Edinburgh family firms, the lawyers and stockbrokers,merchant bankers and importers of fine wares had their office the grand old houses of the west end, now the streets were full of basement restaurants, boutique shops, health clubs and expensive apartments. times changed, but the city always adapted. – page 99
Carstairs Weddell occupied the entirety of a large Georgian terraced house in the west end of the city. where the more modern and progressive law firms had moved into purpose built offices on the lothian road of further out towards Gogarburn, this one small partnership had held out against the tides of change. – page 99
2. MURDER SCENE – ST GILES CATHEDRAL
As it was, their destination was only a few minutes from his flat. Patrol cars flashed blue lights on the cobbles of the royal mile just across from St Giles Cathedral as uniforms fended off curious friday night revellers, keen to get an eyeful of whatever was happening. – page 145
Waverley station was busy at the best of times. with the festival and the fringe in full flow it was a nightmare of milling backpacks, horn-tooting taxis and lost tourists. throw in an ambulance , a couple of squad cars and a halt on all train movements and the chaos was complete – 220
Stepping out on the station roof was a strange experience. it was a completely new vista of the city, looking up at the underside of North Bridge and the lower basement of the North British Hotel, McLean always thought of it as the North British. As far as he was concerned, Balmoral was a castle in Aberdeenshire – page 225
4. INSPECTOR MCLEAN AND EMMA DISCUSS THE CASE IN A THAI RESTO NEAR THE STATION – 296
I don’t know if this was the inspiration but I went in anyway and ate a meal fit for an inspector!
And he is right, their deserts are pretty special!
5. THE FESTIVAL- 326
The city never really slept, especially during the festival. The usual crowd of late shift workers and rough sleepers was augmented by drunken students and wannabe actors , dustbin men and road sweepers. The streets were quiet in comparison with the day , but it was early yet, and a steady stream of cars still fought their single-occupant ways to destinations unknown.
Well I leave Edinburgh for now – I’m reading Book Of Souls and have a chat with the author himself soon – right on this very blog! I’m very excited about it.
Inspector Mclean is not your average policeman. Orphaned at the age of 4, he was raised by his very wealthy grandmother.
But the thing that really sets him apart is the fact that he is sensitive to the paranormal. Whilst investigating the story behind the mutilated body of a girl murdered 60 years ago, a body has been discovered walled up in the basement of an old Edinburgh house. She has been brutally murdered, her internal organs removed and placed around her in six preserving jars.
The murder is found to have happened some sixty years ago, as an attempt to re-enact an ancient ceremony of trapping a demon in the dead girl’s body and thus conferring immortality on the six men who each took one of her organs. This supernatural element is unique in a police procedural (at least to my knowledge) and it made it a really interesting premise.
His frustration at his inability to keep a mobile phone battery charged has to be met with sympathy in this day and age!
There is obviously a lot more to be discovered about Tony McLean’s past and the reason why he is sensitive to the evil that lurks in Edinburgh. Why was his family so wealthy? Who was the man in his grandmother’s photo, perhaps even his parents’ deaths will have to be investigated once more.
Allow Inspector McLean to take you around the city:
1. MCLEAN’S FLAT IN NEWINGTON
This is a street in Newington that I have on good authority was the model and inspiration for Mclean’s flat. Just look at that stunning view!
The front door of the tenement was unlocked again, wedged half open with a bit of broken pacing slab. Mclean tough about shutting it properly, but decided against it. The last thing he wanted was to be woken by the students from the first floor flat pressing all the buzzers at four in the morning until someone let them in. – 36
Wrinkling his nose against the spray of too many tomcats, he climbed the stone steps up to the top floor. – 36
Now apart from the wonderful and very realistic description of an Edinburgh tenement building, more the doorbell part than the cat one thankfully, I peered up at the top floor and just wondered if I would be able to see him at his window:
Now not knowing Newington all that well, i decided to go and follow in the footsteps of Inspector McClean and explore the area a bit:
The Newington Arms wasn’t the best place to drink in Edinburgh not by anyone’s measure. but it made up for that by being the nearest to his home. McLean pushed through the swing doors……. – page 39
2. HIS DRINK OF CHOICE:
He bought himself a pint of Deuchars and looked around for any familiar faces…..
I didn’t go into a pub or drink Deuchars but I did come across a wonderful little cafe not far away and wondered if McLean had popped in here at all:
3. SETTING FOR MURDER
Without giving any of the plot away, one of the murders takes place in St Andrew’s Square, I decided to visit the spot and imagine Mclean imagining what took place here and to find out this man’s role in the Smythe murder.
This man walked into a pub just off St Andrew’s Square about half eleven last night. Went into the gents’ and cut his own throat. It was even the same knife he used on Smythe.’ – 88
4.THE POLICE STATION
Tony McLean’s station does not exist in real life but is instead a strange merger of St Leonards and Gayfield Square Police Stations, so geographically it’s somewhere in the vicinity of The Pleasance.
There is a lot more to this book than meets the eye…….and my travels took me to the heart of grisly and murderous Edinburgh. The very next day, I kid you not, a heavy mist descended on the city making it even more realistic a setting for this book and its follow up Book of Souls….there would be plenty more grisly stops along the way…..Come back tomorrow for part two!