By day James Oswald runs a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle. You would think that would be enough for most people but come night James is a Sunday Times bestselling author of the Inspector McLean series of detective mysteries. The first two of these, Natural Causes and The Book Of Souls were both short-listed for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award.
His latest novel, Bury Them Deep is the tenth book in the Inspector McLean series and this milestones will be the perfect time for us to pause and celebrate this huge series.
When a member of the Police Scotland team fails to clock-in for work, concern for her whereabouts is immediate… and the discovery of her burnt-out car in remote woodland to the south of Edinburgh sets off a desperate search for the missing woman.
Meanwhile, DCI Tony McLean and the team are preparing for a major anti-corruption operation – one which may raise the ire of more than a few powerful people in the city. Is Anya Reynolds’ disappearance a co-incidence or related to the case?
McLean’s investigations suggest that perhaps that Anya isn’t the first woman to have mysteriously vanished in these ancient hills. Once again, McLean can’t shake the feeling that there is a far greater evil at work here…
The question on everyone’s lips will undoubtedly be how do you find the energy to write in the evening after a day of cattle farming in Scotland?
It was hard to start with, but as the books became more successful, I reduced the number of animals on the farm to give me more time to write. I have recently given up sheep farming altogether, and concentrate only on the Highland cattle. The next door farmer rents the grazing land, and even bought most of my breeding ewes from me.
I’ve always been most productive with my writing in the evenings. I’m certainly not a morning person! The biggest problem I find with juggling the farming and writing is that it leaves little time for anything else, so I don’t watch much television and I struggle to read as many books as I would like to. Audiobooks are a godsend for this; I can listen while I’m out and about on the farm.
Do you spend much of your day thinking about what you will write in the evening?
It very much depends what stage of writing a book I am at, and how well it is going. I can usually tell when a book is coming together because the story keeps churning over in my head as I’m feeding the cows, walking the dogs or mucking out the sheds. I like to get a few hundred words written right after breakfast if at all possible, to kick-start my brain before I head out to do all the farm chores. That way when I finally get to sit down and start writing I don’t waste the first hour trying to marshal my thoughts.
What drew you to writing crime fiction?
I fell in with a bad crowd, back in the early days of blogging.
Seriously though, I was first and foremost a writer of fantasy and SF, but an old Aberdeen acquaintance by the name of Stuart MacBride persuaded me to ditch dragons and magic in favour of crime fiction when he was picked up by Harper Collins for his Logan McRae series.
I’d not really thought much about crime fiction until then, although Stuart and I had been giving each other feedback on our manuscripts for some time by then.
I’d read a lot of Hardy Boys when I was young, some Agatha Christie a bit later, and then moved onto the occasional Ian Rankin I might find lying around as my father was a big fan. Most of my writing influences have been from other genres though.
Some of your books have a hint of the supernatural. Was it a conscious decision to bring this element to your writing?
Very much so. When I first thought about trying to write crime fiction, I fell back on something I had written much earlier – 1992 to be precise – which was a comic script that was basically a ghost story set in contemporary Edinburgh.
I needed one detective who, unlike all his fellow officers, could ‘see’ the ghost as it wandered the streets causing all manner of mayhem. That was Tony McLean, and I used him again for a couple of unpublishable urban fantasy novels I wrote in the late 1990s.
I liked the idea of a ‘straight’ police procedural novel in the Rebus/Frost/McRae model but with the crimes inspired by or actually featuring supernatural entities – either the demons exist or the people doing terrible things in their name believe they exist. How to deal with a perp you can’t arrest? How to write up the report without your boss thinking you’ve gone mad? Sadly, publishers at the time weren’t as preoccupied by these questions as I was.
Not all your novels have been set in Scotland. Do you see yourself as a Scottish crime fiction writer through and through?
Not at all. I lived in a little Welsh village called Cwmystwyth for ten years, and have written a five part epic fantasy series inspired by Wales, the Welsh language and its mythology.
My Constance Fairchild series visits Scotland but is predominantly based in London and the Home Counties. Inspector McLean only ended up being an Edinburgh detective because of that initial comic script I wrote in the early 90s. I may have written ten of them now, and be about to start on the eleventh, but I’ve always considered myself a somewhat accidental crime fiction writer as well as accidental Scot.
Do you find time to read crime fiction yourself? If so, who are your favourite writers?
I don’t find nearly enough time to read anything, which is the major downside of being a successful author and a full(ish)-time farmer.
I am still a huge fan of fantasy and SF, and also read comics whenever I can.
I don’t really seek out favourite writers because there are simply too many great ones out there. Recently I’ve very much enjoyed Doug Johnstone’s books though, and anyone looking for quality Scottish crime fiction would do well to look past the established names and on to the likes of Neil Broadfoot, Douglas Skelton, Michael J Malone, S J I Holliday, the list is endless!
I get sent a lot of books by new authors (or new to crime fiction), and having been welcomed by the crime writing community when I was new to it, I try my best to do the same for others. Recent books that have really impressed me include Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce, The Chemical Detective by Fiona Erskine, Turn A Blind Eye by Vicky Newham and Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson. We are truly in a golden age for crime fiction, and long may it continue!
James Oswald tweets from @SirBenfro
Click here to buy Bury Them Deep
Find out more about great Scottish crime writers
Photograph by David Cruickshanks