Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dead Man Talking # 12 - James Oswald

 Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews James Oswald

For those of us who treat the pastime of reading with something close to religious fervour, finding a new author who ticks all the boxes on our own wish-list of personal preferences is a cause for much heel-clicking and waving of banners. One such author by the name of James Oswald came to my attention a few months ago. His best-selling Tony McLean crime novels set in Edinburgh rank up there beside anything written by Ian Rankin, Stuart McBride or Val McDermid. But what separates Oswald’s books from most other crime writers is the inclusion of a supernatural element to the books. The police procedural purists may grind their teeth or mump their gums at such an heretical inclusion, but adding a touch of the paranormal to the mix has never done any harm to the careers of other successful writers such as John Connolly or Phil Rickman.

James Oswald currently has two novels ‘Natural Causes’ and ‘The Book of Souls’ available in ebook form. Between them they’ve now shifted over 300,000 copies. An incredible figure that sparked off a five-way bidding war between publishers, a battle won by Penguin who will publish both books this year along with the forthcoming new novel ‘The Hangman’s Song’.

Strachan McQuade R.I.P.
Farmer James Oswald

McQuade: Welcome to Dead Man Talking where this week we are broadcasting live from a picture framing studio in the west end of Glasgow. It’s quite a nice place I must say, with all those lovely wooden frames just waiting for the perfect photograph or woodland landscape to set them off. It even smells intoxicating in here. Just breathe in that heady fragrance of freshly cut wood and newly applied varnish. Aaaaah. Lovely. So why here you ask? Where else, I reply. What better background setting could we have for our latest guest on Dead Man Talking. Please welcome James Oswald, writer and framer.

Oswald: I’m a farmer, actually. But I did a bit of woodwork at school, so I could be a framer if it helps.

McQuade: A farmer? Are you sure? It says right here……….. dash and damn. My mistake. Okay let’s cut. Change of background scenery please.

Two Hours Later

McQuade: Ha! It’s been ages since I visited a farm. 1962 to be exact when I spent a whole summer picking apples at Maggoty Latrine Farm. I should have been overseeing the spiritual welfare of my parish that summer but the Moderator had given me a two month suspension without pay for what he high-handedly termed unnatural congress with a horse. It was all an embarrassing mistake of course, and I’ve no intention of retelling that tale.

Now, Oswald - Having so much detailed knowledge of a working farm at your fingertips, not to mention your solid grounding in agricultural arcana, were you ever tempted to create a crime-sleuthing farmer who drives around narrow country lanes on a large tractor solving murders and robberies? Hmmmm, actually I quite like that idea. Might use it myself for a future novel. (Editor – Not if I can help it)

OswaldWhat makes you think I know anything about farming? I’m a framer, aren’t I? (Editor – now, now James no need for sarcasm. Anyone can make a mistake) Seriously though, there’s all sorts of interesting things happening in the countryside, but the crime tends to be of the stealing sheep and molesting chickens variety - not the most exciting thing for a story. Maybe I’ll send McLean out into the sticks for the next book and he can be chased across snowy fields by irate Highland Cows. It’s not as fun (or funny) as it sounds.

McQuade: Your highly successful Police Procedurals featuring detective inspector Tony McLean are set in Edinburgh. Was the city itself a contributing factor in the decision to add a chilling supernatural element to the books? I mean, it’s difficult to walk five paces in 'Auld Reekie' without barging through an organised Ghost Walk led by some drama student rambling on about floating heads in Mary King’s Close, or spectral Covenanters wailing in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. And while we’re on the subject do you believe in ghosts?

Stuart McBride
OswaldThere’s only two cities in the world I know well enough to set stories in them: Edinburgh and Aberdeen. My friend Stuart MacBride had nabbed Aberdeen for his Logan McRae stories, so it had to be Edinburgh for mine. It’s a great place to set ghost stories, though. There’s so much history.

That said, the decision to write crime with a supernatural twist came first. DI McLean first came to light in a comic script I wrote on spec for 2000AD in the early nineties. He had a small walk-on role as the detective who could see the ghosts nobody else could see. I revived him for a couple of other comic scripts, and he’s been in two unpublished (and unpublishable) novels as an extra before getting his own starring role.

As to believing in ghosts? Well, I don’t actually believe in anything. For a man of faith such as yourself, that may be hard to fathom, but I prefer to keep an open mind.

Daphne Broon
McQuade: McLean was a cartoon character? Like the Broons? By Jove, maybe you could write Daphne Broon into one of the books for the sake of romance and comic resonance. Poor Daphne never seems to get lucky where boyfriends are concerned. Go on, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if McLean married Daphne Broon. Big, lanky Hen Broon could even be best man.

I did notice you like to include the names of your mates like Stuart McBride into the books. I also took such a liberty in my own best-selling book ‘Invergallus’ where I managed to name-drop the entire 1971 cup-winning Partick Thistle team who walloped Celtic 4-1. I’d hoped this subliminal tribute would result in me being presented with a free season ticket for Firhill to watch the Maryhill Magyars but so far, no luck.

But back to farming - I remember a farmer once complaining to me that his bullocks were far too hairy (Editor – Careful now, McQuade) and never winning any prizes at agricultural shows. So I invented a cream to denude them called Bull-Immac (patent pending). Never worked that well for the bulls but thousands of fat women trying to lose weight snapped it up in a trice. Anyway, seeing as we’re on a farm I thought it would be a lark to find out how good you are with animal impressions. I can do a very passable mallard duck in addition to any breed of piglet. Which ones are you good at? And please give a demonstration. Go on. I promise it won’t affect your sales figures. (Editor – He’s lying through his false teeth, James. This could end your writing career here and now)

Oswald: My sheep impression is world-famous Baa! I’ve also been working on my cow Moo! I can actually talk to chickens, but they’ve rarely got anything interesting to say.

McQuade: I beg to differ. I once owned a talking cockerel that could discourse upon many interesting topics such as collectable railway timetables and the construction of rude anagrams from the elements in the periodic table. Such a pity we had to slaughter the poor talkative bird when we got snowed in and ran out of chicken dippers and giblet mousse.

Now, many famous writers throughout history have sported beards. Off the top of my head I can think of Dickens, Plato, Tolstoy, Moses, and Barbara Cartland. John Irving had a bear, but that’s irrelevant. So, as the number one bearded writer, in Fife at least, how important is facial hair for writing best selling novels?

Oswald: My grandfather had a pet bear, and when it died he had it stuffed. When I was very small, my brother and sister used to pretend to feed me to it, which was quite terrifying.
What? Oh, you were talking about beards. Sorry. I’m not sure how important beards are for writing best-selling novels, but they’re very useful for storing little bits of food for later. You can let birds build their nests in them, too.

McQuade: Just to show I do my research properly, I’ve been Googling you and discovered you are also a Scottish cellist who was appointed as Chamber Composer for King George III and died in 1769. Hang about, that can’t be right…. Sorry, wrong James Oswald. Um……. and I suppose you’re not the James Oswald, one of Glasgow’s first MPs who snuffed it in 1853? Damn. Just shows what a load of rubbish research is. Come to think of it, Oswald, you don’t sound particularly Scottish at all. I get the distinct feeling you might even be from …..'Down There'. This could be a delicate question,  but please don’t be coy, are you Scottish at all? And if not, why are setting your massively successful detective Inspector McLean series in Edinburgh? Might explain why no-one ever eats square sausages and tattie scones for breakfast in the books.

OswaldOddly enough, both of those James Oswalds are ancestors of mine, as is the fellow who (for now, at least) has a statue in George Square in Glasgow. We used to be big in sugar and slaves when they were socially acceptable things for a merchant to trade in. Robert Burns even wrote a poem about my great something grandmother: Ode sacred to the memory of Mrs Oswald of Auchincruive. He was kicked out of the inn where he was staying to make way for her funeral cortege and for some reason took umbrage.

So the family is very much Scottish, but due to a serious error on the part of my father I was born in the south and sent to posh boarding schools down there where my broad Scottish brogue was beaten out of me by the older boys (jealous, no doubt). On the other hand, I did penance by spending ten years in Wales. And now I live in Fife, which as everyone knows is a kingdom in its own right and will probably undock itself from the mainland and sail out into the North Sea when independence comes.

I had an idea, long ago and never taken anywhere, to write a biography of a family name - a history of all the James Oswalds that have done things of note down the years. Maybe some day I’ll get around to it. It shouldn’t take long.

McQuade: No, probably not. Just hope you don’t forget to include your black-sheep second-cousin Lee Harvey Oswald who popularised the rise of public executions on live television. Thank you so much for taking part and I do apologise for our earlier misunderstanding. I would like to offer as a gift this vintage bottle of Worcester sauce. I did open it and splash a few drops on my square sausage a few years back but found it wasn’t to my taste. By the way I’d take a few steps to the left if I were you. That angry herd of cows look as if they mean business…………..


McQuade: Ah. Too late. Never mind, Oswald. Once they dig you out the mud and brush you down I’m sure you’ll be as good as new. Obviously those cows weren’t enamoured with your rubbish farmyard impressions. Best of luck with the new book and don’t forget my advice regarding Daphne Broon. And now if you’ll excuse me, thought I’d borrow your tractor to go do a little sleuthing. Cheerio.

Visit James Oswald's Web Site

Buy James Oswald's Books  


  1. McQuade, if you come anywhere near me with a tractor, I'm phoning the police... McDroll

  2. Don't worry McDroll. He fell off and broke his neck (as well as his pipe). He's been sitting very still for hours while the glue sets properly. The pipe got chucked out.

  3. Hope Helga doesn't hear of this!

  4. My to-read list gets longer and longer, thanks to you, Strachie sweetie. Must admit, I'm still looking for that lawnmower you promised.

  5. Oh hell Allan, you can't resist ending your interviews in a similar manner to some of your fiction. *Chuckling* Last poor sod drove into a tree! Love it as always, when you make me laugh out loud. Ordered the book earlier today.