Chilling Leith tram excavations inspire best-selling author James Oswald's latest Edinburgh supernatural crime novel

Best-selling crime writer, James Oswald, has much to thank Edinburgh's tram works for, mainly the Constitution Street stretch down by South Leith Parish Church, which inspired his latest novel, All That Lives.

Excavation of South Leith parish church's medieval graveyard as part of Trams to Newhaven project inspired James Oswald's latest novel, All That Lives
Excavation of South Leith parish church's medieval graveyard as part of Trams to Newhaven project inspired James Oswald's latest novel, All That Lives

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T​he twelfth​ book in his award-winning​ Edinburgh-set Inspector McLean crime series finds Oswald’s best-selling copper investigating the discovery of human remains in the historic graveyard, exhumed during the Trams to Newhaven excavations​. A case of art imitating life?

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“I read the news story online​ but didn't really want to know who the body was, that wasn't really important, but its discovery was the spark of an idea,” he explains, adding after a moments thought, “That and the fact it was found down in Leith​,​ which is where Madam Rose lives​. Could they possibly be connected? I wondered​.”

Author James Oswald has created a parallel Edinburgh where crime and the supernatural meet

In the latest of the ongoing series, two victims​ with ​nothing ​to ​connect them​ other than the fact someone buried them in the exact same way​ catch Tony McLean's attention. There's a twist though, the bodies were buried seven centuries apart.

The mystery begins ​when the construction of tram line ​at ​the South Leith ​graveyard ​unearths​ a mystifying body​ - some suspect it’s a gruesome sacrifice,​ ​placed for a specific purpose.​

When a second body​, that of a woman who went missing ​30​ years ago​, is unearthed​, the​ ​similarities between her death and ​that of ​the ancient woman suggests something even more disturbing​.

Drawn into the investigation, McLean finds himself torn between a worrying trend of​ ​violent drug-related deaths in and around the Capital and uncovering what truly connects the bodies. When a third body is​ ​discovered, however, he begins to suspect dark purpose at play and that whoever​ ​put them there is far from finished.

All That Lives

All That Lives finds ​Oswald​, who also pens the ​popular DC Constance​ ​Fairchild ​series, once again breathing life into his parallel present day Edinburgh, a place where crime and the supernatural not only co-exist but frequently intertwine.

It’s in that world, over the last decade, that regular characters like retired desk sergeant Grumpy Bob, the aforementioned mystic Madam Rose, DS Janie Harrison and his nemesis, the diabolic Mrs Saifre have become ever more familiar to readers, often popping up at the most unexpected moments to keep the action ticking over and the pages turning.

“Characters are the most important thing and feed well into series fiction because you have the time an the space to give each their own lives,” says the writer when asked about the popularity his creations who appear in book after book, evolving and growing older as they do.

Oswald continues, “That’s what readers really like, it's why soap operas are so popular, people like to live someone else's life for a little while, so if you get your characters nailed down, the story comes naturally from that.”

Down on the farm with James Oswald

All That Lives was born out of that approach. With his cast in place all he had to do was decide what he wanted from the plot.

He recalls, "It all came out of the discovery of the body in the pit at South Leith kirk during the excavations for the tram works. That was a brilliant idea for a story. I had all my characters, developed over 11 previous books, to just throw at it and have them ask, 'What could this possibly mean?'"

Published on Thursday, February 17, All That Lives revisits the historic Leith graveyard throughout the book, which has been conceived, developed, written and will be published long before the end of the tram works that inspired it.

“In their defence, I do write very quickly...,” laughs the author, who by day ​breeds Highland cows and Romney sheep on his farm, near Newburgh​.

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Meet James Oswald, the supernatural crime writer hailed as ‘the new Ian Rankin’

Readers were first introduced to McLean's Edinburgh and its cast of good, bad and quirky characters in the 2012 novel Natural Causes, which was short-listed for the prestigious CWA​ ​Debut Dagger Award​, as was the second in the series, The Book of Souls.

Over 12 books, his creations have policed an Edinburgh that is instantly recognisable yet ever so slightly skewed from the one we know.

Looking back, Oswald reflects, “I've never had a big story arc in mind for the books, I don't know what's going to happen in Inspector McLean Book 16, but I do like to leave things open and have possibilities that I can then pick up in a later book to run with. It is a series, so I'm always thinking there has to be something happening next.”

He continues, “Within an individual book, I will remember things from the previous books, usually because someone has tweeted me a question and I go, ‘Oh, I remember that now.’ That kind of sparks an idea, which is very much how I write. I don't plan a lot although I do like a nice fixed opening scene. I write best when I have that sorted.”

That said, and without giving any spoilers away, McLean admits that the cliff-hanger ending of All That Lives has left him with a worry, one he wants to lay to rest from the off.

“I may have made life a bit difficult for myself there, it's not the last Tony McLean book but I am going to get a lot of people asking me, 'Is it the last one?' However, it is the last book in my current contract with Wildfire.”

He reassures his readers, “There will be a book 13 and there will be a book 14 too, because it would be unlucky to leave it on book 13.”

That's not to say that the prolific Oswald doesn't also have other new projects in the pipeline. He's considering a possible spin off novel featuring DS Janie Harrison but is worried readers might just see it as an Inspector McLean novel without McLean, he's also been “fleshing out” ideas for another Scottish crime series with all new characters.

“It would make sense in a Lewis after Morse kind of way to give Janie Harrison her own book. So I might try and do that next," he ponders.

A​ll That Lives by James Oswald​ is published on​ Thursday​, ​February​ 17, ​in Hardback by Wildfire​, ​priced £16.99

Meet the author: An Evening with James Oswald, Waterstone’s West End, Princes Street, Tuesday, March 8, 6pm, tickets here

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