Sunday, May 13, 2007

BROKEN SKIN By Stuart MacBride

HarperCollins, £12.99, ISBN 978-0007193172
There's always been a healthy air of humour about Stuart MacBride's darkly twisted procedural series featuring DS Logan McRae, but Broken Skin finally allows the author to let loose. There are genuine belly laughs here and - amazingly - they sit comfortably with some grim subject matter, allowing the author to not only inject some levity into proceedings but to do so without diminishing the more serious aspects of the novel.

And serious aspects there are. Among the brilliant forays into Aberdeen's porn industry, we find a serial rapist, a child who turns into a murderer and sexual abuse. MacBride, as ever, is juggling a lot of balls, and he's becoming an expert at keeping them smoothly in their air. Its great to see an author leap forward with such increasing confidence.

Logan McRae, as the lynchpin of MacBride's novels, is a fine character, but as ever with these things, its the supporting characters who steal the show. McRae's girlfriend, PC Jackie Watson is slowly becoming a more attractive version of Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue - 0ut on personal missions, taking liberties and possibly hitting as many bottles as she is suspects. DI Insch is a bullet headed, sweetie popping moron and his attempt to control a platoon of amateur dramatists in The Mikado is great fun. And, of course, DI Steel, who is not at home to Mr Fuck-Up, is a scenery munching tornado of a character whose levity and brass-neck pull the attention attention in every scene.

Its a credit to MacBride that the levity of his humour rarely diminishes the dramatic impact of the story. In fact, he manages to use both aspects of his storytelling to illuminate each other - and considering some of his subject material, that he can do this without seeming awkward or fluffing the attempt entirely is something to be applauded.

The key to this trick seems to be character. MacBride's cast are always memorable, rarely cliches and consistently surprising. Steel's evolution throughout the series is obvious, and she gets to have more fun here than ever before. Jackie Watson is more than just McRae's main squeeze and even the supporting cast seem to have evolved over the course of three novels. Surprising, considering one or two of them are muckraking journalists!

There's life in the British procedural yet. Macbride - along with Billingham - is living proof of that. He writes about a credibly flawed ensemble cast, with a sense of humour and an understanding of criminality that moves beyond the standard black and white image of moral standards that the average UK procedural seems to promote. Of course, MacBride's heart is still firmly rooted in the idea that the police are, ultimately, good guys. But he never preaches or handles their moral saintliness in a heavy handed fashion.

And, if certain characters implied actions are anything to go by, he may just be preparing to turn all our expectations on their heads...

Broken Skin is the most compelling novel yet from an excellent crime writer who just keeps getting better. No longer an upstart, no longer simply "one to watch", with Broken Skin MacBride places himself firmly among the must-read crop of modern British crime.
Russel D McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 23/05/07
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