Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Double Dose of Stuart MacBride

Sawbones by Stuart MacBride, Barrington Stoke, £5.99, 978-1842995297, July 2008
Flesh House by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, £12,99, 978-0007244546, May 2008

As much as we love series characters here at Crime Scene Scotland, it’s always nice to see an author taking a break. Even one akin to a weekend getaway such as Stuart MacBride’s novella, Sawbones.

Like Allan Guthrie’s Kill Clock before it, Sawbones is a book written for “emerging readers”. This entails a set of guidelines about the language and style used in the book, but the story itself must be engaging to an adult audience.

And Macbride knows about writing for adults.

Moving from his usual stomping grounds of Aberdeen and out into the wilds of America, MacBride seems to be relishing the opportunity to truly let himself go. The sheer joy of throwing out the “McRae” rulebook is evident from the opening pages where we’re right in the head of a mafia thug about to kill a cop. But, see, he’s got his reasons. They’re out looking for the boss’s daughter. Who’s been abducted. By a serial killer.

Looking for nice guys in this novella?

They’re few and far between.

Which is what gives the book its appeal. While Stuart rarely makes his Grampian Police into perfect heroes, he has rarely been allowed to let himself go so completely as here. There is a core of – somewhat twisted – morality to the two goons out on the road, and the killer himself… well, you ain’t finding no sympathy here. Sure, he’s a little bit of the loony-tunes cliché, but as ever MacBride is having fun playing with archetypes and the killer is recognisably an archetype – with his bible bashing and woman-hating – but still very chilling indeed. But these are characters with the kind of screwed morality that makes them truly fascinating. And the protagonists are decidedly anti-heroes in the best possible sense of the word.

But it’s the pacing that works here, and with brevity being the soul of wit, MacBride’s lean and muscular novella doesn’t give the reader time to breathe. The pages turn fast and easy, and while the storytelling is relatively straightforward, MacBride never panders to his audience, creating a taut and terrifying tale that roars across the dusty highways of the US in a blood-soaked Winnebago.

And with his wanderlust somewhat satisfied, it means that MacBride can then return – with batteries recharged – to his familiar homeground of Aberdeen. Yes, we’re back with DS McRae and, yes, Grampian police are – despite the warnings from DI Steele – most definitely at home to Mr Fuck Up.

It’s the sheer energy of his work that makes MacBride’s homegrown procedurals shine. If were in any doubt before, then Broken Skin confirmed that the world of McRae and co is a hyper-realised one, where a grim and black humour permeates near every sentence.

And with Flesh House, the humour is grim indeed.

More than any ever MacBride novel before it, the violence here is fairly explicit. Its been enough to turn some early readers vegetarian, but MacBride manages the fairly neat trick of offsetting the violence with gallows humour while never cheapening the loss of life.

In MacBride’s world, almost a decade earlier, Aberdeen was plagued by a killer known simple as “The Flesher”. A man who ate human flesh, slaughtered people like farm animals. And was finally arrested by Grampian Police. But now he’s out on bail… and the killing’s started again.

There’s something very chilling about MacBride’s latest novel, and the tension is ratcheted up superbly with a number of subtle red herrings laid in place. But the crime itself is not what impresses itself upon the reader; rather it’s the movement of the characters in MacBride’s world. With Steele given her chance to shine in Broken Skin, this time we see a whole new side to sweetie-munching DI Insch, who manages to both repel and engage the reader within the space of a single sentence. Its hard to say much without giving the game away, but MacBride is savvy enough to throw life-changing events at his characters without pressing a red reset button at the end of the tale, something that happens all too often in series fiction.

If there’s anything wrong, its that Logan McRae himself gets short shrift, with some intriguing personal developments getting lip service, but barely making inroads to the plot. Of course, even in a book this size, some concessions must be made, but the relationship between McRae and Jackie Watson which had a dramatic shift at the end of Broken Skin seems to be pushed into the background when it seems like some very interesting developments may have taken place.

But, what’s important is that Flesh House moves fast and furious – surprisingly so for such a hefty novel – and is genuinely engrossing, replete with moments of gallows humour that relieve the intensity of some scenes. This is a novel that doesn’t let up from the word go, and its almost surprising that MacBride can retain that incredible pace through the novel. Perhaps because, even if he is working within the McRae rulebook, he’s still finding ways to try and subvert the traditions he’s writing in. There are shifts towards the horror genre as one character breaks down almost entirely, and MacBride shows that despite his occasional broad strokes – the early characterisation of Insch in books one and two is a fine example – he can do very a very convincing and unnerving psychological portrait of his cast, and he seems to be at his very best when he puts the characters right at the very limits of their endurance. Witness not just Insch here, but also a character who finds herself at the very heart (if you’ll pardon what could be construed as a pun) of The Flesher’s scheme.

MacBride has, in four books, established himself a writer with a style and voice that distinguish him from the herd. His books are procedurals in form, but he manages to give them an edge that pulls in those readers who would usually be reluctant to read novels given that label. It’s the Scots humour, the sheer ballsiness of his approach to the genre and the fact that he somehow gives these large novels a momentum that propels the reader through the twists and turns without once giving them pause for breath.

If you haven’t read MacBride, we say: go and read him. Today. But, if you’re unprepared for that Aberdeen weather, we might just recommend an umberella.

Small disclaimer: eagle eyed and cynical readers will notice Russel D McLean’s name appear briefly in Flesh House. This was a fact unknown to the reviewer before he started reading and while he is always immensely flattered by such things, it does not prevent him from approaching the novel with his usual steely intensity.

Russel D McLean for, 29/05/08