The first body is chained to a stake: strangled, and stabbed, with a burning tyre around its neck. But is this a gangland execution or something much darker?
Look, let's just admit that I'm a huge fan of this series and get it over and done with. Love DI Steel, love her glorious over the topness, love McRae's constant sooking and all being put upon. Love the madness of the world in which they have to try to operate as functioning police members, love the supporting cast, love the gallows humour. Love the whole damn thing. Even love those that don't quite live up to the other books in the series (and let's face it - we're talking bees d's worth of not living up to that which came before).
I'll therefore plead to some lacking in objectivity.
CLOSE TO THE BONE has the requisite things going pear-shaped left right and centre - with cases piling up at the door refusing to maintain an orderly line. Including McRae balancing a personal life that almost, in the last book, accidentally veered towards normal, committed and stable. Meanwhile Steele is behaving like everyone's worst nightmare caricature. Even more-so in this book as she's dragged kicking, screaming, bitching and moaning into "Management". I even, for a very brief period in my life, found myself interested in the outcome of a wildly popular paranormal novel, but only because it looks like some nutcase is basing a series of murders on scenarios from that book.
But, more importantly, underneath the lunacy and the caricature there are little ripples in the reality. Sure Steel is considerably more over the top in the book than she's been in others. Maybe because the idea of Management scares her more than babies, shared parenthood and responsibility. Okay so McRae seems to be playing a slightly straighter bat on the one hand, and yet, maybe this settling down thing has some complications that he's not being completely up front about.
With MacBride there's often been that thing in the undercurrent, that hint of the reality underneath the gallows humour and that glimpse behind the mask that's intriguing. That and the over the top nature of the characters as a coping mechanism for what they must deal with on a day to day basis. Sure in this book some of those elements are stretched out to the point where you can actually see through the elastic. Don't care. Loved it.
SHATTER THE BONES - Stuart MacBride
You will raise money for the safe return of Alison and Jenny McGregor. If you raise enough money within fourteen days they will be released. If not, Jenny will be killed.
Here's the thing. You hoard a book because it's a favourite series, and there's no sign of the next one yet. But then there are noises about the next one, but that's not out for ages, but you can't wait any longer so you read the one you've had tucked away. Then you've not got that little thing of joy hidden away in the bookcases anymore. So now you're stuck in that horrible no man's land, because the next book's not out for ages, and you've given into temptation. It's a nightmare.
Mind you, that's about the only complaint I can come up with about SHATTER THE BONES. But then I'm a huge fan of Stuart MacBride's Logan McRae series. He's one of those writers that combine violence, brutality and some truly shocking story lines with absolute laugh out loud moments, a heap of creative swearing, some terrific insights into human nature and, in this case, social commentary into the bargain. There's a sense of urgency, lunacy and hurtling madness about most of the investigations in the McRae books that feels real. There are believable, fantastic characters performing over and above the call of duty, desperately hanging onto family and personal in the middle of an absolute storm of crazy.
In SHATTER THE BONES MacBride is also taking a wee shufty at the madness of reality TV - the way that a frenzy of interest and concern whips up when a mother and daughter are kidnapped, an interest that seems unlikely to have occurred without their TV profile. In amongst the kidnapping, the reactions, an investigation hampered by a total lack of forensic information, and some very cunning acts on the part of the kidnappers, further hinderance comes from closer to home. When the serious crimes squad sends in an "expert" you just know that things are going to get complicated, but the level of idiocy of this bloke is beyond the pale.
Whilst a lot of the madness, and the characters and their personal situations are carrying forward from the earlier books (thank goodness DI Steele remains a standout as frankly I'd be spitting the dummy well hard if she backed off), there are things that are moving forward. McRae's actually in danger of developing a personal life of his own, the relationships between the team are expanding a little, and ranks are progressing. There's also more than a few smacks around the head at the end of this book, and there's a final scene that's an absolute kicker.
CLOSE TO THE BONE is out in January 2013. I might ... just ... last ... until ... then.
DARK BLOOD - Stuart MacBride
Everyone deserves a second chance...
Richard Knox has served his time, so why shouldn't he be allowed to live wherever he wants? Yes, he was convicted of a brutal abduction and rape, but he's seen the error of his ways. Found God. Wants to leave his dark past in Newcastle and make a new start.
Or so he says.
The problem with an author making it onto my "Pre-Order IMMEDIATELY list" is that once the book arrives I have that dreaded "do I read immediately or hoard" dilemma. It's easier with some of my all time favourite authors - there's a few, well not to put too fine a point on it, aren't as young as they used to be. Stuart MacBride, on the other hand, is a young man. Last time I set eyes on him he looked to be in remarkably good health. But still, you never know. Publishers are queer folk and they may suddenly have a brain freeze, or worse still, Stuart may just get distracted by .. well gardening stuff... and forget to write the next one.
So I've come up with a reasonable compromise with these books which is simply "hang onto them until you can stand the suspense no longer!". I held out pretty well with DARK BLOOD but I'm really really pleased I didn't keep it up forever (and the latest book has arrived so it's not like I don't have another one to hoard ... just for a little while.)
DARK BLOOD starts out with one of the best opening sequences I have read in years. One of those opening pieces that make you sit up straight and pay attention. From there the reader is launched into a world of missing informants, sawn-off sledgehammers, fake money, counterfeit goods and jewellery shop robberies. Add to the standard mayhem of Aberdeen on a normal day (well a MacBride normal day anyway), and about the only thing that McRae, Steel and the entire Aberdeen command can agree on is that having one of England's most notorious sex killers "dumped" into their patch on his release from jail is just about the height of all cheek. Which is bad enough, but a Northumbrian DSI tagging along to "keep an eye on things" is dangerously close to taking liberties.
There is always something comforting about returning to a favoured series character - and Logan McRae is one of my favourite characters, although DI Steel is not above giving him a bit of a nudge. Having said that, other readers of these books will be wondering what exactly I'm sniffing if I think McRae, Steel or any of the circumstances of MacBride's books are comforting. But in a strange (okay so slightly twisted) way, they are comforting. That's not to say that things also don't move on in their lives, albeit sometimes slowly. McRae's been doing quite a strong line of greatly put upon, martyrdom in recent books, but in DARK BLOOD he's actually firing up a bit, getting a bit bolshie. Which needless to say doesn't go down well. Nobody could possibly have imagined it would go down so badly that DI Steel would be giving him "advice" on how to get on with others mind you. But advice she does dole out. At the same time that the impending birth of her child is making her life a lot more complicated than she thought it would... especially with conciliatory and caring not exactly coming naturally to DI Steel. As usual McRae doesn't just have to deal with Steel, DI Beattie seems to be going out of his way to behave like a prat, whilst all the time journalist Colin Miller is needling away at the police in general and McRae in particular.
The problem with an ongoing series has to be that it's sometimes too easy to slip into familiar patterns, particularly where the characters and their interactions are concerned. Avoiding this DARK BLOOD has something a little more edgy about McRae - sure he's still a bit of a martyr to the cause, but there's just the occasional flash of a fight back. DI Steel is still delightfully, gloriously over the top, but she's softening just a little, impending parenthood is obviously going to have some sort of affect, but what exactly... well some things aren't to be contemplated too closely. DARK BLOOD also veers away from the more gruesome aspects of some of the recent books, and works harder on a really tight, taut, pacey and interesting plot. There's a realistic feel of pressure - external and within, of competing priorities, and changing levels of urgency. It feels like each of these characters is doing a fine line of tight-rope juggling - personally and professionally. MacBride also isn't afraid to ditch popular characters, to put them in unexpected situations, to pick them up again, and generally to move his chess pieces where the will takes him. But, as always, there's a real underlying humour - some of it observational, some of it almost slapstick, but always with sneaking sense of great affection. The characters for each other, the author for his cast, and in the case of this reader, the reader for the whole package.
BLIND EYE - Stuart MacBride
Someone's preying on Aberdeen's growing Polish population. The pattern is always the same: men abandoned on building sites, barely alive, their eyes gouged out and the sockets burned. And the threatening letters arriving at Force Headquarters make it clear there's more to come.
DI Steele deserves her own fan club. It would have to be a club where swearing, drinking, smoking and fiddling with your bra strap were perfectly acceptable behaviours of course. You've also got a ready made slogan as fans of the wonderful Logan McRae series from Scottish author Stuart MacBride will be aware.
BLIND EYE is the 5th book in this funny, gruesome, funny, ferocious, unflinching, funny series featuring DS Logan McRae and a passing parade of DIs and DCIs. DI Steele makes a very high profile return in BLIND EYE, in fact she's in danger of completely stealing the show, although McRae also has to deal with the considerably more prickly DCI Finnie as well.
In true MacBride style, not only are the characterisations vivid, unflinching and frequently decidedly unflattering, the subject matter of this book is confrontational. Somebody is preying on Aberdeen's Polish community - not killing, but dreadfully maiming a series of men. Gouging out their eyes and burning the sockets, the crime seems inexplicably cruel and utterly and totally ruthless. The victim's are understandably too scared to talk, and the only witness - a paedophile on the run - doesn't exactly inspire anybody's hope in being able to sort this.
As the investigation grinds on, and the maiming take a particularly startling turn, McRae finds himself having to deal with Finnie's increasing sarcasm and what seems like antagonism, as well as Steele's glorious excess - which now includes a rather personal component, making McRae increasingly squeamish.
Undoubtedly the subject matter that MacBride touches on in all his books is going to be unpleasant reading for some people. He balances that beautifully with humour - sometimes gallows style, frequently black and downright hilarious in other places. He writes gruesome but highly realistic plots which don't shilly shally around with your sensibilities. You'll often come out of one of these books feeling a little like you've been slapped around the head and shoulders with something quite quite icky. MacBride also writes fantastic police characters - McRae's increasing dithering around nicely balanced by the iron wit and will of DI Steele, both of them up against the sarcasm and terseness of Finnie. Settling in with these characters is rapidly becoming more and more like a visit with favourite friends. Sure you've heard the stories before. Sure you've seen them when they have a few too many before. Who cares - good mates are extremely hard to find.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
BROKEN SKIN is Stuart MacBride’s third Logan Macrae novel. The first, COLD GRANITE had him working with DI Insch. In the second, DYING LIGHT, DI Steele was the officer in charge. In BROKEN SKIN, MacBride seems to have gone for a bet each way and had Macrae working for both at the same time. It’s not a plot idea that does not seems to work terribly well. Rather than concentrating on a single investigation, Macrae is pushed from pillar to post, grumbling all the while and becoming impatient himself. Macrae and his colleagues moan, groan and whinge their way through the book. We know this because these adjectives are used often; to the point of annoyance on my part.
The issue of the over-used adjectives aside, BROKEN SKIN is entertaining enough. However after the wonderful debut novel, COLD GRANITE, BROKEN SKIN is a bit of a disappointment. I only hope this was a glitch and subsequent novels will be of the standard of MacBride’s first
FLESH HOUSE - Stuart MacBride
Aberdeen is panicking. It's been eighteen years since Grampian Police caught the Flesher - the notorious serial killer who butchered people all over the UK - and seven years since he was released from Petershead prison, his conviction overturned on appeal. But when a container full of joints of human meat turns up at Aberdeen Harbour, it kicks off the largest man hunt in Aberdeen's history. Ken Wiseman is on the run and looking for revenge.
If you are teetering on the edge of fully-fledged vegetarianism FLESH HOUSE could be the trigger that pushes you over. MacBride is one of those author's who seem to be able to take the grotesque, the frequently cruel and absolutely obscene and wrap that in humanity. FLESH HOUSE is one of those books. At points you're giggling away at the magnificently over the top DI Steel, feeling for the put upon DS McRae, wondering whether DI Insch is really going to burst a blood vessel, and at the next minute you're peeking through your fingers reading some truly confrontational scenes.
The Flesher got his nickname from the ancient trade of the butcher - his victims were expertly slaughtered - the only word for it. When Wiseman was charged and found guilty all those years ago, he had ranged widely over England before being caught. So when it looks like he's started killing again - this time with the added twist of parts of his victim's being discovered in the local human food chain, Chief Constable Mark Faulds from West Midlands police who was involved in the initial investigations, also comes to Aberdeen to help.
DS McRae thinks he's going to be part babysitter for Faulds, but finds himself part investigator - working with Insch, Steele and Faulds. He is also part confessor and protector for a boss who has been even more prickly and difficult than usual, as Insch finds himself in trouble with his own bosses, and deeply in personal grief and crisis. In a way, McRae seems more comfortable these days working with Steel and her highly unorthodox approaches. Plus McRae's got personal problems - his live in girlfriend, and workmate Jackie and he are really on the rocks. And his mother really wants him to wear a kilt at his brother's wedding!
FLESH HOUSE is the fourth Logan McRae book and it really does deliver on those elements that fans of this author have come to expect. It's a truly horrifying scenario - frankly nauseating in places. It's delivered in a manner that keeps the reader constantly wrong-footed. From snickering away at the in jokes by DI Steel; switching rapidly to a captive's viewpoint; back to the personal tragedy in Insch's life; back to way too much information about golden syrup and the reader is never ever left in a comfort zone for too long. With an ending that has shock and poignancy attached to it, FLESH HOUSE could be read as an introduction to the series if you've not seen the earlier books; although McRae's back story is well worth following.
BROKEN SKIN - Stuart MacBride
There's something immensely satisfying about reading a book that tackles some very tricky subject matter head-on, with enough of the gory details to illustrate rather than titivate and just the right level of gallows humour. BROKEN SKIN is the third book featuring DS Logan McRae and it's as good as the first two.
It's February and it's raining again. McRae is on DI Steel's team and they are most definitely not at home to her favourite term for a complete disaster, particularly as DI Insch is well on the outer. There's also an awful lot going on. There's a vicious, nasty and cruel rapist - slicing up his victim's faces with a knife, but while PC Jackie Watson is taking that particular investigation very very personally, in the early morning, the blood-drenched, horribly injured body of a man is dumped outside A&E at the local hospital. There's also a massive upswing in burglaries and a major drug investigation.
The dead man is only identified when one of the PC Rickard says that he's recognised a distinctive tattoo in explicit sex films that could be connected to the death. Unfortunately for his sense of gravitas, Rickard also seems to have very direct connections to the local bondage community and, from the victim's injuries, it's very likely so did he.
Most of the characters from MacBride's two earlier books, Cold Granite and Dying Light are back - all behaving very much to type and all getting in each other's road and up each other's noses in equal measure. The twist in the focus for this book is that both DI's have equal exposure, they are both forefront and not liking each other's presence one little bit. McRae and Watson's personal relationship is ongoing but is, in a beautiful touch, going nowhere happily. All the other members of the investigation team endure just the right amount of success, failure and merciless ribbing.
As well as those characters, the taut storytelling in BROKEN SKIN carries you along the manic multiple threads, with a really realistic feeling of a cold, wet, miserable city full of cold, wet and miserable criminals and equally cold, wet and miserable police officers. The humour is again dark, savage and thoroughly engaging - DI Steel has got to be one of the all time great offensive women, and this reader in particular, thinks she's marvellous.
Being the third book in the series, the characters are now very well established. Reading the first two books will certainly give you the background for many of the relationships and the antagonisms. Whilst that will definitely help with some of the minor threads going on, it's probably not 100% necessary, particularly if you are the sort of reader that can just accept that there's some tension and not want the details of what lead to that.
If you're a fan of the no holds barred, character driven Police Procedural, then you should definitely read BROKEN SKIN and both earlier books if they've somehow passed you by. Gruesome subject matter delivered with deftness is the mark of this author's books. Savage, dry humour is the other common factor. Logan McRae's one of those characters that you certainly wouldn't want to work with - the pace that this book maintains would kill a normal human being - but he's the sort of character you'd like to have a beer with, provided you could handle the quantities.
DYING LIGHT - Stuart MacBride
DYING LIGHT is the follow-up book to the much talked about and acclaimed COLD GRANITE and it maintains the high standard that the first book in the series reached.
It is summer in Aberdeen, the sun is shining and it is not raining anywhere near as much as it does in winter. With his love life sort of looking up and his working life running pretty well par for the course, the major downsides to the entire season seem to be that somebody is killing prostitutes and DS Logan McRae has been moved to DI Steel's "Screw-Up" squad. One botched raid, one severely injured uniformed PC and Logan's gone from Police Hero to another Internal Affairs investigation in the blink of an eye.
The focus of this book switches from DI Insch and his team (although he is still there and working on a fatal arson attack) to DI Steel and her Screw-Up Squad. DI Steel is a totally different prospect to deal with. She's abrasive, touchy, pushy and extremely unconventional. Logan's Number One priority is getting out of the Screw-Up Squad and the best way to do that seems to be a quick resolution to the increasing number of prostitute murders. Number Two priority is to try and keep his love life intact. Number Three priority is to keep avoiding journalist Colin Miller. Number Four priority is to survive another Internal Affairs investigation and keep from getting fired.
In the first book of the series, the weather was almost like another character, providing a great backdrop for the general miserableness of the crimes. In this book the summer setting, albeit slightly damp, provides a contrast for the crimes and the mood of the investigators in both Insch and Steel's teams.
DYING LIGHT is a solid, twisting police procedural with some short-lived sequences of quite graphic violence. This violence and the pitch perfect gallows humour that MacBride uses remind the reader that there is some real substance to the world being written about. The characters are very real. You feel like all of them would be instantly recognisable if you strolled in the Aberdeen nick, the local bar, the morgue or down the docks late at night.
Sometimes a second book, particularly one so close on the heels of such an impressive first novel can feel a little flat, or a little directionless. The trick of moving the focus on the DI's and their teams adds a freshness to the supporting characters and to Logan's personal interactions with his colleagues that really worked extremely well. After the sheer pleasure of reading DYING LIGHT you will be instantly left wondering where MacBride is going with the next one and very eager to find out.
COLD GRANITE - Stuart MacBride
COLD GRANITE is one of those debut books that come along and slowly cause a stir of comment and discussion in crime fiction forums. So much commentary just makes you want to get that book that everyone is talking about, but at the same time you often wonder if there's a chance that it's all noise and not much substance. COLD GRANITE is all substance.
On his first day back from extended medical leave, DS Logan just wants to get through his first day and hand responsibility back to his new DI. Despite needing to ease himself back into the job Logan finds himself investigating who is killing children. Just to add insult to injury the Chief Pathologist is his former girlfriend and her reception is just about as inviting as the Aberdeen weather in the middle of winter.
Getting himself back into the routine and back into the teams proves problematic for Logan. He's got to contend with a new DI who has an addiction to lollies, a problem with fools and a tendency to assume everyone is one. DI Steel is a well known womaniser who ends up with all sorts of political problems when a trial goes pear-shaped. WPC Watson is assigned as Logan's new babysitter, and she doesn't have the reputation of a ball-breaker for nothing. There's a new journalist in town and he's cocky and pushy. Somebody is leaking stories and Miller, the journalist, just can't seem to keep away from Logan. Children keep dying and disappearing and Internal Affairs seem to be very interested in Logan. All in all, things are not what Logan wanted or needed.
COLD GRANITE uses the weather almost as a character in its own right - it's used to enhance mood and atmosphere in a very engaging way. You feel the weather just as you feel the character's reactions and follow their desperate attempts to stop children dying.
Despite a difficult central subject, the murder of children, the author pulls off a light touch and a level of humour which isn't always just black and feels almost expected. This is a police procedural, but a good, varied story that uses the procedural elements as a framework and builds in details of the characters, their lives and their reactions in a manner that makes everyone human and many many of the people extremely likeable. There are sufficient sub-threads to add texture and realism to the environment and all of those sub-threads are finalised or pulled together elegantly at the end and there's no sense of rush to finish off the book. The language is sufficiently fluid and fluent to keep you engaged but the book does not smack of over-writing or the tendency of some first books to include all the ideas an author has ever had.
Add to that some clever twists and this is a pleasingly strong debut novel and one seriously good read.