on 1 November 2012
This has been my first McBride book and could well be my last. The synopsis drew me in - seemed like a good plot and it all started out well. By halfway I was beginning to be confused by the different characters that kept cropping up. Generally I would not read a book written in 1st person, but I only noticed this "pet hate" a few times, I am normally very irritated by this style, however it worked quite well. I was looking forward to finishing the book and stayed up later and later to get through it. The end just seemed to have been hurried as if a deadline (excuse the pun) had to be met. For me the whole final section left me confused, there was so much going on and it just got sillier and sillier - then it was over. Ok a few twists at the end, some unexpected but when I woke up in the morning I could not remember much about it, the whole Birthday killer thing was glossed over in less than a page at the end and I never really did take in what it had all been about. There was also a point where a character died, that bit seemed to have been put in to "pad out" the story, and just when you thought it was safe to come out, just like a cheap horror film Mrs Kerrigan just won't stay down.
This book for me showed great promise, a really good plot that was different from the norm - but in the end I just wanted to finish it and start something else. I am sorry Mr McBride but you missed the boat with this one, a terrific plot which you failed to carry through.
on 14 January 2012
Stuart MacBride is marketed as a 'dark and gritty writer', to repeat a quote used on the front of the book. 'Gritty' is a word much bandied about these days as a description of a certain style of writing; such usage is relatively recent and is a contraction of the phrase 'gritty realism', implying realism with the nasty bits left in - effectively a modern synonym for 'warts and all'. 'Birthdays for the Dead' certainly has a surfeit of nasty bits, but it falls sadly short in terms of realism.
MacBride is best known for his series of seven crime novels featuring DS Logan McRae, set in Aberdeen. These are certainly gritty; there's plenty of violence - quite a bit of which is gratuitous - but this is counterbalanced by a healthy leavening of humour, much of which is associated with the unorthodox but effective DI Roberta Steel. If you haven't already sampled the series, it's well worth giving it a try; the earlier novels are rather better than the last two or three.
For 'Birthdays of the Dead', the setting moves South to the fictional town of Oldcastle. It's pretty obvious from references in the text that the geographical location is Brechin - 11 miles north of Forfar, and an hour's drive from Aberdeen - but Oldcastle is not Brechin; it seems to be an amalgam of the larger surrounding towns. The lead character is DC Ash Henderson, a somewhat bent copper (don't think gentle curves, think hairpins) who was demoted from DI following the death of a suspect in another case.
The case involves a serial child killer, who has been active for upwards of seven years, though no bodies have been found and there has been no significant progress in identifying any possible suspects. Young girls a few days short of their thirteenth birthday are abducted, and - apparently on their actual birthdays - are tortured and killed. On the anniversary of the killing, a home-made birthday card is sent to the parents, showing a photograph of the child in the early stages of torture; further cards follow annually, each showing a further stage of torture. We are spared no detail; in one case the most recent photo shows the child decapitated and eviscerated, with the head placed in the empty abdominal cavity. I apologise for promulgating this appalling image, but in fairness the reader is entitled to know what to expect. I had no warning, and after more than a week I still can't shake off the lingering sense of revulsion.
DC Henderson's elder daughter was one of the victims but, apart from himself, no-one knows - not even his ex-wife. He maintains his secret because, if it became known, he would not be allowed to remain on the case.
In the course of sewerage repairs in an overgrown former park, backing a square of terraces in Oldcastle, workmen discover a child's skeleton packed into a bin bag. The remains are identified as being those of one of the missing girls, and a survey with ground-penetrating radar soon locates other bodies. It looks as though the killer may be local, but over three hundred households have access to the park. The investigation proceeds, with DC Henderson assigned to work with Dr. McDonald, the newly appointed young profiler, who has serious issues of her own.
To take the plot further would be unfair, but this brief introductory summary is sufficient to demonstrate that it is both sound and original. It does not need the horror element, which I think many regular readers of crime fiction will see as an unnecessary and extremely unpleasant distraction. The same is true of the gratuitous violence liberally spread throughout the book. It is written in such a way than not a single major character provokes any sense of empathy within the reader. The least repugnant of these characters is Dr. McDonald, a recent graduate who looks so young that she is often mistaken fot Henderson's daughter, but even in that case her behavious discourages any sense of affinity. On these grounds alone, I would not award more than two stars, but the book also fails to satisfy any reasonable test of credibility.
First of all, there is the crime itself. It is so horrific - even without the torture element - that it would have attracted immense public interest, and in view of the apparently continuing nature of the crime it would certainly have commanded far more - and better - police resources than those featuring in the book.
Next, there is the portrayal of the police themselves. I accept that all is not well in the corridors of police power, but it defies reason to suggest that corruption and behaviour as portrayed in the book could be regarded as endemic and acceptable. There may be occasional bad apples in a barrel, but routine extortion, grievous bodily harm and more? It reads as fantasy rather than fiction.
Then there is the general approach to the crimes. Two girls were abducted from Oldcastle (three if we count DC Henderson's daughter), but there were also abductions from Inverness, Dundee, Glasgow, Newcastle, Cardiff, Bristol and two from London. Huge resources would have been directed towards identifying the possible links and to identify the possible sources of information accessed by the perpetrator, who obviously knew how to find girls within a week of their thirteenth birthday, and equally obviously could not risk trawling possibilities until a suitable target turned up. There is no mention of any such enquiries; in fact, apart from providing the list of locations used above there is only one passing reference to the fact that a possible suspect had been in London at the time of the two abductions there.
Finally, it's very unlikely that any reader will identify the killer, other than by random guesswork, because reasonable clues are conspicuous by their almost total absence.
The sad thing is that MacBride is a very accomplished writer. He's observant, and a skilled writer of dialogue. At his best, his narrative positively crackles on the page. It's a great pity that he appears to have set himself the task of bringing the horror and crime genres together. They are uneasy bedfellows, and in this case - at least in my view - it simply doesn't work. This is one of the most depressing and unpleasant books I have read in recent years. I'll probably buy the next Logan McRae title (due next year) but I have no desire to read a sequel to 'Birthdays for the Dead'.
As ever, there are those who take a different view, as expressed in some of the earlier reviews. I don't believe in censorship, but potential readers should be aware of precisely what to expect. There are far better crime novels out there.