RogerBW's Blog

A Dark So Deadly, Stuart MacBride 14 July 2018

2017 mystery, tartan noir. In Oldcastle, a notional Scottish city that's mostly Aberdeen with some shades of Edinburgh, the detectives nobody wants (but who can't be fired) end up in the Misfit Mob. When lots of bodies turn up at once in the town dump, they get the most boring one. But now they've got a serial killer to track down…

This book paints a horrible picture of life in the police, something like a really ghastly school: constant bullying and petty point-scoring, with almost everyone much more interested in status games than in actually getting the job done. To add to that, Callum MacGregor, the viewpoint character for most of the book, is clearly meant to be the comic relief: everything that can go wrong for him does, and I almost dropped the book during the first few chapters as more and more crap was dumped on his head. But this isn't the sort of humour in which you're invited to laugh at the funny man falling over again: it's how Callum learns to cope with all the bad stuff that makes him an interesting character.

And there's plenty of bad stuff in Callum's life: his colleagues think he's corrupt, the serial killer is frustratingly hard to find, and the Bad Thing that happened in his past is coming back to haunt him. (This isn't a series book, so nobody is safe.) He does also mess up quite a bit in his own right, which perversely makes him more sympathetic: this isn't the holy innocent hated by the dirty world, but someone who's just trying to do his best but has a poor grasp of consequences.

As for the mystery itself, some clues are unfortunately implicit in the structure of the book: X is mentioned here next to Y, so there's a parallel being drawn, which means that X must fit into the Y-shaped slot in the earlier sub-story, which means that Z is the same person as T, and so on.

MacBride has a stylistic tic of having two overlapping monologues, either with two people nominally having a conversation, or with one person talking over a car radio, which while it's effective does start to become very noticeable at times.

This is quite a long book, perhaps over-long – but to compare it with The Yiddish Policemen's Union, while MacBride clearly also likes the sound of his own voice, he does something with it. The atmospheric descriptions of a rain-soaked city help account for people's moods and actions; the petty bickering adds up to explain things that happen later.

Elements are overdone, like the detective sergeant who keeps describing things in terms of the plot structure of a thriller, but overall it works; it's not the greatest writing, but I'll certainly look for more by MacBride.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 02:36pm on 15 July 2018

    I really like Stuart MacBride's books, though I prefer the Logan McRae series to the Oldcastle books. I love the black humour, and as a former inhabitant of Aberdeen, the whole big-city-yet-parochial rings true. Also, anyone who has the cheek to use a photo of his own brother when he needs a picture of a serial killer gets my vote! :-)

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