Friday, 27 July 2012

Broken Skin


As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm a big fan of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels. However, since Rankin chose to retire Rebus off, I've not managed to get on board with any of his subsequent novels, and his new protagonist of a (so far) two book series, Malcolm Fox, has left me cold. So, in need of some more 'Tartan Noir' (for want of a better term) I've been reading Denise Mina - who is very good - and have recently chosen to follow Stuart MacBride, and scour the charity shops for some good second hand copies of his work, all in the hope these will plug the Rebus gap.

MacBride has written several Aberdeen set policiers featuring DS Logan Macrae. A quick look on MacBride's informative and friendly website advises a potential reader that as the first in the series, Cold Granite, was written in the vein of a mid series novel ie with several events previously alluded to and never fully or formally explained, it doesn't necessarily matter which order you read the subsequent novels in. Now, as this is something of a bad habit of mine, I was rather happy to hear this and meant that my first purchase, book 3 in the series, Broken Skin, could be read straight away.


Broken Skin is a very darkly humourous gritty policier in which multiple story strands - an eight year old child wanted for murder, GBH and robbery, a kinky BDSM accidental death, a serial rapist and a paedophile ring all converge together in a neat satisfactory way before the final page (and that's some neat trick!) MacBride isn't just a skilled plotter, he also has a brilliant ear for the ordinary everyday dialect (especially the coarse language and gallows humour of people doing a rather thankless job like policing) and he's clearly got the hang of what makes a book readable; chapters are short and with punch, making a book of over 500 pages fair lick along as if they were a good deal less.

There are some faults though, and crucially it's at the book's centre. I do feel his central character Logan is a bit of a blank canvas/empty void. After 500 plus pages I knew as little about him as I'd done from page one. He's devoid of tricks, quirks and interests (unlike Rebus, a heavy drinking loner with a penchant for The Rolling Stones and a stubborn dogged streak) and the reader has no description of him to rely on for their own mind's eye (which is actually like Rebus in fact, Rankin never really elaborating on describing his hero beyond big and dark haired) Now, I may be the one at fault here, having not read from book one in order, but then if MacBride himself says that's not necessary....

Incidentally I have just commenced reading book one, Cold Granite, and a 100 pages in there isn't much description of Logan. He's still somewhat elusive, an everyman almost. The quiet man of the cricket game, focal to the action whilst seemingly keeping strong and calm while the others around him get the action. And it's those characters around him that are the most interesting, and gain the best lines; characters like DI Steel, a chain smoking, unkempt, totally un-PC 40 something lesbian or DI Insch a fat, bull in a china shop, sweetie chomping am drammer. Having a quiet man at the fore of your crime series isn't necessarily a bad thing; Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck is the epitome of this. However, Beck is the lead in a police procedural in which his entire department, another ill assorted bunch of unique personalities, share the spotlight during each novel. Alas, I didn't really get such a sense of an even handed deal here. 

But it is a good book and a promising series. Like I say, I've started the first book, and I've one more waiting on the shelf for me, so they can't be bad. I think the thing MacBride is especially good at is the dark humour (and that probably says a lot about my own skewed sense of the comic too) It was certainly a nice touch to have the characters on the BDSM scene carrying copies of Ian Rankin's Black and Blue to identify themselves, and the end (not that I want to give much away) has the most unique and blackly comic armed response/hostage stand off I've ever read, yet still manages to be gripping and dramatic. A book which can have you laughing one minute and squirming at the cruel crimes depicted the next? Now, they are always worth a read :)


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