Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: COLD GRANITE by STUART MACBRIDE (brutal serial-killer crime fiction from Aberdeen, Scotland)

Aberdeen, Scotland, first fine day for weeks!
My rating: 86%.

I am very impressed by this book. The author follows on in the social-realist tradition of the excellent Ian Rankin but either subconsciously or just because he is of a younger generation Macbride's hero DS Logan McRae, unlike Rankin's Rebus, struggles continually to keep his head above water mentally and emotionally in the face of not only criminals and Aberdeen's weather but the odious forces of political correctness, the Professional Standards division. Rebus was of that generation where he could be a maverick and a renegade and still be successful on the job. By contrast, McRae's perpetual anxiety that he will be disciplined and punished by Professional Standards is very Foucauldian and expresses so well our current post-modern predicament. Rebus did not fear the forces of political correctness within the police whereas McRae lives in perpetual anxiety at being "caught out" or "caught short" by the corporate careerists who never go near a criminal or a housing project. Who cannot identify with McRae who is basically a good guy at the end of the day? 

This book is brilliant primarily for the social-realist descriptions of the city of Aberdeen from both socieconomic and architectural perspectives. Macbride perhaps even outdoes Rankin here. I think this is a clear highlight of this debut book but I feel the later books tend to assume that you were "there from the start". In the later books Macbride tries too hard to be cool and trendy with too much direct speech so that it can become confusing as it is hard to be sure who is saying what. This is a particular problem with Shatter the Bones

One other brilliant feature of the book is that Macbride gives all his characters reasonable and reasonably detailed past histories so that it does not appear like the characters simply dropped from the sky in that "year zero" manner characteristic of first novels in a series. We learn that Isobel MacAlister and McRae were an item and we see the tension and embarresment in the working relationship which presently exists. We learn that Colin Miller, the journalist, left Glasgow because of his falling out with criminal elements there. His arrival in Aberdeen nicely coincides with this first book of the series. We learn of McRae injuring himself in his famous encounter with the Mastricht Monster. 

DI Insch, the sweet eating, obese, detective inspector, is a key character in the book. We perceive that his brusque and authoritarian manner and constant sweet eating are nervous mechanisms designed to cover up job-related stress and his basically good heart. I think Macbride may have erred in the later book where DI Insch is killed - I feel his character added significantly to the quality of the stories. Macbride did not have to do this as it is not as if a TV actor wanted to leave a long-running series. He may have shot himself in the foot. I liked DI Insch. DI Steel makes a minor first appearance here and her fascinating character becomes more significant in later books. Her friendship with McRae is charming and adds some warmth to the storylines. People like DI Steel and Colin Miller are the outrageous rogues who pull McRae further away from the political correctness expected by Professional Standards. (I always mentally imagine DI Steel as looking like the Mrs Slocombe character from the classic BBC comedy "Are You Being Served?") 

This is certainly one of my favourite, if not favourite, Macbride book. I feel that Macbride tries too hard to be trendy and cool in later books by too much continuous direct speech and some of the contextual background descriptions of scenes, moods and places get cut down in size or go missing. He still does a fantastic job of giving life to Aberdeen and introducing the city to people who have never been there such as me. Also, he went too far in my opinion in one later novel where the criminal left England "unpunished" at the end of the novel. I would prefer he stuck to the basics of the crime genre where the police wins in the end especially where pedophiles are involved. I do prefer to see these types caught or killed off. 

Lastly now that Rankin's DI Rebus has finally retired I would love to see him informally invited up to Aberdeen to solve a case with McRae and DI Steel. Imagine them all in the pub together. Would they drink Rebus' preferred IPA or McRae's Stella? How would Rebus get on with DI Steel? Could Rebus boost McRae's low level of self-confidence over a pint or ten? I hope that this can come together as a novel although I doubt it will happen. 

Also recommended: Tony Black, Paying for It.

By Jack Frost, first posted on Amazon.com 10 August 2011.

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