Tuesday, April 10, 2012

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

Aberdeen, Scotland
Back in Grey: Aberdeen's finest return for second book
My Rating: 82%.

Hi, this review is of the Harper paperback edition. I believe only Cold Granite and Dying Light have been released in this format. I picked this up for five Aussie dollars at my supermarket but this novel is a class above anything else you will find in the delete bins.

Macbride's grim social realism returns in the sequel to debut Cold Granite. It is summer in Aberdeen and Macbride uses this as a dialectical metaphor where the summer light reveals its opposites: brutality, selfishness, sadism and murder.

All the memorable and interesting characters from Cold Granite are back: the conscientious, peace-loving, easygoing and tolerant (but easily stressed) DS Logan McRae; the sweet-eating and grossly overweight DI Insch; the Glaswegian crime reporter Colin Miller; and MacRae's ex-romantic partner the "Ice Queen" pathologist Isobel MacAlister. Logan has been reassigned to DI Steel's f***-up squad where the hopeless are sent in the hope that they can reform and reinvent themselves. 

Although DI Steel makes a brief appearance in Cold Granite it is here she comes into her own. I always picture Mrs Slocombe from the classic TV show "Are You Being Served?" when I imagine the politically incorrect and highly volatile lesbian DI Steel or, as Logan sometimes calls her, "Bloody DI Bloody Steel". She shows herself, underneath all the bad temper, posturing, selfishness, and petty vanity, to be Logan's supporter and friend. She writes an official letter of recommendation for him (only to tear it up) and introduces us to old-school politically-incorrect policing when she makes a secret deal with a councillor for him not to criticize Aberdeen police in return for his sexual activities with a 13-year-old Lithuanian prostitute to be kept silent. For a time the old-school deal works....

DI Insch is back along with his bad temper, impatience, ego, and constant sweet-eating propensities. Logan cannot officially work with him this time but he does offer some clues to him for his arson case. At heart DI Insch, like DI Steel, is old-school but compassionate. He says as an aside to Logan: "Don't let the bastards of Professional Standards get you down". I feel Macbride may have made a mistake killing off DI Insch in a later book as his character was vital to the early mix. (Go on, Mr Macbride, bring him back, he wasn't really dead...)

Logan's character also develops considerably here as we spend so much time with him. We share his continual frustration at DI Steel calling him on his off-days so he cannot enjoy time with his romantic partner WPC Jackie Watson. He is also continually on edge and afraid of the real power of the Professional Standards Department and many people working today in politically correct and oppressive institutions will share his frustrations. Rankin's DI Rebus did not care at all about such people but he was from a different age. I don't think it is correct to label Macbride's characters "unlikeable" (although this is a value judgement). I think Logan is very likeable and Insch and Steel likeable to some extent even only as they stand strong for authenticity and old-school policing and against political correctness. However, Macbride is less successful in developing the characters of Simon Rennie, Jackie Watson and the other uniformed officers. You feel that he is trying hard but it's just not working.

In terms of plot, three plots work simultaneously and come together nicely at the end. This novel abides by the rules of the crime novel genre in that the bad guys get caught in the end. Only in a later novel in this series does Macbride dare to breach this formula. The three plots are: (a) dog and man "torso murders"; (b) Ripper-style prostitute slayings; and (c) two house fires where people are locked in and burnt alive. Endings are totally predictable with only one mild twist where it is not the crazy female neighbour but the jealous wife who kills the unfaithful husband.

I do have to say that Macbride increases the graphic nature of the sexualized violence here beyond anything found in Cold Granite or in the Ian Rankin canon. The story starts with a guy getting sexual thrills from locking residents inside a house and then setting fire to it. We read of a torture of a drug dealer (after the fact) and Colin Miller has his fingers removed by a Edinburgh gang (those responsible for the arsons). In death-metal music the band CANNIBAL CORPSE only became shockingly sordid on their second and third albums (when the sex was added to the violence in the lyrics) and the same can be said for Macbride. It is necessary to secure the fan base first. However, there is subtelty in the overall presentation in that we sense the sadness and compassion of Logan and others towards Miller and that of all the police towards the prostitute victims. The social realism is also present with the drug dealer torture taking place in a high-rise block on the River Don overlooking the North Sea. I have not been to Aberdeen but I'm sure those that have appreciate Macbride's realism.

As mentioned in my review of Cold Granite, Macbride did an excellent job in giving all characters believable life histories that predate the start of Cold Granite. Logan's media success and stomach injury as a result of his defeat of The Mastricht Monster are vital for the development of his character and all future plots. He is forever "the Police Hero" of Yesterday and must deal with both his own regrets at never capturing the moment again and the petty jealousy of others. It would be great to see Macbride actually go "back in time" and give us the Mastricht Monster story in the same way that Lee Child's recent book The Affair takes us back in time prior to the events of book one of the Jack Reacher series.

Overall, this is an excellent follow-up. Everything we enjoyed in the debut is here and here we get introduced properly to the marvellous and extreme DI Steel. I was in no way disappointed although my prior hopes had been set high. I'm a dedicated Macbride supporter after two books. I rate Dying Light only very marginally below Cold Granite. This is some of the very best contemporary writing in the crime fiction genre.

Also highly recommended: Tony Black, Paying For It.

By Jack Frost, 27 November 2011.

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