by Stuart MacBride
Published by St. Martin’s Minotaur
279 pages, 2007
Reviewed by James R. Winter
A rapist is stalking the historic streets of Aberdeen, Scotland. We meet him as he trails a woman in a tight skirt, who’s wandering where she shouldn’t be. Then we see him take one to the crotch from temperamental Police Constable Jackie Watson, our rapist’s would-be victim, who’s working undercover. As her partner checks the aspiring assailant’s ID, Watson gives the man a few more swift kicks. No witnesses, right? The only problem: While Watson is busy breaking one of the man’s ribs, the other cop discovers that their suspect is Rob Macintyre, star player for the Aberdeen Football Club.
So, you may be asking, where’s Logan McRae at the start of Stuart MacBride’s latest tartan police thriller, Bloodshot (previously released in the UK as Broken Skin)? Well, Logan is in the morgue. Where else would he be at the start of a MacBride novel?
That response is understandable, since whenever McRae visits the place, it’s to watch the postmortem of yet another Aberdeen homicide victim. This time, the corpse is that of a man with severe damage to his intimate locations. It looks as though someone tortured him, then dumped him off at the hospital, barely alive. Unfortunately, the man dies at Accident & Emergency, and the only clue to his identity is a burned-out Volvo no one connects to the case for nearly a month.
During that intervening month, this John Doe’s death falls by the wayside, while PC Watson’s arrest goes spectacularly awry. What was supposed to have been a slam-dunk for the vacationing procurator fiscal (that’s a Scottish district attorney, for the rest of us) becomes a case of police brutality against what, in the eyes of the media, is a wildly popular athlete. And Macintyre’s lawyer, “Hissing Sid” Moir-Farquharson, squeezes the press for every ounce of PR he can get for his client. Instead of receiving a celebrity conviction, Watson gets exiled.
Then she starts acting strangely at home. McRae, her live-in lover, doesn’t know what to make of her behavior. At one point, he imagines she’s having an affair. Which is not good, for a variety of reasons -- one being that the vulnerable detective sergeant finds himself firmly in the antagonistic sights of Assistant Prosecutor Rachel Tulloch.
It doesn’t help on the home front that Watson is obsessed with bringing Macintyre down -- and sulking over the fact that she must suffer in the eyes of the public and her superiors, while the idolized Macintyre roams free. To make matters worse in her eyes, DS McRae’s superior, confidant and occasional nemesis, Detective Inspector Insch, unwillingly takes up the role of point man when similar rapes occur in other nearby cities.
As he did in Cold Granite (one of January’s favorite books of 2005) and Dying Light (2006), author MacBride gleefully torments McRae in these pages by saddling him with the obnoxious, barely competent Detective Inspector Roberta Steel, every lesbian’s worst nightmare. Steel takes on the case of the shagged-to-death body McRae brought in on the same night that Watson arrested Macintyre. And she proceeds to partake of special glee in humiliating Police Constable John Rickards when the latter recognizes the victim from a porno film entitled James Bondage.
Did Rickards recognize the deceased from evidence in a recent raid? Er ... no. Actually, Rickards is “in the scene.” By “the scene,” we mean the bondage scene, which apparently thrives in the “Granite City” of Aberdeen.
All the usual suspects are back in Bloodshot. Insch still sucks candy like it’s going out of style. And he manages to squeeze in police work around his labors directing a community theater production of The Mikado, with a wretched cast that makes McRae and Watson want to volunteer for duty in Iraq, just to get away. Steel is not quite as crude as she was in Dying Light, but she remains almost as offensive. However, the Grampian Police force has about had its fill of the rotund Insch and the chain-smoking Steel. Both have been put on the “Fit Like” program. Being the team players they are, everyone -- especially McRae -- suffers.
With Cold Granite, MacBride established his series as a sort of dysfunctional version of Ed McBain’s famous 87th Precinct stories. That hasn’t changed. If anything, McRae is a sane, somewhat bewildered Steve Carella in the middle of Scotland’s biggest group of law-enforcement misfits. Partly because of their British setting, the McRae books resemble Ken Bruen’s Inspector Brant series (Calibre) in many ways. But while Bruen’s characters command grudging admiration, MacBride plays his characters off to neurotic comic effect, counterbalancing the grim world they inhabit.
What has changed over three books, though, is the focus of the crimes. Both Cold Granite and Dying Light were about misdeeds against children. Granite, especially, came off a bit on the gory side, with its scenes set in a house full of dead animals. Granted, those glimpses of gore were few and far between, but they left a dark impression.
In Bloodshot, by contrast, MacBride’s victims are all adults, and the reader is spared most of the bloody carnage. Though not all. While the autopsy scenes with the victim of a bondage accident are sufficiently squirm-inducing, Watson’s brutal beating of Macintyre is far more explicit.
And more satisfying, as the story goes on.
Another nice touch here is the subplot involving PC Rickards (and yes, in case you’re wondering, he is named for UK author John Rickards of Winter’s End and The Darkness Inside fame). Rickards endures humiliation -- both real and perceived -- when he’s outed as a frequenter of the local bondage scene. Yet, MacBride doesn’t treat bondage aficionados as if they were freaks. Most of them are about as normal as one can expect of any player in a Stuart MacBride novel. Most of them are even more normal than members of the Grampian Police.
Two things author MacBride does extremely well are (1) changing up his characters from previous stories, and (2) creating the illusion that the series is much older than it is. To confirm the former, he has McRae and reporter Colin Miller on the outs here, Steel more respectful of McRae that usual, and Insch’s reputation with the force waning. As far as making his series sound more established than it is, MacBride sprinkles in snatches of back-story that stand fine on their own, but also hint at a wealth of earlier stories to be told as the series progresses.
My biggest concern is not with anything MacBride himself did. But I do have to question St. Martin’s decision to re-title this book for an American audience. Bloodshot is such a generic name, and has been used so many times before -- including on a decent Sara Paretsky effort -- that it hardly seems to fit this new story. Word is that Broken Skin was considered too gory a title for a squeamish American audience. Having read MacBride’s yarn, I must respectfully disagree. Taking away the original UK title weakened the story for me and only reinforces the misconception that tales have to be somehow altered in order to successfully cross the Atlantic. (This goes both ways, incidentally. American books have been re-titled in the past, and their text changed for the UK market.)
A title, though, does not a good novel make. A good author does that. As long as Stuart MacBride -- who recently won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger in the Library award -- continues to shuffle and reshuffle his fictional Grampian Police, we might soon be calling him “the heir to McBain.” Hyperbole? Maybe. But some writers deserve a little.
MacBride is one of them. | August 2007
James R. Winter is a writer and reviewer from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. A regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and occasional contributor to The Rap Sheet, his short stories have appeared in ThugLit, Crime Scene Scotland and the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Northcoast Exile. Potential employers should look over his contributions to Tales from the Cube Farm.