Birthdays for the Dead, by Stuart MacBride
Stuart MacBride’s previous novel, Shatter the Bones, reached No. 1 in the Sunday Times bestseller list and his incredibly popular novels from the thriller series featuring DS Logan McRae have sold over a million copies so far. His new novel, Birthdays for the Dead, breaks away from the series as a stand-alone, but is likely to follow the popularity of MacBride’s previous hugely successful crime thrillers.
There is an obvious reason why thrillers always crash straight onto bestseller lists. A well-written thriller is engrossing entertainment, relentlessly paced, with a tireless undercurrent of threat and fear. Birthdays for the Dead is certainly no exception to this successful formula. A serial killer nicknamed The Birthday Boy kidnaps girls on the eve of their thirteenth birthday, horribly kills and mutilates them and sends pictures to their families – pictures that escalate in horrific gore year by year, but provide no evidence.
It is a sick but devilishly clever crime that grouchy and unconventional Detective Constable Ash Henderson must solve. Detective Henderson has an added but secret incentive – every year he receives a terrible photograph of his daughter Rebecca, whom everyone else thinks simply ran away.
Birthdays for the Dead is rare in its horrendously gritty construction of crimes that are senselessly violent with a discomforting undercurrent of sexuality. MacBride is unflinching in his descriptions and the opening chapter, in its careful manipulation of first and third person narration, is a merciless plunge into the deep-end.
The author is a master of both subtle and overt foreshadowing that create sustained tension from the off. A sense of carefully withheld information in the character of Detective Henderson can also be detected – why doesn’t he tell anyone about his daughter? Unfortunately, for the first part of the novel, this does come across as poor character development.
Our protagonist is not an immediately likeable character or even someone we can relate to, and this does impact substantially on the level of immersion. MacBride’s bloodily vivid imagination and refreshingly uncensored writing style are both rare and artful in descriptive passages, but seem to fall short in terms of dialogue and character development. Some characters feel a little two-dimensional, with situations and locations that seem to be directly lifted from on-screen crime thrillers such as In Bruges and Life on Mars.
MacBride is clearly a fan of the grimy, unglamorous underbelly of the police force; unfortunately this is a ship that has very much sailed. While it once was a refreshingly different take on crime investigation, and very much the UK’s inversion of the artificial US glitz of CSI, this seedy world of police corruption has now become a parody of itself. It is almost impossible for the discerning reader to take seriously a detective character who converses with a barman in a strip club.
MacBride writes in a cinematic and visual way, which lends itself to his subject matter and adds to pace and engagement throughout. Snappy (if somewhat cheesy) lines of dialogue are often juxtaposed with cuts to passages of action or movement.
However, all in all, Birthdays for the Dead is gory and gritty, but something of a trudge; somewhat labouring for the first few chapters, with unanswered questions that are more tiresome than they are intriguing. Stuart MacBride seems to have a unique voice that has pigeonholed itself into a genre that leaves little space for originality and creative deviance.
It is a sad truth that people buy best-selling thrillers because they know what to expect – easy, uncomplicated entertainment. This is a perfectly reasonable basis for a novel. Of course books should entertain, but don’t expect too much more from MacBride’s latest literary offering.