Monday, November 1, 2010


DARK BLOOD by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Last year ‘bearded write-ist’ Stuart MacBride, the man whose gritty Aberdeen-set crime novels starring DS Logan McRae often sit at the darker and bloodier edge of Tartan Noir, took a wee authorial detour with impressive standalone HALFHEAD, a futuristic crime thriller set in a somewhat ‘post-apocalyptic’ version of Glasgow. But now DS McRae is back, battling the freezing weather, departmental politics, and gangland influences of police life in the Granite City. As well as his own doubts, malaise, and personal demons.

In DARK BLOOD, the sixth instalment from the CWA Dagger in the Library-winning author, notorious sex offender Richard Knox has served his time for the brutal abduction and rape of an elderly man, and has now decided he wants a fresh start in the wintry north. But while he might think he’s leaving his dark past behind in his former home of Newcastle, Knox’s arrival in Aberdeen forces Granite City’s finest to play babysitter, in order to protect him from an outraged populace being whipped into a frenzy by the tabloids, led by DS McRae’s old sparring partner Colin Miller. If protecting an ‘old mannie rapist’ wasn’t bad enough, McRae also has to deal with DSI Danby from Northumbria Police, the man who put Knox behind bars ten years before, and has arrived in Aberdeen supposedly to ‘keep an eye on things’.

Meanwhile McRae is under the cosh from all directions: his superiors are overloading him, undercutting him, and questioning his attitude; he’s hitting the drink increasingly hard; he’s spending more time before Professional Standards than dealing with his massive caseload packed with counterfeit money and goods, missing informants, murder, flashers, and robbery; his girlfriend is tiring of his dourness and detachment; and local Aberdeen crime lord Wee Hamish Mowat is leaving him envelopes of cash - for which McRae has no doubt something is expected in return. His ethics? His career? His soul?

There is plenty to like about DARK BLOOD, which although still very gritty and grim takes a bit of a step back from the full-on brutality (even gore) of the last two McRae novels, FLESH HOUSE and BLIND EYE, where unintentional cannibalism and very-intentional ocular mutilation were on MacBride’s murderous menu. The bearded write-ist once again shows his nice touch for vivid and interesting characters, and genuine depictions of team dynamics - complete with not only internal politics and intrigue, but the piss-taking, coarse language, and off-colour humour that is pretty realistic for many team environments, but some writers sanitise or avoid.

There’s a nice sense of unease and tension throughout - not just in terms of the main plot - what may happen with Knox, a murder, and investigations into other cases - but also what is going to happen with McRae himself. Over the course of the series he has at times seemed something of the straight man surrounded by a diverse cast of larger-than-life, almost over-the-top, colleagues, but in DARK BLOOD McRae is hovering close to disaster, both professionally and personally. His star is definitely on the wane, and MacBride does a good job making readers care - we can’t help but feel for (and follow) the beleaguered DS, as he tries to weather the storms natural, political, and personal - and decide if he even wants to remain a cop.

In terms of character development, not only is plenty happening with McRae, but ongoing undercurrents with other familiar faces are also shifted forwards, backwards, or sideways. Not completely without casualties. Storyline-wise, DARK BLOOD is probably not the very best instalment in what overall is a very, very good series - but it is still an enjoyable and gripping read nonetheless.

Plenty of guffaws amongst the grit and gore.

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