Sunday, November 1, 2009
Review: HALFHEAD by Stuart MacBride
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Scottish author Stuart MacBride may be famous for his award-winning Aberdeen-set DS Logan McRae series, but his latest thriller eschews McCrae, the Granite City, and even the present day.
HALFHEAD does include MacBride's trademark mix of serial killers, gruesomeness and gallows humour (if a little less of the latter than the McRae books), but it's set in a Glasgow of the future; a future of overcrowded super high-rise slums, militaristic police, and a new method for dealing with the most dangerous criminals. Serious offenders suffer half-heading; they are bar-coded, lobotomized, have their lower jaw removed, and are then put to work as mindless janitorial drones shuttled about each day to clean hospitals, toilets and other public areas. The forgotten; semi-human window-dressing, background the rest of the population barely acknowledges or even sees.
However one murderous half-head 'wakes up' after six years, surrounded by the bloody remains of a man she's just butchered in a toilet block in Sherman House – a skyscraper ghetto packed with the grimy, violent and drug-addicted underclass of the future metropolis. As the halfhead formerly known as Dr Fiona Westfield starts to piece together sporadic flashes of memory, shards of who she was in her pre-operative past, she sets out on a quest for revenge.
Meanwhile Will Hunter, Assistant Director of the 'Network' – a heavily-armed elite wing of the police force – gets caught with his team in a brutal firefight while investigating the Sherman House murder. Hemmed in by floors and floors of unruly and unpredictable masses – a grimy human timebomb threatening to ignite at any time, it's Hunter's worst nightmare. Especially considering what happened last time. But as his investigation continues, and he finds himself on the trail of a sadistic killer who can seemingly move around undetected, despite the watchdog technologies those in power can usually rely on, he discovers something even worse; a sinister conspiracy to fuel violence amongst the city's most vulnerable citizens.
MacBride delivers a gripping plot that pulls the reader along - HALFHEAD is a taut, well-paced thriller packed with some great action, and interesting characters. The reader is quickly sucked into the futuristic story, and feels compelled to follow Hunter on his investigations and adventures. There are also some interesting, intelligent, themes that are touched on in amongst the twists and turns.
MacBride's usual skill at evoking a good sense of setting, in terms of authentic Aberdonian touches in the McRae novels, is also on show with HALFHEAD. Although his futuristic Glasgow doesn't reflect contemporary reality, of course, MacBride does paint a good early picture of the parameters of this future place. The reader quickly develops an appreciation for the world in which Westfield, Hunter, and the rest of the Glaswegian characters (working and unemployed, drug-addicted and clean, powerful and powerless) operate.
Given the futuristic setting, some might consider HALFHEAD science fiction – but it's really just an out-and-out crime thriller that happens to occur sometime in the future. The story, packed with explosions, automatic weapons, cops and criminals, revolves not around science and future technologies (although they play some small part), but Hunter acting as a detective, chasing down leads as he tries to solve a crime, then a conspiracy. Enjoyable and engrossing.