A trip to the abattoir is all in a day's work when fleshing out his most grisly mystery yet, Stuart MacBride tells David Stenhouse
WHEN I was growing up in Aberdeen, the only thing to fear from the local food was an early coronary caused by one too many rowies.
In the latest book by Stuart MacBride, the crime writer who has made a thriving career out of anatomising the criminal heart of the Granite City, the locals have rather more to be concerned about. Once human flesh is discovered in the food supply no Scotch pie or portion of mince and tatties is beyond suspicion.
Though MacBride has written a highly convincing manifesto for vegetarianism he is adamant that his fourth novel hasn't made him reject the pleasures of the flesh. "I remain a staunch meat eater," he assures me. "And what's more, I have a lot of respect for the people who showed me around my local abattoir."
It's not surprising that MacBride went to the bother of donning plastic overalls to do his research into cow dispatching methods: the award-winning writer has also struck up a close relationship with a number of Aberdonian police officers. From his meticulous transcriptions of the Aberdeen accent to his use of local place names, MacBride takes enormous care in making sure his novels are accurate.
In Flesh House, Aberdeen Detective Logan McRae is thrown into his most grisly case yet. The man who faced the Mastrick Monster must now confront the Flesher, a serial killer with a nasty selection of butcher's knives. The result is a killing spree gleefully reported in the local press, and a novel which is unprecedentedly gory. MacBride's novels have never shied away from depicting violence but, even so, this is a bloody leap forward.
"I try to make each novel as different as I can," he explains. "Previously I have done very little 'on-screen' violence. It's been alluded to and then we see the aftermath, and how it affects people. This is the first time it's been done 'on screen' and I'm a little worried to see how it's gone down. One of my test readers had nightmares for weeks afterwards."
That's not surprising. If it isn't the claustrophobic cellar where the Flesher's victims are hidden, it's the anatomic details that go into the dissection of the corpses. Flesh House is not a novel to read alone, or before your tea. And yet for all the Grand Guignol excess, its air of brooding tension is more creepy than the actual butchery.
"There's a lot of tension," he says. "In a lot of crime novels the press just don't seem to feature at all. All these horrific crimes are happening and there's no pressure from the media, whereas I like to ramp it up."
Not only is McRae trailed by a BBC TV crew hard at work filming a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the thinly disguised Aberdeen Examiner covers the case in elaborate detail. It's an accurate depiction of the goldfish bowl mentality of the place.
In his four novels, MacBride, who moved to Aberdeen from Dumbarton when he was a child, has cornered the market in depicting the North East's seedier corners. McRae's Aberdeen isn't yet as famous as Rebus's Edinburgh but he's getting there.
MacBride would be the first to admit, though, that when it comes to describing life in Aberdeen he was working in a curiously empty field. "It's a strange thing. Aberdeen is Scotland's third city. It has the oil industry, there's a huge influx of people coming and going from all over the world, and yet I still remember the days when if Aberdeen got mentioned on the weather on telly you'd say: 'Ooh, that's us!' In a literary sense Aberdeen hasn't been well exploited, but that's good for me."
MacBride's success has seen him grouped with contemporaries such as Alan Guthrie and Alex Gray under the 'tartan noir' label. Although initially MacBride felt the phrase was "a marketing label rather than a real description", he now feels there is something approaching a school of new Scottish crime writers. "There is quite a distinctive feel to Scottish crime fiction. Very darkly comedic stuff comes through, combined with a strong suspicion of authority."
But anyone expecting MacBride to keep on writing his novels for decades may be in for a disappointment. "Harper Collins has contracted me to write six books but there's nothing to say that McRae's going to survive number six. I would go mad if I had to write about the same person for 20 years." Even if McRae isn't destined to see the end of MacBride's novel sequence, readers will discover that the bloody events of Flesh House do have their effect: "He's a vegetarian in book five," says MacBride.
• Stuart MacBride is at the Word Festival, Aberdeen, Friday, 4.15pm. Flesh House is published by Harper Collins on Tuesday, 12.99.