Book review: Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. Once upon a time there was a man called Stuart who wrote crime novels in which awful things happened a lot, often to quite nice people. But Stuart wasn't satisfied with being a writer and collector of stray kittens, so he went on Celebrity Mastermind, where he answered lots of questions, especially about AA Milne, and won a trophy and money for charity for his pains.

Stuart MacBride PIC: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
Stuart MacBride PIC: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

In his introduction to Now We Are Dead, MacBride credits Winnie-the-Pooh as being the book that made him a reader, and now, pushing the boundaries of the crime genre once more, he has borrowed Milne’s structures, taken inspiration from his life and all but stolen one of his titles to create Now We Are Dead. For good measure, he has dropped in Roberta Steel, one of his most beloved creations – though not the character one would immediately associate with gentle summer pastimes.

Steel has been demoted from detective chief inspector to sergeant, so instead of ordering Logan Macrae around between scoffing sausage butties and hoiking up her bra straps, she has to get back in the high heid yins’ good books. The only problem is Steel has all the diplomacy of a hand grenade at a dinner party – and that’s on a good day. And, as we see from the prologue, today is not a good day…

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The days leading up to the incident in question don’t go too well either, as Steel deals with shoplifters, a man with a series of superhero masks but no clothes, and a couple of detective constables seemingly incapable of coherent thought. To cap it all, she is shut out of an investigation into a rape she is sure one Jack Wallace is guilty of, due to her previous link to him: she manufactured evidence that saw him jailed. When she was found out, he was freed and she was demoted.

Being the definition of stubborn, Steel can’t leave well alone, although before she can deal with Wallace there are encounters with dog owner Agnes and three children which reveal a side to the chaotically haired cop that brought a lump to the throat of your reviewer.

My one quibble with this novel is the rape cases: Steel being kept out of the investigation means we don’t see the women as characters at all, which veers close to the tired trope of using young women as victims for gruesome effect. But I think this is simply an unfortunate necessity of the plot – when Steel is dealing with Agnes and the children, MacBride’s skill in writing about truly terrible things with care and empathy is clear. There is plenty of humour – mostly black, sometimes puerile – in MacBride’s books, but there is always emotion and heart, too. His treatment of Steel here is what has stayed with me.

Elsewhere, Steel and Tufty’s game of poohsticks is a delight strictly for adults, and the recreation involving Steel of Christopher Robin coming downstairs with Edward Bear is both perfect and terrifying (as is the golf swing of Steel’s wife, Susan, which is demonstrated shortly afterwards). MacBride has even swapped his usual glowering rain and sleet for a dreamy childhood holidays calm.

So, do the team manage to return the stolen mobile phones, help the kids and catch the rapist? MacBride has never been one for “happily ever after” endings, but even grumpy Aberdeen cops with terrible hair get a break from unrelenting misery sometimes. If you need a break from the real world, you should go down to the Hundred Acre Wood today and join Aunty Roberta’s gang.

*Now We Are Dead, by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, £14.99