Book review: A Dark So Deadly, by Stuart MacBride

Suspend your disbelief and there is much to enjoy in Stuart MacBride's storytelling, but murder without morality palls

Stuart McBride: a splendid storyteller even if the story he tells is abusurd

Tartan Noir has been a success, but it may be running out of steam as it moves from the credible to the just credible to the incredible. There has long been an element of make-believe about it, for Scotland is not after all a country rich in criminality. Serial killers are rare, happily, and scandals in public life are about as low-key as you can get. Now a lot of Tartan Noir is only as firmly rooted in social reality as Midsommer Murders; murder as entertainment.

Stuart MacBride seems to have arrived at this point. His early novels, set in Aberdeen, were gritty and persuasive, so long as you were ready to be persuaded that the Granite City is very different from what it actually is. But A Dark So Deadly is, frankly, a caper in which the plot is ridiculous, the crimes grotesque and the police unbelievable. That said, he doggedly goes through the standard motions of an investigation and it is easy to suspend disbelief, and to find the caper enjoyable. It is of course far too long, but that is the fashion in crime-writing today. Economy is despised, prolixity valued. Nevertheless MacBride is a splendid storyteller, even if the story he tells is absurd.

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He has chosen to set it in an imaginary town, which is perhaps just as well. A map of the city of Oldcastle is provided and some readers may find pleasure in checking the movements of characters with the map. Others will, I assume, ignore it. Oldcastle is apparently the serial killer capital of Scotland. This being apparently so, you may think it strange that Police Scotland has decided that officers it would like to get rid of but can’t should be based there. They are “Misfits” and both defiantly proud and resentful of their status. When a number of mummified bodies start appearing, they are determined to keep the investigation to themselves and it would be a hypercritical reader who objected that in the real world they would be quickly removed from it.

This doesn’t matter. MacBride is interested in examining and developing the relationships between his misfits, and some of this is well and convincingly done. Not all of it. There is one character, DS McAdams, who is dying of cancer, dodging his chemotherapy sessions, and speaks much of the time in impromptu rhyming verse. This is quite engaging, but you would be dull if you didn’t quite soon start wondering about him. The novel has a hero, DC Callum MacGregor, a much put-upon young man. He was abused as child and brought up in care after his parents were abducted and his twin brother disappeared. This is the sort of past you expect to come alive again, rather horribly, and you will not be disappointed. Callum is actually an engaging and – surprisingly – credible character, though his ability to recover from beatings which would land a real person in hospital is remarkable. His developing professional relationship with Rosalind, the black, female DC who is wished on him as a partner is one of the rare things that rings true in the novel. Even his habit of reading children’s books will prove relevant to the grotesque denouement.

The trouble with this sort of crime fiction is that, as in Midsommer Murders, nothing matters. Murder, no matter how brutal, is mere entertainment. Raymond Chandler praised his forerunner Dashiell Hammett for giving back. But while there was an element of game-playing in, say, Agatha Christie, she never allowed the reader to forget that murder is wicked; she was a moralist. William McIlvanney knew that too, and so does Ian Rankin. But Tartan Noir in its decadence has no time or room for morality; it’s all game-playing, escapist literature. In this novel MacBride plays the game with energy, inventiveness and brio. This novel is in its way highly enjoyable because MacBride is an exceptionally gifted storyteller. Reading it will very agreeably pass the time in an airport or on a long flight. But none of it matters a damn.

A Dark So Deadly is published by Harper Collins, £16.99