The structure of this darkly humorous standalone novel from bestselling crime author Stuart MacBride allows it to hit the ground running.
The narrative opens 17 months into an investigation into a spate of serial killings in a fictitious town, Oldcastle, in the North East of Scotland.
Detective Sergeant Lucy McVeigh is revisiting five crime scenes where victims’ bodies were discovered in appallingly grisly scenes in the hope of making a breakthrough.
The killer has been nicknamed The Bloodsmith by the press and there are shades of Jack the Ripper in the way that the bodies have been mutilated and echoes of the Yorkshire Ripper in the repeated criticism of the police who are “still no nearer to catching him”.
At each murder scene, the words “Help Me” have been scrawled in victims’ blood. In the first case this was seen as a plea from the dying, by the second, it becomes clear that the entreaty is from the killer.
Lucy can find nothing to connect the victims: “All five had gone to different schools, they didn’t look anything alike, none of them worked in the same industry or lived in the same part of town, they hadn’t belonged to the same clubs, they hadn’t joined the same Facebook groups, they hadn’t followed the same people on Twitter.” So lists almost all areas of life in which we are connected.
Intercut with her progress is the decades-old case of an 11-year-old boy who, with an unknown accomplice, confessed to killing a homeless man. Now out of prison and living on the streets with a drug habit, he contacts Lucy, begging for protection from “Them”.
Our heroine herself has a mysterious, traumatic past. She is urged into counselling by concerned colleagues, her name is recognised by the public and she receives sympathetic treatment because of “the incident”. Denying she has PTSD, she refuses to discuss what happened, so it is half way through the novel before we find out. While it does keep you turning the pages, the full horror of her ordeal when revealed takes the reader into the dark recesses of her memory.
Her sidekick, Detective Constable Duncan Fraser, provides some comic relief. “The Dunc” is a short of stature, overweight, chain-smoking officer who dresses like a beatnik. His sarcasm, constant complaints about the structure of society and reluctance to expel effort make for a pleasing counterpoint to the bullish Lucy.
MacBride is not just a master at capturing the stomach-turning crime scenes and fast paced action, but has talent for describing the less appealing aspects of life. His vivid rendering of his characters’ appearances, bodily emissions and even eating habits mean this isn’t a novel to read over dinner.
No Less the Devil, by Stuart MacBride, Bantam Press, £20