Book review: The Dead Of Winter by Stuart MacBride

Stuart MacBride’s new novel is a locked-room mystery with an undercurrent of the blackest humour, writes Louise Fairbairn

Stuart MacBride’s latest novel is set in a village in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Glenfarach, and with the help of the Scottish winter weather gives us a locked room mystery in his inimitable style.

Few crime writers mix the horrific and the humourous as he does, and it’s not to everyone’s taste. But if it’s to yours, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

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Our central pair are DC Edward Reekie, who we meet as his new boss, DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter – aka Bigtoria, though never to her face – digs a shallow grave in a snowstorm.

Stuart MacBride PIC: Mark MainzStuart MacBride PIC: Mark Mainz
Stuart MacBride PIC: Mark Mainz

MacBride then takes us back to the beginning. Our intrepid pair have a simple task: take prisoner Mark Bishop from HMP Grampian to his new home in Glenfarach. Having being diagnosed as terminally ill, he is to see out the remainder of his sentence in the village, which houses criminals who can't be released back into the general community. A handful of cops and social workers keep an eye on the ankle-tagged residents via a copious amount of CCTV, a curfew and strict rules on phones and internet use.

Bishop is safely handed over, but Reekie and Bigtoria have barely left the village when a radio call comes: turn around, we’ve just found a body – and it’s definitely not natural causes…

The snow handily keeps the duty inspector, the cavalry from Aberdeen and the forensics teams out, and cuts off communications – and the CCTV is on the fritz too. So Bigtoria and Reekie join forces with the three local cops to investigate. The snow keeps snowing and the hits keep coming. Then things take a spectacularly bad turn for Reekie, and we’re back at that opening scene.

After all the unravelling of nefarious plans, there is a tidy knitting up of loose ends as the weather finally breaks. Reekie has an optimistic outlook, is keen to do a good job and is almost puppyishly enthusiastic even when squished by Bigtoria’s bark and bite and refusal to let him rest while there is crime to be solved. But there are chinks in her armour just as there is backbone in Reekie, and their odd couple double act gels neatly.

The Dead of Winter, by Stuart MacBrideThe Dead of Winter, by Stuart MacBride
The Dead of Winter, by Stuart MacBride

The supporting cast are a delightful mix of hapless and competent-but-worn-down cops and social workers, plus terrifying grotesques and normal-on-the-surface criminals. They all teeter on the edges of believable, but if you’re not prepared to firmly suspend disbelief, MacBride is not the writer for you.

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In other hands, The Dead Of Winter could have descended into misery and darkness, or been a pastiche of a classic farce. But that MacBride humour – drier than the Sahara, darker than the bottom of a coal mine, tongue firmly wedged in cheek – means it steers clear of the extremes and offers instead a tale with genuine jeopardy that is also sheer entertainment. It’s a high wire balancing act, but MacBride never falters.

The Dead Of Winter by Stuart MacBride, Bantam Press, £20