After making only a cameo appearance in last year’s Now We Are Dead, in which Stuart MacBride brought DI (now DS) Roberta Steel to the fore, Aberdeen detective Logan McRae is back centre stage, with a move from CID to Professional Standards. Who watches the watchmen? Apparently Logan does.
He already has a case that is proving tricky, so he doesn’t appreciate being called out to a routine car crash. But all is not as it seems: since he was buried two years ago with full police honours, it comes as a surprise to find DI Duncan Bell dead in the driver’s seat. Who inflicted the stab wound that caused him to bleed out at the wheel of the car? Why did DI Bell disappear two years ago? And who is buried in his grave?
Meanwhile, DS Lorna Chalmers has a disintegrating home life, a chaotic attitude to her work, and Professional Standards (in the shape of Logan) on her case. She is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of three-year-old Ellie Morton, so why has she been badly beaten up in a different part of town?
Logan may not be on the team – his Professional Standards status in fact makes him a pariah in the station – but he can’t help thinking about the fact that Ellie is one of several children to go missing, and after hearing rumours about their destiny, he is compelled to try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. On his way to the answers he meets violence, dead bodies and dead ends – and when he goes out on a limb, he gets a painful reminder of old times.
The human tornado with a selection of ill-fitting bras that is DS Steel is only glimpsed briefly until the last part of the book, but I didn’t miss her, as watching Logan spread his wings was so rewarding. And in The Blood Road MacBride pushes himself harder than ever both in terms of weaving together complex plot strands – including a powerful portrait of how far one mother is prepared to go to get her missing son back – and in terms of style. Every sentence is hewn and polished so they all slot together to make an elegant whole, like a drystone wall with rocks large and small all in exactly the right place. The almost 500 pages turn effortlessly.
Reminders of earlier novels are scattered throughout like the lovingly dismembered mice Cthulu the cat brings Logan and his girlfriend, Tara – pathologist Isobel, crime reporter Colin and Logan’s scars all appear.
There are poignant touches, too, Logan’s conversations with Cthulu reminding long-term readers of his former girlfriend, Sam, while new readers will note that Logan confides in a cat in lieu of there being anyone significant in his life whom he trusts.
MacBride’s handling of Ellie is delicately devastating, bringing a lump to the throat with its evocation of the confusions of a young child. But this is leavened with the actions of battling little Becca, another of the missing children, just as the sombreness of the adult world is broken with a giggle at the inventiveness of language deployed to avoid swearing in front of kids.
MacBride’s books have always been ambitiously plotted and firmly character-driven. Now that he is bringing more emotions and vulnerabilities into the open, they are only getting richer and more rewarding. The Blood Road is his best work yet.
The Blood Road, by Stuart MacBride, HarperCollins, £16.99