Two years ago Stuart MacBride’s debut novel, Cold
Granite, hit store shelves, garnering praise from authors
such as Val McDermid. MacBride’s profile was bolstered
by the solid reviews and critical acclaim, as well as the
fact his agent had already sold rights in the US and Europe.
Instead of waiting to see how MacBride would do in the UK
first, the relatively close release dates at home and abroad
created a bit of a stir around a talented new author who,
like all Scottish male crime fiction authors are cursed
to do, automatically drew comparisons to Ian Rankin.
It may be true that MacBride is Scottish, and it may also
be true that he’s writing police procedurals, but
his style is different from that of other established crime
fiction authors, and any comparisons fall short of fair
assessment. It’s like comparing a football player
to a figure skater – simplistic at best, and in no
way a fair basis for evaluating their respective talents.
From the first novel, MacBride employed a deft narrative
that is heavy on action and dialogue. Instead of giving
us character history ad nauseum, there is a sense from the
first pages that the reader is not being introduced to MacBride’s
protagonist, Logan McRae, so much as catching up with him
at this point in his life and being given the chance to
tag along. MacBride dispenses with the usual formalities
of bogging the reader down with pages of character history
and takes us right to the meat of the story. In the same
way that when we meet people in real life we do not normally
get their life history dispensed to us, MacBride slowly
inserts the relevant information as the book progresses.
We not only follow the investigation, we get to know McRae
over the course of the book. His actions reveal his character,
which is ‘show not tell’ writing at its best.
MacBride resists the urge to spend pages of narrative telling
us what McRae things, and instead uses the plot, the strain
on his protagonist and each situation he faces to show us
who McRae is.
Cold Granite didn’t just garner high praise and solid
sales: It was nominated for an ITW award, is currently up
for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year
and won the Barry Award. When Dying Light followed it made
the Sunday Times bestseller list. Word was out: There was
a new talent on the scene with a distinctive style well
worth checking out.
I have read all three of MacBride’s books – Cold
Granite, Dying Light and Broken Skin. MacBride’s lean
prose and wonderful sense of humour contribute to the strengths
of the storytelling, but the sheer force of his narrative
is distinctive. MacBride uses the narrative pace to communicate
to the reader on a different level. Three books in, MacBride
has demonstrated an ability to weave multiple threads of
various storylines together effectively, in a way that shows
the reader the very real challenges police officers face
on the job. Seldom do they have the luxury of working one
case, even if it is high profile. Often their efforts are
undermined by the politics and power struggles of their
superior officers. And, as McRae discovers in Dying Light,
sometimes doing your job by the book means you still end
up carrying responsibility for things outside your control.
By using this intense style of narrative the reader can
imagine they know exactly how McRae feels and the challenges
he’s up against, with things coming at him from all
directions. We not only understand the strain he’s
under, we can feel it.
In Broken Skin, McRae works with two detective inspectors,
has a shift supervisor hassling him about working overtime,
is juggling multiple cases and is dealing with strain in
his personal life. MacBride resists any temptation to make
Broken Skin a brooding, introspective tale where his protagonist
spends hours alone feeling sorry for himself, worrying about
the possibility of losing his job and the direction his
relationship has taken. McRae rolls with every phone call,
interruption, conflicting order from his two bosses and,
yes, even the fall-out from his own legitimate mistakes
that are partially the result of the pressures he’s
The lack of McRae’s prolonged contemplation of his
problems doesn’t lessen the impact for the reader.
If anything, the intensity of the multiple investigations
gives the reader a real sense of the challenges McRae is
grappling with. Things are coming at him from all directions
and that is translated to the reader without softening the
impact. The reader seldom has more information than McRae
does, and is literally piecing things together at the same
time he is. We must pay attention. We’re trusted to
be a smart reader and not need things spelled out for us
six times. MacBride credits his audience with intelligence,
thankfully, and for that we’re rewarded with a complex
story that fully engages us. The style of narrative communicates
as much to the reader as every word on the page and the
result is a riveting story that keeps you turning the pages
instead of one that feels repetitious and overdone.
Many books, particularly those by new authors, seem to follow
standard, conventional formulas that give us time to know
the character, get our bearings and soften the pace of the
investigation with pages of narrative between the action.
This can be done well and effectively, and sometimes with
pure genius, but many stories have the feel of hitting the
reader over the head with the information. For example,
the fact that someone is sobbing uncontrollably isn’t
trusted as enough to tell the reader the person is upset:
Instead, it’s followed by three paragraphs describing
just how shocked and dismayed the person is, something most
of us realized when they started crying. Too many authors
are afraid to let actions speak for themselves. MacBride
isn’t. We’re in McRae’s shoes, trying
to determine is his girlfriend is lying to him or not. We
see what McRae sees, and we also understand the conflict
within his own heart that might be clouding his judgment.
MacBride doesn’t undermine the tension by revealing
the truth to the reader – we share those moments with
McRae and process his reactions with him.
My intention isn’t to completely discount one form
of storytelling. However, as a reviewer I will say that
there are so many books that feel as though the author has
simply pulled out a list of required ingredients for a story
and just gone about checking them off. Others are so repetitious
they seem to be the product of the TV era, as though the
author expects readers to have a short attention span and
be forgetful, or not astute enough to pick up on subtle
That’s why MacBride’s approach is so refreshing.
MacBride has clearly focused on tight writing, but not at
the expense of telling large stories with compelling characters.
These are police procedurals worthy of note, books that
join McRae for segments of time, allowing us to follow the
investigations as they unfold and they give the reader a
taste of the real stresses and frustrations a detective
sometimes deals with on a day to day basis. MacBride has
given himself the additional challenge of telling the stories
in third person narrative, and yet manages to draw us right
alongside McRae, affording a sense of intimacy usually attributed
to first person narratives.
When I considered writing a review of Broken Skin I realized
that any standard analysis of the plot, writing and my overall
impressions would fall short of really expressing what I
think is most worthy to note about MacBride’s work.
With just three books behind him he’s been nominated
for a CWA Dagger in the Library, an award that is given
for an author’s body of work. There are authors with
three times as many novels to their name who have never
been shortlisted for this honour, and I find the nomination
(announced before the release of Broken Skin) telling. It
is evidence of the impact MacBride is having on crime fiction
readers in the UK, and one hopes it will translate into
influence on writers and publishers as well.
It also supports the feeling I had, that reviewing Broken
Skin on its own would not do proper credit to MacBride’s
work. MacBride still has room for growth, but with just
three novels to his name he has proven that an intense page-turner
can be realistic and intelligent.
Broken Skin, the latest from MacBride, is a fantastic novel
that will leave MacBride’s fans on edge, waiting for
the next book, and it solidifies his place in the crime
fiction community as not just a newcomer to watch, but a
rising star in the genre.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sandra Ruttan’s debut suspense novel, Suspicious Circumstances,
was released in January, 2007. For more information about Sandra visit
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