Review

BROKEN SKIN BY STUART MACBRIDE:
THIRD NOVEL SEALS HIS PLACE AS A CUTTING-EDGE STORYTELLER

By Sandra Ruttan


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 working under.

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 clues.

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 her website


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