Stuart MacBride

Harper Collins

ISBN: 978-0-00-724462-1

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

If you take out all the obscenities and overlook the unpleasant sexual crimes committed (in the past) by one of the central characters, Dark Blood is actually a very middle of the road novel. It’s not exciting, it isn’t strongly plotted, and none of the characters will rouse your sympathies. It’s well written, but mildly interesting at best.

As the novel opens, convicted rapist Richard Knox is being relocated to Aberdeen. He’s served his time and so is free to live where he wants, including returning to his childhood home. But no-one believes he’s done with offending, so he’ll be under close observation. Detective Sergeant Logan McRae is part of the team responsible for overseeing Knox. He’s not happy; he’s got enough problems as it is without babysitting an evil weirdo. His career is in the toilet, his relationship isn’t great, he’s drinking himself to death, and criminals will just keep on and on committing crimes on his patch. And a lot of those criminals hit him rather hard, doing quite a bit of physical damage.

Things are about to get much worse than McRae ever imagined. The officer who put Knox behind bars has come to Aberdeen to “keep an eye on things”. But he has an ulterior motive and he’s followed by a number of heavies with a very similar (but more overt) motive. Knox was naïve if he truly thought he could escape his past that easily. And a local crime lord has some unrelated plans for McRae.

The plot of Dark Blood was just not that riveting, although realistic enough. I could believe everything that happened, and it all made sense within the parameters MacBride had established. The trouble was, I just didn’t care about it. The plot wasn’t compelling and didn’t rouse any great curiousity in me. Nor did it really contain any great surprises – although there were a few twists, none of them were gasp-provoking.

The characterisations were either extremely lazy or very dependent on the reader being familiar with earlier novels in the series. At least, I assume there are earlier novels; there’s no specific indication of that. But the characters are half-formed and their relationships with each other uninteresting.  I hope the reason for this is that MacBride was relying on groundwork from earlier novels; oblique references to events not discussed in this novel suggest so. But it was impossible to identify with any of these half-formed characters, or to care much about any of their dilemmas. Most of them are fairly unpleasant in one way or another and the few who aren’t are just drab, to the extent that I can’t recall the name of any characters without checking back.

The investigatory approach of most of the police is unrealistic and given the proliferation of carefully researched crime novels in recent years, it’s hard to really lose yourself in a novel that seems to give only a passing nod to reality. We can suspend disbelief at things like a police officer breaking into a flat in the name of drama. But regular readers of crime fiction will raise their eyebrows at an officer who refuses to wear gloves when touching possible evidence, even when reminded by a colleague, and who consistently ignores all rules about preserving a scene, documenting evidence, not corrupting evidence – and who never experiences problems around this.

Yes, I’m sure some of this is realistic in a way we’d like to believe it isn’t – police putting the hard word on offenders to get evidence against bigger offenders, a bit of brutality, police pocketing some illegal goods for their own personal use. And sure, these characters are right to roll their eyes at the notion that you can get, for example, DNA results within hours. The trouble is that there just wasn’t a bedrock of behaviour that rang true to anchor the rest of it. It seems likely these police officers would never get a conviction. Nor were we given any strong reason for these officers to act in a way that defied training and convention; it just seemed a convenient way to add a bit more cynicism to the narrative.

On the positive side, Dark Blood is well written – the prose flows well and it’s a pretty easy read. The crimes Knox committed are, if not unique, certainly unusual and ugly. However, MacBride doesn’t dwell on these to a voyeuristic degree. The setting in Aberdeen seems realistic, and although it didn’t fully spring to life for me, it also was possible to believe in it.

There wasn’t really anything truly bad about this novel – it’s just that nothing struck me as particularly outstanding either. It’s a kind of average novel; it’ll keep most readers interested enough, but you’ll find it easy to put down if needed, and I doubt you’ll remember it for very long. It may be that readers of other novels will enjoy seeing some of the characters progress in their lives, but it seems a small progression.