Author of the Month

Name: Stuart MacBride

First Novel: Cold Granite

Most Recent Book: Close To The Bone

'Simply put… this is the best book MacBride has written by a long way.'

A body is found chained to a stake. Not only is there a burning tyre around its neck but the victim has also been stabbed and strangled. Is this a gangland execution or something even darker?

Someone has started leaving little bones tied up with ribbon outside DI Logan McRae’s home but he has other things on his mind. Rival gangs are fighting a drugs war over territory and product, a pair of teenage lovers have gone missing, someone is going around crippling Asian immigrants and to make matters worse he has been lumbered with an overly ambitious DS, a mountain of paperwork and the attentions of his superiors and a crime boss.

When a second body turns up, it looks as if the murders are connected. To further muddy the waters the murders also resemble the plot of a bestselling novel. Perhaps those knots of bones are more important than Logan realises…

Stuart MacBride is one of a very few authors whose books clamber immediately to the top of my “to be read” pile. It was with great expectation that I picked up ‘Close to the Bone’ – because it’s almost two years since I last read about McRae and co – would it be as good as previous novels or not? Simply put… this is the best book MacBride has written by a long way.

The plot has many strands which are intertwined throughout the novel and are neatly tied up at the end. With so many cases for McRae to solve, the pace is electric throughout as developments follow discoveries. Never is the reader given a break from the relentless driving force which lies beneath the surface of the story. MacBride’s faultless prose is another facet which keeps the pages turning as nary a word is unnecessarily used.

McRae appears to be the only intelligent copper in this fantastic story and watching him deal with Steele, Rennie, Chalmers and all the others is a wonderful experience. The only way I can describe it is to imagine Poirot surrounded by the Keystone Cops with Gordon Ramsay’s less polite sister as his boss. DI Steele – who is now an acting DCI – is one of my favourite characters and for the first time in years MacBride has really let her off the leash and let her challenge for the central role.

All in all ‘Close to the Bone’ is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, shot through with black humour. At times I winced, while on more than one occasion I dropped the book as I was laughing so hard!

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) You took a break from the McRae novels for a year to write last year’s release ‘Birthdays for the Dead’. What was it like coming back to series characters after a lay off?
BIRTHDAYS was such a dark book to write – so all-consumingly grim and sombre – that coming back to Logan, Steel, and the gang was a bit like having a holiday. It’s strange to think that I missed them, but I did. Even though they’re not real. Which was, I suppose, kind of the point of taking a break from the series: let absence make the heart grow fonder while trying something new. It was especially nice to be able to leaven some of the heavier scenes in CLOSE TO THE BONE with a bit more humour than I could with Ash Henderson. Who is, let’s face it, a bit of a miserable bugger.
2) In ‘Close to the Bone’ you have many different challenges for McRae to face as usual. How hard is it to keep finding new ways to torture him?
One of the real problem with having so many subplots and crimes for Logan to deal with is the constant worry that I’m going to end up repeating myself sooner rather than later. That said, it’s always fun to torture Logan. And let’s face it: if he wanted an easy life he should never have been born fictional, should he? In a lot of ways he brings it on himself by being so trusting and naive. But mostly it’s just me being an utter bastard.
3) McRae and Steele are now acting DI and acting DCI respectively. Will they keep their new ranks in the future?
I honestly don’t know. A lot of people used to email me, saying things like, “When are you going to make the poor sod a DI?!?” when in real life, you can go your whole career in the Police as a uniformed constable. And in the force, that’s not seen as a failure, it’s just that the higher up the slippery pole you climb, the less actual police work you get to do.

In real life a Detective Inspector wouldn’t do a quarter of the things they do in books and on TV. A DI manages a team of investigators, they don’t knock on doors, or trudge through the rain; often they don’t even interrogate suspects – they have specially trained officers to do that, and they monitor the interview from the Downstream Observation Suite, guiding the process. So it’s perfectly possible that Logan’s going to eventually go, “Sod this for a game of soldiers.” and insist on going back to being a Detective Sergeant instead. That’s where he can probably do the most good. Whether or not Steel lets him do that, though… That’s a different matter.
4) Steele has been let off her leash somewhat and has some ferociously funny moments. Why have you allowed her a larger role?
I didn’t know she was on a leash in the first place – though I can see her being a ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ fan – it really just depends on the story how much page-time she gets. ‘SHATTER THE BONES’ was the culmination of Logan isolating himself because of the many horrible things that have happened to him over the course of the books, so pretty much everyone else was kept at arm’s length. In ‘CLOSE TO THE BONE’, on the other hand, he’s had two years to get a bit of help, come to terms with things, and move on with his life. And that means the team are allowed to play a much more of a role in this one, giving me an excuse to let Steel run riot and do what she does best: make Logan’s life miserable.
5) In one particular scene Steele meets her match. Is this something you have planned for a long time?
I have a deep-seated loathing of backstory and exposition. Seriously, it makes my bowels twitch when I have to wade through that kind of thing in a book, so there are many things about Steel’s past that you’ve never got to know about. And the scene you’re talking about seemed the perfect place to share some of that. Plus, it’s nice to have someone able to push back at her and press her buttons for a change.
6) Like a lot of authors who write dark novels you frequently use black humour. Some of the humour sails pretty near to the knuckle. How do you know what will work without stepping over the line and how many of your best lines have had to be cut out?
I have no idea whether any of it will work or not, I just have to stick it on the page and hope. Until I became a write-ist, I’d spent my whole adult life working in teams, and in the books I’ve tried to reflect the kind of humour that always popped up when things were going badly. And the worse things got, the blacker the jokes were. So I’m trying to be honest and true to the spirit of the twisted bunch of weirdoes I’ve worked with. Plus it’s a great excuse to have make-believe people say the kind of thing I’d never get away with.
7) Your writing style is very distinctive and you have a very strong voice. How much work goes into creating and maintaining your voice?
To be honest, I try to minimise my voice wherever possible, hoping that it’s the characters’ voices that come across instead of mine.

To get all boring and wanky about it: I’m a big believer in the close third-person narrative, that you can’t have narration without a narrator, and that means the story should be told in the vocabulary and idiom of whoever’s the point of view character at the time. I’ve also become obsessed with “show, don’t tell”, meaning that I spend a hell of a lot longer agonising over every word than is healthy. I don’t even use dialogue tags any more.

The books would be a hell of a lot easier, and quicker to write if I could lighten up on the technical side of things, but I can’t. I want them to be as good as I can possibly make them, and that means obsessing and fiddling and rewriting over and over and over again…

Personally, I blame Allan Guthrie. When we get together this is the kind of thing we always end up having brow-furrowing discussions about well into the wee small hours, while our respective spouses glaze over then fall asleep.
8) What are you currently writing?
Right now I’m just starting the book that’ll be out in January 2014. I’m not going to say anything about in case I have to print it out, burn it, and bury its bones in the dark of night somewhere it’ll never be found.
9) Which of the Logan McRae novels was easiest and hardest to write, and why?
Probably the easiest of the Logan books to write was the first one: ‘COLD GRANITE’. There were no expectations, no contracts, and no deadlines. I was just doing it for the fun of writing, and to see if I could actually produce a straight police procedural. And, of course, back then I wasn’t as obsessed with the technical minutia as I am these days.

The hardest one to write was probably ‘FLESH HOUSE’. I fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with that one, over fourteen months of forehead-bashing on the keyboard and muttered swearing. Some of which wasn’t very muttered at all.
10) If you had a gun to your head (metaphorically) who in your mind’s eye would play McRae and Steel?
I have absolutely no idea. I’ve never described Logan in any of the books: I don’t know what his eye-colour is, how tall, if he has a lumpy nose… He’s always the point of view character of any scene he’s in, and he’s not the kind of guy to admire his reflection in every available shiny surface (as an excuse to describe him to the reader). The idea was that the reader would get to decide what he looks like, so they’d have a bit of ownership of him. Of course the downside of that is everyone’s idea of what he looks like is going to be different and whoever got cast would always be wrong in their eyes. Ideally, it’d be an Aberdonian actor who looked like an ordinary person, rather than a square-jawed hero type.

DI Steel on the other hand … I think the best suggestion I ever had for someone to play her was Helen Mirren. I just love the thought of her going from playing the Queen, to DI Roberta Steel.
11) What would you say would be your top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Number one would have to be ‘HARD FROST’ by R.D. Wingfield. For my money, one of, if not the best crime writer the UK has ever produced. I bought one of his books during a lunchtime at work, went back to my desk to read and eat my sandwich, and fifteen minutes later I was back in the bookshop buying everything else he’d ever written. He was a tremendous writer who filled his characters with complexity, humour, and this incredible sense of reality. I picked my agent because he represented Wingfield, and as that agent is the one who suggested I try writing a straight police procedural, I wouldn’t be where or what I am today without R.D. Wingfield.

Number two on the list would have to be ‘RED HARVEST’ by Dashell Hammett. As a wee lad the first books I ever picked for myself, rather than the books my parents or teachers wanted me to read, were THE HARDY BOYS MYSTERIES and I devoured them one after another, then moved straight on to the collected works of Dashell Hammett. Which seems a bit of a leap, now that I think about it. But it opened up a whole new world to me, one of double-crosses and shady dealings and a very different kind of prose. That really made a big impression on my squishy schoolboy brain.

Number three changes depending on what day it is. It might be’THE MERMAIDS SINGING’ by Val McDermid, or Ian Rankin’s ‘BLACK AND BLUE’, or Andrew Klaven’s ‘TRUE CRIME’, or ‘THE LONG ARM OF GIL HAMILTON’ by Larry Niven, or ‘DEATH OF A GLUTTON’ by M.C. Beaton… And that’s just for starters. It’s pretty much impossible to choose.