MacBride, Stuart - 'Birthdays for the Dead'
This year's photo was mounted on plain white card. My little girl. Rebecca. Tied to a chair in a basement somewhere. She was... He'd taken her clothes.
A Monday morning in November, his missing daughter Rebecca's eighteenth birthday, and Detective Constable Ash Henderson opens the birthday card. It's the fifth since she disappeared. And here it is - a polaroid photograph of his daughter Rebecca, tied to a chair, bruised and bloodied. Five years missing and, Henderson is sure, five years dead. Because everyone knows the The Birthday Boy takes young girls, just before their thirteenth birthday, and kills them. Then on every birthday he sends the parents a home-made birthday card featuring a polaroid of their daughter, each one more harrowing than the last, a time-line of torture and death. Henderson has told no-one about the cards, not even his ex-wife. The story is that Rebecca ran away from home. If they knew that The Birthday Boy took Rebecca he would be taken off the case. He would never get the chance to find his daughter's killer.
So Henderson puts this year's card away with the others and resumes his day. An ice pack on the bruises, a kick at his sleeping dosser of a brother on the sofa, taking the angry phone call from his ex-wife, answering the threatening call from the loan shark's venomous fixer - and finally getting into his rust heap of a car to drive to Dundee and the police team's conference over the latest "birthday card". There, just to complete his day, he is introduced to the new forensic psychologist on the case, Dr Alice McDonald. Not a day over twenty-two by the looks of her. And a complete and utter fruitcake. But there is some good news. Grim news but good news. They've found the bodies of two of The Birthday Boy's victims, perhaps more than two. Finally they have something to work with apart from the photos. Finally Henderson will know where Rebecca is buried.
Stuart MacBride writes the successful crime series set in Aberdeen featuring DS Logan McRae and the Grampian Police. But with BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD we have a standalone thriller set in the fictional town of Oldcastle, midway between Dundee and Aberdeen. The stars of this book are Detective Ash Henderson, a walking ruin of a man whom I wouldn't like to meet on a dark night, and Dr Alice McDonald, forensic psychologist, phobic, gifted, and given to consuming fried breakfasts and alcohol by way of fuelling her insights. Both are nightmares on their own - but together they make a compulsive crime solving partnership. The action of this novel takes place over little more than one week in their lives. But what a week. This is of course a totally gripping book, my hands and eyes were glued to it. The pace is relentless and the characters spring fully formed onto the page. McDonald and Henderson drive the length and breadth of Scotland and England, the background noise of the radio as accompaniment, dreadful DJs, pop lyrics, and news bulletins spell out the progress of the investigation. If it were not for the chemistry and dark humour of this pair I could find BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD too grim and bleak. Some of the violent imagery of the photos is hard to dispel and the plot contains a procession of monstrous women and weak, vain men. But Henderson and McDonald rattle on down the road towards unmasking the killer, their journey's pace and tension increasing to hysterical proportions until it inevitably slides into a dark crash of an ending. Will they be in time to save the final victim? As they say, I really couldn't put it down.
Lynn Harvey, England