Books | A song for the dying – As close to a perfect crime novel as you can get

When a book has a name like ‘A Song for the Dying’, it shouldn’t be hard to guess what it’s about: gruff detectives, gruesome murders and gallons of blood. In his new book for 2014, Stuart MacBride delivers these in spades.

Eight years ago, Ash Henderson failed to catch ‘the Inside Man’, a serial killer with a predilection for kidnapping nurses and stitching dolls inside their stomachs. When the bodies start turning up again, Ash is released from prison to help track him down.

Now, this book won’t be for everyone. MacBride’s use of sentence fragments can be grating, and he uses similes like a small child vomits: happily, often and with reckless abandon. For some, devices like these can draw them out of the narrative. However, in the tenser sections of the book, they build up pace and keep things suspenseful, and help to give a sense of character, and character is definitely one of MacBride’s strong points.

Yes, Ash Henderson may not be the most original character ever devised (police forces must be absolutely full of street-smart detectives who don’t play by the rules) but MacBride still manages to make him charming and relatable. This is helped somewhat by Ash’s relationship with Alice, a psychologist and bearer of the other half of the GPS ankle monitor that he’s made to wear as terms if his release. The fact that the two can’t be more than 100 yards apart not only means that MacBride can justify keeping his most likable character around, it sets up some interesting situations for the narrative.

What’s more, for a book so filled with blood and guts and misery, A Song for the Dying is actually quite funny. Sure, you might not be laughing out loud at every page, but there’s enough humour in it to brighten some of the relentless grittiness. All this is wrapped around an engaging mystery, and an eventual reveal that is very hard to see coming.

What MacBride has written here is as close to a perfect crime novel as one can get. If you only read one such book this year, make it this one.

Adam Button

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