Birthdays for the Dead – Stuart MacBride

The Birthday Boy is a serial kidnapper and killer, preying on young girls. For twelve years he has not only committed these murders, but has continued to torment and torture the poor parents with a succession of birthday cards, each one showing the progressive violence visited on their child.

Detective Constable Ash Henderson is one of those parents. However, he has kept it secret – even from his wife – with a cover story about his daughter, Rebecca, running away. He has also intercepted the birthday cards before his wife could see them. Why? Henderson is trying to catch this deadly killer, and knows that if his personal involvement is revealed, he will be kept off the case.

It’s an engrossing (and very troubling) scenario, which MacBride seems to relish.And if you think it couldn’t get any more intense, think again. From the start, the author (figuratively) turns up the heat, and adds more to the mix.

Henderson’s desperate personal crusade is not waged with due respect for law, order and justice. There is violence and there is corruption, with Henderson being unafraid to act in place of the judicial system with not so much as a backward glance.

Inevitably, I have to compare this with MacBride’s other crime series about Logan McRae. How to put it? McRae is no shrinking violet, but he is absolutely as soft as soft can be alongside the one man avenger that is Henderson. In short, Henderson is not a nice person. Ok, that was a bit restrained. Henderson is bad. ┬áSome would call him worse names, and he would probably deserve them. But he is the central figure (and there are more on the way) so whether you like the book or not may depend on your disposition towards such individuals.

Whereas there is plenty to get your teeth into in the character of Henderson, most of the other people in the story do not get too much attention. There are a couple of female characters – Dr MacDonald and Rhona the police colleague – who might develop into worthwhile creations, but other than that it was cardboard cutout stuff. There is a modest organized crime connection, with Henderson in debt to some people who are even worse than him. But, for me, the Mrs Kerrigan character seemed more low level cartoon than low life. And I thought Inglis, the Boss, was just poor.

The story has its twists and turns, and the final disclosure is a powerful one. However, there are too many missed opportunities, or overcooking of the situation, to make this one of his best. I confess I am intrigued enough to want to get the next one – maybe that’s a success for the author – though I would not wholeheartedly encourage others to read it. The Logan McRae material is better. But I would not rule out MacBride turning the tables on us poor readers, and making Ash Henderson a glorious success.

Score: 6/10.