A girl disappears just before her thirteenth birthday. One year later, a birthday card is sent to her parents, containing a photograph of their daughter. As the years go by, the photographs appear with unerring regularity. And in each picture, the girl’s condition worsens until…
The serial killer known as the Birthday Boy has been terrorising Scotland for a number of years and DC Ash Henderson is determined to catch him and make him pay. Because his daughter Rebecca was one of the victims, a fact that Henderson concealed from everyone in order to remain on the taskforce. But as the victims’ bodies finally start to surface, Ash is faced with a race against time against his colleagues, his enemies and his own demons in order to exact his vengeance.
Birthdays For The Dead concludes New Author August on this blog and is one of the five nominees for the CWA Bestseller Dagger, along with House of Silk, The Bat, Flash and Bones and The Glass Room, all of which I intend to review before the awards ceremony in mid-October. But I’ve ranted about nasty serial killer books before – is this another in a long line of popular books that I simply don’t get?
On the face of it, things don’t look good. Henderson is a nasty piece of work who is hard to sympathise with – he’s impatient and his idea of problem solving tends to involve both fists. He seems oblivious to the damage he causes to those around him… all in all, he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character?
So how the hell did Stuart MacBride make me feel sorry for him? Because he did. As the pieces begin to show how Henderson became the mess that he is, you begin to question how you would react if you were put in his shoes. It’s the story of a man who is on a downward spiral and nothing he seems to do can get him off of it. There’s an element of tragedy about the man – couple his situation with the fact that he’s not the most gifted policeman in the world, stumbling from accusation to accusation, and you wonder at times if he is ever going to find the Birthday Boy?
There’s a decent supporting cast, most notably in a pair of criminal psychologists, one of whom knows Henderson’s secret and one who doesn’t, but it’s impressive that MacBride takes the younger character, full of neuroses and new to the job, and doesn’t play her for laughs. It wouldn’t fit with the tone of the book and some authors would feel the need to have someone break the tension – not the case here.
It’s also to MacBride’s credit that the violence is not dwelt upon. Some of the descriptions of the photographs sent by the killer are pretty horrible – one in particular sticks in the memory – but these are described and then passed over. There’s never any question of how dreadful the crimes are, but we are not invited to leer over the nastiness, as is the case in some serial killer fiction. Similarly we never see inside the killer’s head – something that hardly ever works…
The mystery? Well, it’s hard to say without blowing a chunk of it, as often in such a book, it’s considered fair game for the killer to be someone we haven’t even been introduced to, so if I mention if it is clued or not, that would give a signpost to the reader, which I would consider a spoiler. Let’s just say, I was very satisfied when I got to the end of the book.
In fact, the more I reflect on this book, the more impressed I become. This is easily the best that I’ve read from the author – the Logan McRae series is his primary series, which I’ve read the first few of – enjoyed them but can’t recall much about them – and I’m very tempted to head straight to the voting website before reading the rest. This is an outstanding read, and I urge those of you who, like me, usually avoid serial killer books to give it a go. Really something special.