I finished listening to Stuart MacBride’s BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD a couple of days ago and I didn’t like it. Lots of people have recommended the author to me and with reviews like this one I thought I might enjoy the book even though it features a serial killer (been there, done that, got the t-shirt). Alas I struggled to find the book even vaguely credible and thought the protagonist a crushing, arrogant bore. As always I’m sure my reactions say more about me than they do about the quality of the book but it was definitely not one for me.
It has an audacious premise which I wholeheartedly failed to ever buy into. It is that there is a serial killer active around the mainland UK who each year for many years has been kidnapping a 12-year old girl, torturing her then killing her on her 13 birthday. Every subsequent year each girl’s parents receive a home made birthday card featuring progressively more gruesome pictures of their respective daughters as they die. One of the policemen working the case is Detective Constable Ash Henderson whose own daughter, Rebecca, disappeared when she was 12, five years ago as the book opens. But Henderson has not told anyone that he too receives the photo cards on Rebecca’s birthdays and that therefore she was a victim of the sadistic killer. Henderson’s ex-wife, his other daughter and his colleagues all believe Rebecca simply disappeared or, as the ex-wife says ‘abandoned us’.
Even if I were to accept that Ash Henderson is probably self-absorbed enough to think his need to stay on the case more important than anyone else’s right to know what had happened to their own family member I couldn’t swallow the rest of this premise. Particularly his ex-wife’s blasé acceptance of her daughter’s status as a runaway. Even if there wasn’t a handy serial killer to blame wouldn’t most parents believe that a child of that age had been the victim of some other ‘normal’ criminal rather than a runaway? And did no one on the investigating team ever contemplate that Rebecca – who disappeared at 12 – might have been a victim of a killer with a dedicated interest in 12 year olds? Especially as she went missing in the only year the serial killer is thought not to have kidnapped anyone during his reign of terror? .And before you start muttering “it’s fiction you know, it doesn’t have to be realistic” I know that but, for me at least, an author has to establish a world in which I believe the things that he or she is telling me could happen and MacBride didn’t pull that off in this instance. He described a series of increasingly preposterous events against the backdrop of a very real world and none of it sounded plausible even for a moment.
I suspect the failure of the book to meet my personal ‘ring of truth’ test would not have bothered me nearly so much if it weren’t for anti-hero Ash bloody Henderson. It’s not as if he struggles with the ethics of whether or not to tell his family the truth about Rebecca he just knows he is right not to. Aside from the patronising arrogance of this secret-keeping, he is corrupt and endlessly violent and hangs out at strip clubs and I just couldn’t stand him. The fact that he occasionally produces a nicely sardonic patter doesn’t nearly make up for the tedium of spending time with him as he looks around for a new face to smash his fist into. I like a flawed character as much as the next crime fiction fan but that phrase suggests, at least to me, that there are some un-flawed parts of the character as well. I failed to find any in the violent, arrogant, juvenile, narcissistic mess that was Ash Henderson..
I’m sure there are many readers who won’t react as I did to this book. They won’t have read their fill of serial-killer books featuring tortured souls on disgusting quests that require the mutilation of innocent people. Their stomachs won’t churn at the gratuitous beatings, killings and torture that virtually every character in the book is subjected to. They’ll see Ash Henderson as a witty anti-hero whose antics are justified. I hope those people enjoy the book. Because I can see why it is that people have recommended this author to me. His writing is good, filled with wickedly accurate observations about human behaviour and there’s a vein of dark humour that I did enjoy, particularly as personified in the character of Dr Alice MacDonald, the quirky profiler that all serial killer stories demand. She has a plethora of phobias, almost becomes an alcoholic out of politeness and has a string of the best funny lines of the book. Although she is an archetypal character I found her genuinely engaging and enough of a treat that I am not sworn off of books by this author. But next time I’ll check reviews for the violence level and the presence of serial killers.
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Other opinions are of course and as always available. Online reviews of this one are mixed but here are some very positive ones to counteract all of my ramblings including those at Euro Crime, Herald Scotland, Literary Treats
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My rating 2/5
Narrator Ian Hanmore
Publisher Harper Collins 
Length 14 hours 12 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
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