Review: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD by Stuart MacBride

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2/5
Narrator Ian Hanmore
Publisher Harper Collins [2012]
ASIN B006LQGL1Y
Length 14 hours 12 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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10 Responses to Review: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD by Stuart MacBride

  1. Bernadette – You know, I wasn’t particularly interested in this novel from the beginning but doubly glad now that I had chosen not to read it. I like sardonic humour too but I’ve really more than had a bellyful of that kind of serial killer. And I agree 100% – a character has to do things in a believable way, even in fiction. Nope – think I’ll pass on this one.

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  2. Kathy D. says:

    No serial killers! No gratuitious piling up of bodies! Thanks for your honest review. I know I won’t like this book, so am passing it up.

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  3. Maxine says:

    I am so glad you hated this book. Even though I should not be prejudiced, I find it disgusting that the torture and death of teenage girls, & sending their parents the evidence on the girls’ birthdays, should be regarded as entertainment to read about. Yuk. Hang your heads in shame, all ye who were concerned in bringing this book to life. (Even though it has funny bits in it.)

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    • The older I get and the more I see of the world the more I do start to worry about how we are normalising violence by accepting it so easily in our entertainment…little wonder then we ourselves seem to be becoming more violent and aggressive collectively (my evidence for this is anecdotal, mostly based on listening to the stories of the ER personnel I encounter at work). Here in some ways it was the other violence that troubled me more than the torturing of children (which was hideous enough but at least everyone else thought so too). The protagonist gets himself into various unrelated situations throughout the book and every time his first idea about how to deal with it is to beat someone up – and no one seems to find this odd or wrong. I know it’s just a book and it’s the way of things noir but I found it very confronting and saddening too.

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  4. Sarah says:

    I haven’t read any Stuart McBride so can’t comment on his books. I don’t like the premise of this one at all but as you say it has had some good reviews too. I don ‘t like graphic violence and can’t stomach it in Val McDermid’s books but I persevere because she really is an excellent writer. I think you can read around violence in novels but you have to decide if it is worth your while to do so.

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    • I do agree that sometimes you can do that but I think it would be hard to read around the violence in this one Sarah – it’s woven into every thread of the story – the cop is as violent – more so really – as the killer.

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  5. I have read a couple of Stuart MacBride’s (the Logan McRae series) but I wasn’t familiar with this one. Your description made me laugh though, especially your blunt character assessment of Henderson! Think I will give this one a miss, thanks for the refreshing, honest review!

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  8. Kathy D. says:

    Oh, gosh, between the cop’s violence and the serial killer’s violence and the attacks on children, that’s it. This review was almost a DNF; topic too awful. But the book is a DNS – Do Not Start. That’s safest. It’s horrible to kill children in a gruesome way for some kind of entertainment value.
    And I worry that the more gruesome it is, the more it give ideas to psychopaths. Can’t we have books written on characters and puzzles without all this gratuitous violence?

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