Stephanie Jones: Book Review - In The Cold Dark Ground by Stuart MacBride

Publish Date
Friday, 26 February 2016, 1:48PM
By Stephanie Jones

The latest adventures of Logan McRae, contained in Stuart MacBride’s propulsive In the Cold Dark Ground, are a feat of endurance for the Aberdonian police sergeant. By turns he must decide the fate of his girlfriend, who has spent five years in a coma; contend with the demands of “Wee” Hamish Mowat, a dying Edinburgh gangster who names Logan as the executor of his will and his preferred successor; placate an inexplicably hostile new Superintendent, dispatched to Aberdeen from the Serious Organized Crime Task Force; and free up bandwidth to investigate the murder of one Peter Shepherd, whose business partner, Martin Milne, has been reported missing.

Logan’s life, as we find him in his 10th outing, is a spitting cauldron of fraught relationships and double binds: sure, he has choices, but every one promises an unpleasant outcome. Like John Rebus, Scottish crime fiction’s most beloved invention, Logan’s essential goodness is more handicap than virtue. His bawdy, hard-drinking colleague DCI Roberta Steel, a person of interest to Professional Standards over a paedophile case, underestimates the steeliness of his moral code, and pays the price.

MacBride demands the reader’s empathy and intellect as he plunges his man into moment after moment of torment and doubt. Logan’s imagined conversations with the lost Samantha are poignant and revelatory; her voice penetrates, first lovingly, as she teases him about his hospital-bed dilemma, and then as coach and monitor, while Logan debates a decision with ramifications for every part of his life.

No voice resounds more than MacBride’s, whose shrewd humour elevates Logan and Steel, enmeshed in a relationship that flouts professional boundaries and comfortably extends to marathon whiskey-drinking bouts and dark-night-of-the-soul confrontations with their Sisyphean plight, per Logan: “I’m not a very good police officer . . . We spend ninety percent of our time dealing with five percent of the people. Barely scratch the surface.”

In the Cold Dark Ground is the work of a master with a confident grasp of the messiness of police work (with some poetic licence). If a cop makes a case against a known yet unrestrained felon by planting illegal images on his computer, is it wrong? If another cop kills a hitman sent by the human embodiment of whatever gets scraped off the bottom of the barrel, should he be hung for it or thanked?

MacBride has long been the equal of his illustrious peers Rankin, McDermid et al. Like them he invites the reader to step into the shoes of the protagonist and question what they would do if they discovered, as Logan does, that their family was shaped rather differently that they thought, or that their friend has defied the rules of their profession.

Following Logan’s travails is emotional pugilism of a most enlivening kind, as the denouement finds him, straight-backed as ever, hewing to his self-prescribed tenets. It’s early days yet, but I’ll wager a bottle of Glenfiddich that 2016 won’t see a more taut and gripping crime novel than this.

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