HarperCollins | 2021 (7 January) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book
A massive storm batters the Scottish coast, leaving the home of Gordon Smith on the edge of collapse, its garden and cellar collapsing over the cliff – revealing bones, lots and lots of bones. Ex-DI Ash Henderson, now working for the Lateral Investigative Review Unit (LIRU) alongside Police Scotland, enters the building and manages to grab some evidence before he only just manages to escape with his life as the storm claims the building. But he has saved photos of men, women and children, decades of victims, tortured to death in this house by a man who is now on the run.
This isn’t the only crime facing the city of Oldcastle. Young children are being stolen and murdered. Another boy has just gone missing. DI ‘Mother’ Malcolmson knows that time is running out if she is to find the child alive. Ash and forensic psychologist Dr Alice McDonald, move between the two cases, slowly moving from within the confines of the law to beyond it, especially when Ash discovers that Gordon Smith’s killing spree has not been stopped by the storm. Ash will be helped by a succession of women and men to try and bring these killers down.
Stuart MacBride is back. My favourite crime writer and I can think of no better way to kick off my 2021 reading habit. I adore all of his books, whether they feature Logan McRae, Roberta Steel, Callum McGregor, Mother Malcolmson or Ash Henderson. Every book is a triumph (A Dark So Deadly is my favourite crime novel of all time, followed by Now We Are Dead) and The Coffinmaker’s Garden is no different. It’s been a while since we’ve spent time with Ash and Alice. It’s good to see them back. Ash is battered and bruised, physically and emotionally. He has suffered. But he’s like a dog gnawing on a bone. His grip is total, his resilience incredible – he keeps getting up again, supported by Alice, a verbose, kind alcoholic, his best friend ageing detective Shifty and Henry, the dog that keeps on giving. I don’t think it matters a jot if you haven’t read the previous two novels. All is made clear here and we’re off and running from page one.
The plot is every bit as deliciously complex as you could wish for. You’ll get no details of that from me. The story lines weave around one another, pulling in a host of extra characters who are all three-dimensional and all populate this curious city of Oldcastle (a sort of Aberdeen but greyer, bleaker, wetter and far more dangerous – although Logan McRae might have something to say about that), which is a character in its own right. I loved meeting Rosalind Franklin (I think only Ash could win her over, or Henry) and Helen MacNeil, a tour de force. Other characters are so intensely villainous, they’re a joy to read, even if you have can only look with one eye squinting.
This is a gory and violent book in places (although not as gory and violent as it could have been) but it is also brilliantly written and so fantastically witty. I don’t know what it is about Stuart MacBride’s writing but he always manages to set me off with a turn of phrase. It is shocking, there is no doubt of that. These are brutal crimes. I sometimes think that it might be easier for Ash if he just put himself in an olive press and had done with it, get all of the bruises and crushings out of the way in one go.
I could sing the praises of this fabulous novel all day. Nobody does it like Start MacBride. Long may he reign.