Written by Stuart MacBride — Ash Henderson has all the street smarts required to successfully survive a spell in one of Her Majesty’s harder prisons. He is tough, intelligent, trusts no-one, and has a flair for extreme violence. This admirable CV has just one blemish, however. Henderson is a disgraced ex-copper.
There is a complex back-story about his route from CID briefing room to prison cell, but the fact remains, he is under constant attack from fellow inmates – the more degenerate of whom are former officers just like Henderson. After limping into the Governor’s office for the umpteenth time to hear his parole request turned down, he storms back to his cell, having narrowly avoided committing GBH to his persecutors. His frustration turns to wonderment, however, when he learns he is to be tagged and released, to help his old force with their pursuit of one the most sadistic serial killers in Scotland’s history.
Before his personal and professional life went into spectacular freefall, Henderson came within the width of a cigarette paper of nailing The Inside Man. This relatively innocuous nickname is deceptive. The brute concerned has a highly individual way of dispatching his victims, all of them female. Having captured them, he drugs them, and then makes them record what will be their dying message. He then effectively disembowels them, but replaces the contents of their abdominal cavity with a cheap plastic doll, threads a few rough stitches to secure the carnage, and then plays the pre-recorded message to the emergency services via the nearest payphone. Henderson, under strict orders to co-operate, but valued for his previous insight into the case, joins the investigative team. He is electronically tagged to his only ally in the prison system, psychiatrist Dr Alice McDonald.
Henderson has more on his plate than trying to stop The Inside Man’s trail of havoc, however. He has made a bitter enemy in the person of gang boss Maeve Kerrigan and, not content with framing him for murder, it is she who has been responsible for orchestrating his regular beatings in prison. As she was also behind the death of Henderson’s brother. He knows that she is utterly without pity or morality, and whatever else happens in the hunt for the murderer, Mrs Kerrigan has to be taken out of the picture. Permanently. Henderson’s route to some kind of redemption takes several wrong turns and his journey reaches its end, there is a skid of a plot twist which threatens to take us off the road altogether.
MacBride has moved us away from Aberdeen to the fictional city of Oldcastle. It is mid-November. It is bleak. The rain beats down, constantly. Day and night it drums out a tattoo on the bonnets of police cars, lashes against grimy windows, and leaves a slick sheen over the litter-strewn pavements. Ash Henderson is a very different policeman from MacBride’s other protagonist, Logan McRae. He is violent, vengeful, and has had the milk of human kindness bled from his system by the cruelty of life. This is a big book, physically, and it certainly makes a big bang. There is eye-watering violence, depravity and corruption at the turn of almost every page. Henderson is a vivid central character. We should not allow our enlightened and liberal selves to go along with him, but it is a mark of MacBride’ skill that we say, “What the hell?’ and cheer him on.
You can read our interview with the author here. A Song for the Dying is released on 16 January.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars