Review: The Blood Road

Stuart MacBride – The Blood Road

Published by HarperCollins, paperback £7.99. I received a free proof copy from the publisher for review purposes.

After making only a cameo role in last year’s Now We Are Dead, which brought DI (now DS) Roberta Steel to the fore, DI Logan MacRae is back in the centre of the story – with a move from CID to Professional Standards. Who watches the watchmen? Apparently Logan does.

He already has a case that is proving tricky, so doesn’t appreciate being called out to a routine car crash. But all is not as it seems: Since he was buried two years ago with full police honours, it comes as a surprise to find DI Duncan Bell dead in the driver’s seat. Who inflicted the stab wound that saw him bleed out at the wheel of the car? Why did DI Bell disappear two years ago? And who is currently buried in his grave?

Meanwhile, DS Lorna Chalmers has a disintegrating home life, a chaotic attitude to her work, and Professional Standards (in the shape of Logan) on her case. She is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of three-year-old Ellie Morton, so why has she been badly beaten up in a different part of town? Logan may not be on the team – his Professional Standards status in fact makes him a pariah in the station – but he can’t help looking at the fact Ellie isn’t the only child to go missing, and after hearing nasty rumours about their destiny, he is compelled to try and fit the pieces of the puzzle together. On his way to the answers he meets violence, dead bodies and dead ends – and when he goes out on a limb, he gets a painful reminder of old times… The human tornado with a selection of ill-fitting bras that is Steel is only glimpsed briefly until the last part of the book, but I didn’t miss her, as watching Logan spread his wings was so rewarding. And in The Blood Road MacBride pushes himself harder than ever both in terms of weaving disparate, complex plot strands – including an exquisite portrait of how far a mother is prepared to go to get her missing son back – and in terms of style. Every sentence here is carefully hewn and polished so it all slots together to make a sturdy elegant whole, like building a drystone wall with rocks large and small all in exactly the right place. The almost 500 pages here turn effortlessly; MacBride is a master craftsman.

Reminders of earlier novels are scattered through The Blood Road like the lovingly dismembered mice Cthulu the cat brings Logan and his girlfriend, Tara – pathologist Isobel, crime reporter Colin and Logan’s scars all appear. There are poignant touches, too – Logan’s conversations with Cthulu reminding long-term readers of his former girlfriend, Sam, while a new reader will note that Logan confides in a cat in lieu of there being anyone significant in his life that he trusts. MacBride’s handling of Ellie is delicately devastating, bringing a lump to the throat in its evocation of the simple language and confusions of such a young child. But this is leavened with the actions of battling little Becca and her teddy, just as the sombreness of the adult world is underpinned with a giggle in the inventiveness of language to avoid using swear words. MacBride’s books have always been ambitiously plotted and firmly character-driven – now he is bringing more emotions and vulnerabilities into the open, they are only getting richer and more rewarding. The Blood Road is quite simply his best work yet.

This review first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 17 June, 2018. This is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used in this instance with their kind permission.

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