Review: The Dead Of Winter

Stuart MacBride – The Dead Of Winter

Published by Bantam Press (Transworld Books), hardback £20, also available in ebook and audio book. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Thomas Hill at Transworld for the book, and to Roger Cox for the invitation to review it for Scotland on Sunday.

You can read my thoughts on a couple of Stuart MacBride’s earlier books, The Blood Road and All That’s Dead, elsewhere on the blog. You can also read my review of Now We Are Dead, written for The Scotsman, on the paper’s website.

First, the official blurb: It was supposed to be an easy job. All Detective Constable Edward Reekie had to do was pick up a dying prisoner from HMP Grampian and deliver him somewhere to live out his last few months in peace. From the outside, Glenfarach looks like a quaint, sleepy, snow-dusted village, nestled deep in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, but things aren’t what they seem. The place is thick with security cameras and there’s a strict nine o’clock curfew, because Glenfarach is the final sanctuary for people who’ve served their sentences but can’t be safely released into the general population. Edward’s new boss, DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter, insists they head back to Aberdeen before the approaching blizzards shut everything down, but when an ex-cop-turned-gangster is discovered tortured to death in his bungalow, someone needs to take charge. The weather’s closing in, tensions are mounting, and time’s running out – something nasty has come to Glenfarach, and Edward is standing right in its way…

Since bringing the curtain down – at least for now – on his Logan McRae series set in Aberdeen, Stuart MacBride has explored his fictional North-east town of Oldcastle over several novels. Now he takes us to a village in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Glenfarach, and with the help of the Scottish winter weather gives us a locked room mystery in his inimitable style.

The opening is classic MacBride – beautiful surroundings but an unsettling feeling; lines to make you laugh nervously; a moment that shocks. Few crime writers mix horrific and humour as he does, and it’s not to everyone’s taste. But if it’s to yours, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Our central pair are DC Edward Reekie, who we meet as his new boss, DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter – aka Bigtoria, though never to her face – wields a shovel to dig a shallow grave in a snowstorm….

MacBride then takes us back to the beginning of the story. Our intrepid pair have a simple task: take Mark Bishop from HMP Grampian to his new home in Glenfarach. Having being diagnosed as terminally ill, he is being moved to see out the remainder of his sentence in the village, which houses those who can’t be released back into the general community. It’s an entire community of ankle-tagged criminals, with a handful of cops and social workers keeping an eye on them via a copious amount of CCTV, a curfew and strict rules on phones and internet use. 

Bishop is safely handed over to the village’s sergeant, Lucy Farrow, and Reekie and Bigtoria set off in the pelting snow for Aberdeen. And then there’s a radio call from Farrow: come back, we’ve just found a body – and it’s definitely not natural causes…

Things heat up quickly after the discovery (in all senses of the word, fire-raising is also in the mix). And still it keeps snowing, keeping the duty inspector, the cavalry from Aberdeen and the forensics teams out, and cutting off communications inside and out (and the CCTV has been on the fritz, just to add to the “dark ages of policing” effect). So Bigtoria and Reekie join forces with the three local cops to investigate.

No-one writes weather like MacBride – here his characters are cold, wet and miserable, as well as physically hampered by the snow in getting around the village. You almost feel sorry for them. Almost…

Inevitably, the snow keeps snowing and the hits keep coming, things going from bad to worse for both the residents and the cops desperately trying to figure out what is going on.

Glenfarach is literally a small world, but it seems crime is too, as all sorts of links and connections are unearthed between the residents. Then things take a spectacularly bad turn for Reekie – it’s another real rug-pull moment, and takes us back neatly to that opening.

After all the unravelling of nefarious plans, there is a tidy knitting of loose ends as the weather finally breaks, meaning that the cavalry has finally arrived and escape is possible (at least, for those not wearing ankle tags or handcuffs).

Reekie has an optimistic outlook, he’s keen to do a good job and is almost puppyishly enthusiastic even when squished by Bigtoria’s bark and bite and refusal to let him rest while there is crime to be solved. But there are chinks in her armour just as there is backbone in Reekie, and their double act gels neatly, and is a nice reversal of the grumpy older male detective and wide-eyed young female cop. 

Meanwhile, the supporting cast are a delightful mix of hapless and competent-but-beaten-down cops and social workers, and a selection of terrifying grotesques and normal-on-the-surface criminals. They all teeter on the edges of believable, but if you’re not prepared to firmly suspend disbelief when you open the cover then MacBride is not the writer for you.

In other hands, The Dead Of Winter could have descended into misery and darkness, or been a pastiche of a classic farce. But that MacBride humour – drier than the Sahara, darker than the bottom of a coal mine, tongue firmly wedged in cheek – means it steers clear of the extremes and offers instead a tale with genuine jeopardy that is also sheer entertainment. It’s a high wire balancing act, but MacBride never falters.

Stuart MacBride is the Sunday Times No 1 best-selling author of the Logan McRae and Ash Henderson novels. He’s also published standalones, novellas, and short stories, as well as a slightly twisted children’s picture book for slightly twisted children. Stuart lives in the North-east of Scotland with his wife Fiona, cats Gherkin, Onion and Beetroot, some hens, some horses, and an impressive collection of assorted weeds.

Find Stuart’s website at:

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Scotland On Sunday on 19 February and on the website, as I was commissioned by the paper’s books editor to write a review, for which I was paid. Being paid does not change how I write a review, nor did the person who commissioned it have any influence on what I wrote.

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