A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

Review published on July 15, 2017.

A Dark So Deadly is a standalone novel by the successful Scottish crime writer, Stuart MacBride. I suspect that it will prove to be the start of a new series. The basic premise is that there’s this department, unofficially titled The Misfit Mob, where disgraced police officers are dumped. They’re given crap cases and generally it’s hoped they’ll go away, perhaps resign through boredom and frustration. One day they happen across a murder and due to the rest of the force being overstretched they’re allowed to get on with it.

I’m a massive fan of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series of spy novels. The premise is similar: a department of MI5 where disgraced intelligence officers are put out to fallow, given crap jobs in the hope they’ll go away. Herron’s novels are brilliant, so given that A Dark So Deadly had a similar premise, I thought I would give it a go. That said, I did have my doubts. Stuart MacBride is one of Scotland’s most successful crime writers and as such I know of his work. He generally writes serial killer thrillers and that’s a sub-genre I’m not a fan.

The first thing to say about this book is that the author can certainly write. That’s not a surprise, considering his pedigree, but he really can write very well. This is important because A Dark So Deadly is a long novel, coming in at a whopping 609 pages. This brings me to my first criticism, the novel is simply too long. I wonder if MacBride has reached that stage of his career that some successful novelists reach, where they can literally write what they want, where there’s no one at the publishing house anymore who can reign them in. Stephen King springs to mind as a good example of this. To my mind, some of King’s novels are far too long and reading them I’ve wondered whether earlier on in his career an editor might have trimmed the manuscript down, made it a better novel as a consequence. A Dark So Deadly is like that, the story could easily have been told in less words. In fact, a couple of times I almost put the book down. I didn’t because the writing is so good and MacBride always managed to pull me back in. Even so, I think it’s never good when a reader feels the narrative start to drag.

Despite the dark themes covered in the novel (more of this in a minute) MacBride injects a good dose of humour into the narrative. In fact, at points it’s almost a dark comedy. This again is reminiscent of the Mick Herron spy novels I referred to. As with the Herron novels, the humour in A Dark So Deadly helped me warm to MacBride’s Misfit Mob and the characters he draws are certainly memorable. I would like to say that I would like to spend time with the Misfit Mob again, that I look forward to the next novel in the series, but I can’t. That’s because of my second criticism.

I understand that I’m in a minority of crime fiction readers here, but I just can’t stand serial killer fiction. To my mind it’s just so tired, unimaginative and clichéd. It doesn’t help that having studied criminology at university, and with various friends in the police, I know serial killers to be extremely rare. And those who do exist don’t generally kill people in the ludicrously fiendish ways that they do in film and books. In A Dark So Deadly the serial killer does just that, slaughtering his victims in a grisly way. While there have been a few serial killers like this – Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein – the majority have just dispatched their victims in not so dramatic a fashion. This insistence by writers of serial killer fiction to come up with ever more devilish a manner of dispatching their victims has always struck me as not a little prurient and exacerbates my dislike of these novels.

Of course, a valid criticism of this review might be that I knew what type of novel MacBride writes, that lots of people like it, that no one forced me to read A Dark So Deadly. And such criticism would be perfectly legitimate. In my defence, I wouldn’t have chosen to read the book had the premise of the Misfit Mob not sounded so intriguing. Basically, despite knowing that MacBride tends to write serial killer fiction, I was hoping for something different and was disappointed when that’s what I got. But just to be clear, I know many people reading this review won’t share these thoughts. In fact, it might be the case that someone reading this review will be attracted to the book, thinking that they like serial killer thrillers and thus why not give it a go. And I’m fine with that. It’s just personally, I would have preferred the author try something else.

In conclusion, there’s lots to like about this book. It’s well written, it has a good touch of humour, the characters are well drawn. While what didn’t work for me – the length of the novel, the fact that it’s yet another serial killer thriller – may well be to other’s taste.

James Pierson 3/2

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride
HarperCollins 9780007494682 hbk Apr 2017

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