"Now for a header into the cesspool," George Orwell once wrote of the British crime writer James Hadley Chase, whose No Orchids for Miss Blandish Orwell saw as reprehensible compared with the lightweight charms of the Raffles books. The rigid class structures of the latter seemed not to worry him, but he was outraged by the "general brutality" of the Chase novel, with its casual killings and woundings, an exhumation and the flogging of the heroine. Were he still alive to cast a cold eye over the crime fiction of the 21st century, what would Orwell make of the novels of Stuart MacBride, a writer who makes Chase look like Enid Blyton?
MacBride is one of the signature writers of the tartan noir school, with a string of abrasive bestsellers to his name. His protagonist, the tough DS Logan McRae, moves through an Aberdeen that sometimes seems like an anteroom to hell. The novels are written in a scabrous prose that traverses the darkest recesses of the human psyche, but does it with a sardonic black humour that renders everything strangely exhilarating (although it's unlikely that Orwell would agree).
A Song for the Dying, however, is the second appearance of a character who surfaced in Birthdays for the Dead, the disgraced copper Ash Henderson. If you'll forgive a second simile in this review, Ash makes Logan look like Jane Marple. While Logan is able to function within the rules of the police force, Ash is from another era, unsparing in his dealing with the lowlife scum who are his workload. PC he ain't.
Henderson has been serving time, but is released to investigate a series of gruesome killings committed by a sadistic murderer whose sobriquet is "The Inside Man". The killer's speciality is to operate on his victims, inserting a cheap plastic doll into their stomachs before dumping their bodies; a vertiginous climax is in the offing.
MacBride has made it clear that he is not interested in attracting readers with delicate sensibilities, but those who respond to the most visceral crime fiction (and those not alienated by its author's truly stygian view of human nature) will find not only the requisite excitement, but a pungent sense of place (even though the invented town here, Oldcastle, is not as successfully evoked as the real-world Aberdeen), and a lively and teeming cast of characters worthy of Brecht and Weill. And there's Ash Henderson, mesmerisingly ruthless on the page – but perhaps someone to avoid if he actually walked the streets.