Those of you who familiar with the BBC1 detective stories that have been a staple of the PBS Mystery! Series and A&E offerings are aware of the range of the genre. One may start with the ever genteel and charming Ms. Marple or Lord Peter Whimsey and end with the grit of Jane Tennison’s Prime Suspect.
MacBride’s Dying Light is most definitely at that end the field. It may be just beyond that pale, the story takes place in MacBride’s own Aberdeen, and Scots are known for, shall we say, their practicality.
Let us begin with Detective Sergeant Logan “Lazarus” MacRae, a genuine hero of the Aberdeen police force, who has not had a good time of it lately. As the story opens, he is hauled out of bed in the small hours of the night because there is no one to take charge of a body that has been discovered. While he arrives at the scene we learn that his star has been falling because he led a botched raid on a warehouse that resulted in the critical injury of a fellow officer. The decent into law enforcement purgatory begins. He is removed from supervisor to one DI Roberta Steele, head of what Aberdeen’s finest call the “Screw-up Squad.” While we’re talking about the Screw-up Squad, I would be remiss if I did not mention that ‘screw-up’s” close cognate and its relations make frequent appearances.
Logan is determined to remove himself from said squad. Author MacBride does not make this easy. For one thing, the Screw-up Squad is self-reinforcing. Those that are sucked into it, either because they have proven to be inept or appear to have that propensity, lack the talent to attract anyone to bail them out. Steele knows a good thing when she sees it and is determined to use Logan has her own bucket. Besides, the case that would get Logan out (a rash of deadly arsons) is back with his former DI. That Logan keeps running new corpses, some of which are in a remarkable state of decay, is not helping him either. Might I also add that Logan’s personal life is on the edge of flying apart?
I am giving nothing away by saying that Logan does solve these cases and does so convincingly. What is interesting is how these cases may (or may not) be tied. MacBride is artful is manipulating the human tendency to draw subtle causal connections, without having to rely on that old standby the red herring.
MacBride is a wonderful story-teller. Dying Light is filled with sort of gallows humor that makes one glad that someone can enjoy the absurdity of life–someone else that is–and that despite it all that there is still some human aspiration to decency. It is also, curiously, a book where folks fall into place. In a city that MacBride describes as gray, villains and heroes stand out amongst their own shades. Despite his flaws, Logan is one of the good guys and the villains are still rotten even if we are not without sympathy with most of them.
Dying Light is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.
1.Having the BBC stories in the background will come in handy; there are a slew of abbreviations (PC, DS, WPC, SIO, etc.) that go unexplained because they are so common in the UK. One term that was new to me was that of the Procurator Fiscal (roughly what we could call a District Attorney). MacBride also delights in telling his readers where Scottish law differs from that of England (at one point Logan tells one poor sod “You don’t get a lawyer until we’re done with you.”) Apparently English hegemony via the BBC is so complete the Scots do not know the finer points of their own legal system, or more likely the English are sufficiently ignorant that such points must be explained without making it look that way.