Tuesday, 8 September 2009

“Halfhead”, Stuart MacBride

Over the last few years Stuart MacBride has become one of the authors whose output is anxiously awaited and enthusiastically read, having moved from the pool of writers who I'll happily pick up in the library or as an airport paperback to one whose hardbacks grace the shelves soon after release. As such it was a particular pleasure when Harper Collins Voyager saw fit to send me a copy of “Halfhead” in advance of release, and equally gratifying to discover that MacBride reveals himself to be so much more than a Logan McRae one trick Aberdonian pony.

Highlighting the problem posed by penning a largely successful series set in a particular milieux the complete departure from the contemporary Aberdeen of his previous work, “Halfhead” initially surprises the reader with its tone and setting. As such it will almost certainly irritate a number of hitherto loyal readers by being so fundamentally different to what has come before.

MacBride has often made the point of how if one writes about a murder in the middle ages this is seen as historical crime fiction, write about the present day, and it's crime fiction, yet set crime in the future and all of a sudden it's science fiction. I can see his point, science fiction carries with it a label that restricts its audience and has a lot of geek related intellectual baggage coming along with it. All this notwithstanding, despite “Halfhead” at heart being a remix of the police procedural versus serial killer theme the setting, role of technology, and manner in which society works all serve to justify labelling it as, at the very least, futuristic fiction.

Leaving labels aside “Halfhead” works very well at painting a picture of Scotland somewhere in the future. If you've wondered what Glasgow would be like cast by Philip K Dick (think Bladerunner or Total Recall) where the police are armed by someone who's spent lots of time playing Resistance Fall of Man on their PlayStation then “Halfhead” will fit the bill perfectly. As “future-crime” lots has changed, and initially there's the impression that all that's the same is the name, but as the novel progresses points of familiarity emerge and outside the dystopian towers of Sherman House and Monstrosity Square a more identifiable Glasgow emerges.

The process of 'Halfheading' – removing the lower jaw and lobotomising criminals – is designed to provide a vivid lesson that crime doesn't pay, but the point is also made that really the message is that getting caught doesn't pay. Despite the all pervasiveness of the surveillance society, the banishment of the disenfranchised to sprawling out of town developments, and obviously the draconian punishments available to the state, crime still takes place, and as Will Hunter discovers, walking through Kelvingrove Park at night is not an entirely safe or sensible choice.

Make no mistake, this is a different MacBride to what we've seen before. Even leaving aside the setting and sci-fi nature there is a lot less humour than is to be found with Logan McRae, and in its darkest moments extraordinarily deep depths are plumbed – with one of the most appalling pieces of sexual violence being just one of the side crimes perpetrated in the course of the book. Throughout however it's a compelling read and shows why the manuscript got MacBride his publishing deal. It's easy to separate it from his Aberdeen works and he's put in place an intriguing universe that one hopes will be revisited in future. In short, very good.

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