Wow. Stuart MacBride just never lets up, does he? I received an ARC of Birthdays for the Dead at the Harper Collins Canada Stuart MacBride event, and it’s the only book I have with the inscription “Bieber!” scrawled on it. (Long story.) At a quiet moment during that event, I flipped through the first chapter of Birthdays. I shuddered at the detailed, creepy-as-hell account of a twelve year old girl tied to a chair and a man singing Happy Birthday to her, “the words coming out all broken and hesitant, like he’s scared to get them wrong.” For some reason, that touch of shyness and vulnerability just made that man even creepier. The chapter was barely three pages long, and I glanced up afterward, not wanting to get so engrossed in the book that I forget I’m at a public event. I saw the author whose words had scared me so much, and he was laughing at something someone said. Such a jolly, friendly man, seriously one of the nicest, funniest authors I’ve ever met. Also the writer of one of the darkest, twistiest, and yes, funniest psychological mystery/thrillers I’ve ever read. To anyone who heard MacBride read the first chapter from Birthdays at a literary festival, fair warning: it just gets darker.
Detective Constable Ash Henderson is investigating “The Birthday Boy,” a serial killer who, for the past twelve years, has been abducting girls just before their 13th birthdays. The Birthday Boy then sends birthday cards to his victims’ parents every year, chronicling their daughter’s torture and death. Ash’s own daughter Rebecca was kidnapped five years ago, and he’s been keeping it a secret from everyone, even his family, so that he won’t be taken off the Birthday Boy case. Ash’s desire for revenge fuels his investigation, and his need to continue to keep it hidden, even as more bodies are found and he fears his daughter’s body might be next, makes life even harder for him. Worse, because his ex-wife and younger daughter believe that Rebecca ran away and just never contacted them again, Ash has to deal with his ex-wife’s angry comments about Rebecca and his younger daughter’s guilt-induced rebellious behaviour.
There’s a lot going on in Birthdays, and MacBride never lets you stop to take a breath. Ash is a very sympathetic, complex character, and MacBride does a great job making Ash teeter on the very fine line between hero and anti-hero. Even when Ash does morally questionable things, you understand. As a reader, I’d sometimes be torn between feeling very sympathetic for Ash and thinking he’d gone a bit too far — and all this in the same scene. Birthdays takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster — you want them to catch the Birthday Boy (seriously, such a horrible, evil villain) and you feel for the characters as well, because they all seem so real.
Speaking of characters, I love Dr. Alice McDonald! A forensic psychologist with a list of neuroses, she’s hilarious! She also has the amazing talent of getting into the minds of psychopaths, but she has to get really drunk before she can do it. A superhero with a tragic flaw! She also gets on the nerves of Ash and everyone she works with because she’s such a chatterbox. Possibly, if I had to work with her, I’d be annoyed too. As it is, I love reading about her. MacBride’s writing shifts effortlessly between hilarious and horrific throughout the novel, even with non-comic characters, but seeing Alice appear on the scene elicits an immediate grin. In the words of Ash Henderson: “Complete. And utter. Freakshow.” Love, love, love her!
Birthdays was the first Stuart MacBride book I’ve read, and I’m definitely reading more. (So far, I’ve also read Cold Granite, the first in the Logan McRae series, and loved it too!) MacBride isn’t afraid to delve into the darkest reaches of a murderer’s mind, nor is he afraid to have his hero get just as dark and twisty as the monster he’s tracking. You are sucked right into the story, and all you can do is hang on for the ride. Best part is that the irreverent humour that makes MacBride so wonderfully entertaining at author events electrifies his writing as well. Imagine Ricky Gervais writing Val McDermid. Birthdays is brilliant, psychological thriller writing at its best. Rarely have I wanted the villain in a mystery taken down more, and the fact that I got so invested in the outcome of this case is a testament to MacBride’s writing. If you’re a fan of Val McDermid or Jo Nesbo, you’ll love Stuart MacBride.
The blurb on the back cover of my ARC says it all:
Bloody. Brilliant. MacBride.