Thursday, August 29, 2013

Grotesque happenings and ghoulish humor in Granite city - Stuart MacBride

In Stuart MacBride's 'Flesh House' , someone has been cutting up people and mixing their flesh along with the meat at a major meat butchering center, resulting in unintended cannibalism being practiced by the citizens of 'Aberdeen' aka the 'Granite City'. The police team investigating it are also not sure if they themselves could have consumed human flesh, when one of them remarks  "Must've been OK though: I'm no' feeling all Hannibal Lectery ". Gallows humor has long been part of police procedural novels, as a means for the characters in them to release the tension they are under, but it has mostly had a very minor part in them. What MacBride does though is to make this macabre mirth an integral part of his works (the 'Logan McRae' series and the standalone novels) and this is what differentiates him from his 'Tartan Noir' forebears.

Thought MacBride isn't introspective like say Rankin or Mankell and as mentioned earlier, serves up his books with dollops of humor, it is nonetheless disturbing to see his Aberdeen populated by citizens like the granny who runs a drug ring using kids, 13 year old kids being prostituted for a sordid 'melange a trois', small time drug dealers caught between the police and the bigger players, gangs trying to move into another gang's territory, politicians on the take etc. Though not as fleshed out as Rankin's 'Edinburgh', Aberdeen gets an identity of it's own, with the incessant rain, dampness, squalor of the tenements. The humor in the books doesn't mask the  savagery of the twisted characters, the drudgery of everyday policing, never belittles or trivializes the victims or their suffering.

The plots follow a conventional pattern, like a serial killer terrorizing the city, or multiple cases being handled at the same time. The narrative can get a bit convoluted at times (his books typically run around 400 pages at the least) and the final resolutions appear as "deus ex machina" when in a sudden moment of epiphany DI Logan (the principal protagonist of the series) sees clearly what exactly happened. Epiphanies work best when it is a case of the final piece of the puzzle falling into place, (with the other pieces having been put in place earlier in the novel) and at that point everything comes together.  These can also happen completely out of the blue like say in the case of 'Inspector Morse' which is accepted by us because it has been established that Morse is an eccentric genius so we are willing to look past the leaps of imagination that he takes. But here Logan is no genius (more on him below) and so the ending seems forced, hurried and in general a bit dis-satisfactory. But these are minor irritants because the writing salvages everything, indeed it is the major force that holds this series together. The dialogues in particular crackle with savage wit (though it may not be palatable to everyone) and makes one want to read through the novels again for the sheer force of the writing rather than the plots. 

An important component for any series to be successful is whether the readers are willing to spend time with the principal characters and here too MacBride scores. His DS Logan (nick named Lazarus/Laz because he survived after being knifed 23 times) is not your archetypal lone wolf policeman who disdains authority, has a problem with his superiors, has an "my way or the highway attitude" and who invariably gets things done his way. In fact Logan could be unkindly termed as a wimp. He sulks and whines when he is asked to extend his shift or work on off-days but allows himself to be bullied by his superiors. Even in a stakeout, it is Logan who has to keep watch while his superior sleeps through it. It must be noted though the Logan is not above doing a bit of bullying himself to his subordinates ("perks of rank"). His only existential crisis seems to be as to when he would be able to get some shut eye or spend time with his girlfriend. Logan  is an interesting mix of vulnerability/sloth and steeliness/bull dog mentality which makes him almost endearing. So are the other characters like the corpulent, hot tempered, sweet munching 'Insch' or the perpetually disheveled, arm-pit scratching head of the "Fuck up" squad (composed of policemen who are exiled from other departments) DI Steel, who at one time seems more concerned about her partner proposing to her than the crime she is investigating because she doesn't want to get bound to one person in her sexual prime (while in her 40's). Indeed, the series is worth reading for the Logan and Steel characters alone.

You liking or not liking this series depends on whether MacBride's bizarre sense of humor is palatable to you. If it seems like you could handle it, this series is a must on your reading list, else give it a miss. 

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. You rather put me off with your first sentence. Not for me I'm afraid but glad you enjoyed the gallows humour!