Birthdays for the Dead
Review: Detective Constable Ash Henderson is assigned to a team searching for the so-called Birthday Boy, a man — it's assumed to be a man — who abducts girls on the eve of their thirteenth birthday and proceeds to torture them over a period of days or weeks, photographing them at periodic intervals, and then sending the photographs to their parents on their subsequent birthdays. Ash shouldn't be on the case, however, as his eldest daughter was one of those kidnapped and tortured — he has the pictures to prove it — but he hasn't told anyone, making this not only a professional assignment but a personal one as well in Birthdays for the Dead, a stand-alone — though also potentially the first in a series — by Stuart MacBride.
It was assumed initially that the girls had simply run away. Indeed, that is what Ash and his wife assumed as well when Rebecca disappeared five years ago. But now, twelve years into an investigation that has had no leads, a body surfaces when repair workers repairing a damaged sewer line uncovers one. And then another is dug up nearby. Ash is paired with a forensic psychologist, Alice McDonald, who is there to study the remains and try to come up with a profile for the killer. Alice believes that Ash knows more than he is saying about the crimes, not that he might be involved but she suspects there's a personal connection, somewhere, somehow.
The crimes depicted here are horrific beyond description. But the intent here is not so much to shock the reader but to define — and in some ways develop — the character of Ash Henderson. He has all the flaws that are so common with detectives in police procedurals these days — he's divorced, has relationship issues in general, rejects authority, is deeply in debt to all the wrong people, and is not a very good cop to begin with — but with the added burden of knowing his daughter is dead … and the only one, other than the killer, who knows it. He's a victim, too, but refuses to admit it to anyone, even it is might help solve the crime(s). As a police procedural, the storyline unfolds in a fairly typical manner, and Ash — who is really hard to like in the first place — warms up ever so slightly over time. For example, he initially refers to his partner as "Dr. McDonald"; later it's the more familiar "Alice".
As one progresses through this very, very long book — at nearly 500 pages, it's too long by at least 200 of them — the storyline slows down and becomes a bit muddled as too much intentional misdirection is introduced, some of it in a surprisingly clumsy manner. The fact that Ash is guided more by his emotions than his seemingly limited intellect, and Alice tends to be overanalytical at the expense of being down-to-earth and practical, the obvious red herrings aren't noted by them but will be by the reader. The door is left open at the end for a sequel featuring these two characters, though it's not at all obvious that one is needed.
Acknowledgment: HarperCollins provided a copy of Birthdays for the Dead for this review.
Review Copyright © 2013 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Minotaur Books (Hardcover), August 2006
ISBN-13: 9780312339975; ISBN-10: 0312339976
Location(s) referenced in Birthdays for the Dead: Scotland
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Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: January 2013
List Price: $14.99