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British Mysteries

Cold Granite, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.99, Dying Light, St Martin's, $6.99, and Bloodshot (British title Broken Skin), St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95, Stuart MacBride.

You're the Man, Stuart MacBride

I have a new guy and his name is Stuart MacBride. I'm always happy when I can find a writer who I can recommend enthusiastically to almost anyone who walks in the door, especially when that writer is relatively new and unknown. It doesn't literally have to be a guy - my last favorite hand sell was Louise Penny who we have pretty much pressed on everyone.

MacBride is very different from Penny, but they're both great writers who guarantee an enjoyable reading experience. Instead of Penny's bucolic village in well mannered Canada, MacBride's books take place in dingy, dangerous Aberdeen, Scotland, which, he assures the reader in the acknowledgments of his first book Cold Granite is "really not as bad as it sounds." That's a good thing because the Aberdeen of the books is a place of "pubs, churches and rain" whose inhabitants look "like a casting call for Deliverance" and where "we murder more people, per head of population, than the whole of England and Wales combined."

Cold Granite is one of those first novels that seem to be torn from the middle of a series, with a lot of water already under the bridge. The book begins on the day that Detective Sergeant Logan McRae returns to duty, not quite completely recovered from the knife wound that left him dead for five minutes, leading his less than compassionate co-workers to nickname him "Laz" for Lazarus. He doesn't have much time to readjust, as the force is immediately galvanized by the discovery of a young boy's body and the specter of a serial killer preying on children. As a DS, he's above a uniformed Constable, but at the total mercy of his superior, in this case Detective Inspector Insch, a compulsive candy eater, Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast and a man who "didn't suffer idiots gladly. And the Inspector thought everyone was an idiot."

The grim subject matter and convincing depiction of the danger and tedium of police work are livened with great characters like McRae's former girlfriend Isobel MacAlister, the ice queen coroner, his possible future girlfriend Constable Jackie "Ball Breaker" Watson, and Colin Watson, the upstart reporter from Glasgow, who seems to have an inside source. MacBride has firm control of the essential elements of setting, character and plot and guides them to a satisfying and thrilling conclusion.

In the second book, Dying Light, McRae has been exiled to the "screw-up squad" after leading a disastrous raid. The chief screw-up is my new favorite mystery character, DI Steel, a woman whose hair is variously described as "styled by seagulls," and looking as if someone had "sellotaped a cairn terrier to her head" or "tried to comb her hair with a ferret." A lesbian, she is also "the biggest womanizer on the force," her relationship with McRae succinctly described by the latter as "He did the work. She smoked fags and took the credit." Desperate to escape the screw-ups, McRae works feverishly to solve their murdered prostitute case as well as trying to horn in on DI Inch's deadly arson investigation. Again, the case takes twists and turns, ratcheting up to an exciting ending and McRae's mordant observation "Another case solved. Another life ruined."

MacBride's new hardback, Bloodshot, in which Constable Jackie lives up to her nickname while busting a serial rapist, only to find out that her suspect's status as a local football hero might get him off the hook, keeps the series going at a high level. Along with Ian Rankin and Denise Mina, MacBride is at the forefront of a Scottish renaissance in crime fiction. Although his subject matter is dark, the books are satisfyingly absorbing reads, his Aberdeen cops exhibiting just the right blend of cynicism, righteous indignation and hilarious gallows humor. The combination of the mundane, the horrific and the ridiculous gives the books a quality that effortlessly pulls the reader into a very real world from the first page, a world that, despite its many warts, you hate to leave. (Jamie)

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