Thursday, April 26, 2007

More than “Skin” Deep

If you aren’t already familiar with police procedural author Stuart MacBride, you might well become so over the next week, since his third novel, Broken Skin, is just now being released in the UK. (It’s due for publication in the States in August, under the title Bloodshot.) MacBride hails from Scotland’s City of Granite, Aberdeen, in which I have spent much time over the years, due to its links to the petroleum industry, which long ago overtook Aberdeen’s fishing- and quarrying-based economy. Given the dark light in which MacBride casts his hometown, Aberdeen might not be totally thrilled with the fact that his books are heightening the city’s notoriety internationally.

I first bumped into MacBride during Left Coast Crime 2006, in Bristol, England, after his debut novel, Cold Granite, was shortlisted by the International Thriller Writers in their Best First Thriller category. (Cold Granite also made the cut as one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2005.) When novelist Gayle Lynds announced that Cold Granite had been nominated, MacBride was discernibly shocked, and he went to the podium quivering. How, I asked myself, can a novelist who writes about the grim crimes that his fictional Detective Sergeant Logan McRae is sent to investigate, possibly quiver?

I had hoped to meet MacBride for lunch during the recent London Book Fair, since I knew he was speaking during the event; but because of a diary clash, I could only attend the first day of that fair. So lunch was out. Too bad, since his publisher, HarperCollins UK, has been touting Broken Skin as another memorably tough ride through Logan McRae’s life:
A new Logan McRae thriller from the bestselling author of ‘Cold Granite’ and ‘Dying Light’, set in gritty Aberdeen. In the pale grey light of a chilly February, Aberdeen is not at its best! There’s a rapist prowling the city’s cold granite streets, leaving a string of tortured women behind. But while DS Logan McRae’s girlfriend is out acting as bait, he’s dealing with the blood-drenched body of an unidentified male, dumped outside Accident and Emergency. When a stash of explicit films turn up, all featuring the victim, it looks as if someone in the local bondage community has developed a taste for violent death, and Logan gets dragged into the twilight world of pornographers, sex-shops and S&M. To make matters worse, when they finally arrest the Granite City Rapist, Grampian Police are forced by the courts to let him go: Aberdeen Football Club’s star striker has an alibi for every attack. Could they really have got it so badly wrong? Logan thinks so, but the trick will be getting anyone to listen before the real rapist strikes again. Especially as his girlfriend, PC Jackie ‘Ball Breaker’ Watson, is convinced the footballer is guilty and she’s hell-bent on a conviction at any cost.
Instead, I called him up and asked him to answer just one question--the one I rarely ask, but for MacBride I decided to make an exception:
So Stuart, where the hell did your idea for Broken Skin come from?

I haven’t a damned clue, Mr. Karim. ... That’s what I always say when people ask me where the idea for
Broken Skin came from, but I don’t. I’ve got a pat answer about how I wanted to write a book with John Rickards [shown in the photo above, with MacBride on the left] in it so I could take the piss out of him. And what better way to do that than have him be a police constable with a thing for bondage and the nickname “Spanky”?

But if I’m being brutally honest, I haven’t got a sodding clue where this one came from. Yes, there were some little snippets that had been lurking about in the dusty corners of my brain for years, but nothing that explains what actually ended up on the bookshop shelves.

And the weird thing is that this is the book I spent the most time planning. This was not one of my three scribbles on a napkin, wing and a prayer efforts. I pitched
Dying Light [2006] to my editors at a drunken bash in the HarperCollins offices (or at least it was drunken for me--everyone else had work to do, but I didn’t: Wheeeeeee!) “Iss ... isss about drugs and dogs an’... an’... yeah, I’d love some more champagne ... iss ... where was I?” But not Broken Skin. No, for that one I went all professional and produced a detailed point-by-point plan from start to finish.

The only problem being that the book I turned in bore only a superficial resemblance to the one I said I was going to write. Somewhere along the way (page three I think) it all went different, and my carefully laid plans ganged aft agley, faster than you could shake a mouse. Rodenty little bastards that they are.

I suppose I could blame the research: speaking to people involved in the bondage scene was an eye-opener, and a lot of stuff that ended up in the book would never have been there otherwise. Or I could blame a crappy year--three bouts of surgery involving someone clambering up my nose with a pointy knife; or I could blame the Inspiration Fairy for dragging my poor pain-killer-addled brain in strange directions. Did I mention that they drilled holes in my skull?

Or maybe it’s a case of breaking all the rules. They say in crime fiction you should never kill children (did that in
Cold Granite), you should never kill pets (dismembered a Labrador in Dying Light), but most of all you should never, EVER talk about sex. Or people will assume you’re into whatever your characters get up to between their rubber sheets. Which, given the onscreen antics in Broken Skin, isn’t exactly the recipe for a quiet life ...

But in the end I honestly have no idea where anything in
Broken Skin came from. And I know that’s not what you’re supposed to tell people. There’s supposed to be some clear moment of inspiration that everything else hangs off. Something that people can look at, think about, and go, “Ah ... I see. It all makes perfect sense!” Only it doesn’t.
To learn more about Stuart MacBride and his dark but humor-laced work, listen to The Independent’s podcast interview with the author, available here.


Ali Karim said...

Hmmmm I just noticed in the photo I took at the Harrogate Festival of Stuart MacBride, that the guy sitting uncomfortably behind John Rickards has his fingers jammed up his nostrils -

This is worrying?

Is this because Mr Rickards just let rip with a big fart?

Might explain the look for relief on the smiling Mr Rickards.

On a more serious note both Rickards and MacBride are excellent writers and both on their excellent 3rd Novels

Miss their work at your peril


JamesO said...

I don't think I'll ever forget the moment when Mr Rickards floated that memorable air biscuit.

At the time, however, I was attempting to stop my beard kit - downloaded from Stuart's website - from falling off. A fortunate side-effect of this was that my nose and mouth were both blocked to the full force of John's wind.