Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Let me tell you about grim. Let me tell you about A Song For The Dying. Let me tell you that it is a sequel to Birthdays For The Dead. It is a sequel in the sense that a dog having an artificial limb fitted is a sequel to the amputation.
Ash Henderson is a man with something missing, but his situation is in many ways worse because not only does his life suffer a gaping void, but he has a nemesis determined to make him suffer even more. Then, in a one-off break, partly due to the inter-force rivalries which have survived the mergers and creation of the unified Police Scotland, Ash is given a chance to redeem his name and career.
The Inside Man is back – a creature from hell who cuts open his victims, inserts a doll, and then may let them wake by a cold roadside, if such as creature could be called “him”. Ash is given psychologist Alice McDonald as a partner and left to sort things out. Unfortunately for the usual standards of investigation Ash no longer has a warrant card, has a crippled leg, has incompetent colleagues who either cannot and will not liaise with potential witnesses (sometimes preferring to taser them), and still has that nemesis on his back. In between his interrogations and site visits Ash is trying to get tooled up on the side and – shades of R D Laing's treatment of his patients – thinks that colleague Dr McDonald will benefit from a dose of MDMA, probably washed down with a near overdose of spirits.
The word “phantasmagoria” has rather gone out of fashion but if anything describes A Song For The Dying it is phantasmagorical. It is a constant stream of grotesque images, interwoven to create a plot, in which Ash makes some progress only to wash backwards as another tide of human sewage hits him. Watch out for his interview with a woman child abuser who crops up at a tangent to the investigation and the way it comes back to hit him as an example of the way that Stuart MacBride prepares, then works these details in. Given some of the news he hears on the car radio you could even say that some of these plot points are signalled, but – if you're anything like me – such discoveries will still blow you away.
Birthdays For The Dead was set over a ten day period. Ash does not the privilege of that time here. A Song For The Dying after its preface is set over three cold, wet days and nights with little time for sleep. Ash struggles to make sense of events, aware that constantly he is being blind-sided by the sheer malignancy of a world where every spotlight makes the corners where it does not shine darker and a deeper threat.
Some parts of the book seem unoriginal: The Inside Man has echoes of early Mo Hayder, for instance. On the other hand, even since Christmas 2013, other events and revelations of further police corruption make other aspects of the book even more relevant. So if grim is your thing then A Song For The Dying is your way to pass those three dying days.