Birthdays For The Dead by Stuart MacBride

BirthdaysDeadPB.inddA girl disappears just before her thirteenth birthday. One year later, a birthday card is sent to her parents, containing a photograph of their daughter. As the years go by, the photographs appear with unerring regularity. And in each picture, the girl’s condition worsens until…

The serial killer known as the Birthday Boy has been terrorising Scotland for a number of years and DC Ash Henderson is determined to catch him and make him pay. Because his daughter Rebecca was one of the victims, a fact that Henderson concealed from everyone in order to remain on the taskforce. But as the victims’ bodies finally start to surface, Ash is faced with a race against time against his colleagues, his enemies and his own demons in order to exact his vengeance.

Birthdays For The Dead concludes New Author August on this blog and is one of the five nominees for the CWA Bestseller Dagger, along with House of Silk, The Bat, Flash and Bones and The Glass Room, all of which I intend to review before the awards ceremony in mid-October. But I’ve ranted about nasty serial killer books before – is this another in a long line of popular books that I simply don’t get?

On the face of it, things don’t look good. Henderson is a nasty piece of work who is hard to sympathise with – he’s impatient and his idea of problem solving tends to involve both fists. He seems oblivious to the damage he causes to those around him… all in all, he’s a thoroughly unpleasant character?

So how the hell did Stuart MacBride make me feel sorry for him? Because he did. As the pieces begin to show how Henderson became the mess that he is, you begin to question how you would react if you were put in his shoes. It’s the story of a man who is on a downward spiral and nothing he seems to do can get him off of it. There’s an element of tragedy about the man – couple his situation with the fact that he’s not the most gifted policeman in the world, stumbling from accusation to accusation, and you wonder at times if he is ever going to find the Birthday Boy?

There’s a decent supporting cast, most notably in a pair of criminal psychologists, one of whom knows Henderson’s secret and one who doesn’t, but it’s impressive that MacBride takes the younger character, full of neuroses and new to the job, and doesn’t play her for laughs. It wouldn’t fit with the tone of the book and some authors would feel the need to have someone break the tension – not the case here.

It’s also to MacBride’s credit that the violence is not dwelt upon. Some of the descriptions of the photographs sent by the killer are pretty horrible – one in particular sticks in the memory – but these are described and then passed over. There’s never any question of how dreadful the crimes are, but we are not invited to leer over the nastiness, as is the case in some serial killer fiction. Similarly we never see inside the killer’s head – something that hardly ever works…

The mystery? Well, it’s hard to say without blowing a chunk of it, as often in such a book, it’s considered fair game for the killer to be someone we haven’t even been introduced to, so if I mention if it is clued or not, that would give a signpost to the reader, which I would consider a spoiler. Let’s just say, I was very satisfied when I got to the end of the book.

In fact, the more I reflect on this book, the more impressed I become. This is easily the best that I’ve read from the author – the Logan McRae series is his primary series, which I’ve read the first few of – enjoyed them but can’t recall much about them – and I’m very tempted to head straight to the voting website before reading the rest. This is an outstanding read, and I urge those of you who, like me, usually avoid serial killer books to give it a go. Really something special.


  1. […] In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel Spoiler Free Reviews of Fair Play Detective Fiction Skip to content HomePaul DohertyHugh CorbettThe Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother AthelstanAmerotke, Chief Judge of ThebesThe Journals of Roger ShallotThe Canterbury TalesThe Ancient Rome MysteriesMathilde of WestminsterAlexander The GreatKathryn SwinbrookeOther Historical MysteriesAlys ClareAriana FranklinSteve HockensmithMichael JecksBernard KnightPeter TremayneSir Henry MerrivaleClassic BibliographiesAgatha ChristieEllery QueenSherlock HolmesChallenges2012 ChallengesThe Mystery Tour of the USAThe Author ← Birthdays For The Dead by Stuart MacBride […]


  2. Wow. Wish I’d read that book. Having never read MacBride before I chose Birthdays as my first foray…and did not react as you did. I found Ash a crushing, self-absorbed bore who couldn’t stop hitting people and I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him. Funny how two people can react so differently to the same words eh?


    • Everyone has their own tastes – despite having a number of things that I normally despise in a thriller, this one just clicked for me. No idea why some people see one thing and some see others. One of the mysteries that never gets addressed.


  3. Somehow I missed this review until today. I’m glad you enjoyed it. There are some good examples in the modern serial killer genre, although it is hard to find them.

    But I’m not completely convinced this is one. I’m kind of torn. Like you, Doctor, I read some Logan MacRae and agree everything about Birthdays for the Dead is better. Ash is definitely sympathetic, although I think his run of bad luck is maybe TOO extreme. I’m afraid by the time he went on his detour to the South I was starting to find it funny, and the events of the end actually made me laugh out loud (which was clearly not the intent!) because they were so over the top. (Maybe I’m the real monster here?)

    MacBride has definitely polished his writing . There are a few lines I can remember word for word now, three months after I read it on a plane. I can’t remember a thing about Cold Granite, except something stupid about a Tesco receipt.


    Isn’t the point of this style of book that they’re leaving the clunky artifice of the puzzle plots behind? Because I think on that count it fails, and without any compensating ingenuity. I thought the young psychologist (Alice?) was completely unconvincing, an almost offensive mishmash of “awkward nerd lady” stereotypes. And was she hopeless at dealing with “normal” people or not? She had some sort of magic psychology power that she’d use occasionally (e.g. to get on the ferry), but at other points (i.e. when the plot demanded it) she was an idiot.

    Why didn’t the character who was being blackmailed simply destroy his computer? He’d obviously have got the benefit of the doubt, given his status. Why didn’t he wipe his hard-drive, arrest the villain and bask in the glory? It’s like someone was paying him to be a red herring!

    Most of all, how was Ash able to keep his daughter a secret? Given the motive for the crimes, it seems natural that the KILLER would have sent an anonymous tip…

    And that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. It’s all very flimsy and artificial.

    Which isn’t objectively a problem. I don’t demand realism, and it’s a damn sight more convincing than Carr. I’ve also remembered most of it three months down the line, so it’s clearly got a lot going for it.

    But it’s too long and flabby to appreciate just for intermittently excellent writing and it does seem (from reading the book and external stuff like interviews) that MacBride definitely THINKS he’s characters are realistic and consistent, so on that count it seems like a bit of a failure.

    Like I said, I’m torn. I’d probably read another one, but I’m not inspired to dip into the back catalogue.


    • Blimey Rich, I can barely remember enough plot points to provide a counter argument. Not sure that I want to, as this is a basically a very good example of a genre that I tend not to like. It resonated enough for me to make it Book of the Month but that was in a month when I was only reviewing new authors – if you look, the competition wasn’t as strong as it would gave been normally. I dud enjoy it a lot though.

      If you do revisit MacBride, go to the start of the MacRae series. It starts well and then…


      • That’s alright! I wasn’t particularly expecting a discussion or even a response. Didn’t you read almost 150 books this year? There’s no way you’re going to remember in-depth details of even a tenth of those! It just seemed a good spot to finally articulate what I’d been thinking about the book for some time, because I hadn’t seen any other reviews of this. Now that my editing business has settled down and I’m back from my travels, I’ll have another go at my own blog.

        And I’m not sure there IS a counter-argument, at least not one that relies on the content of the book. I don’t think anything I’ve said is inaccurate, but I’ll cheerfully accept that none of it matters. As I frequently say, I’m happy to bet a considerable amount that no-one can find me a detective novel that doesn’t contain a single coincidence or plot hole. It’s not whether these things exist, it’s whether they undermine the story. With Birthdays I felt they did, but obviously you didn’t. I expect if I’d read it on a different day or at a different time or in a different mood, I’d have come to a different conclusion.


      • I think that last sentence sums it up perfectly. There’s every chance that at another time, I’d not gave got on with this book at all.

        Oh, and it was only 142…


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