Stuart MacBride: ‘I like writing fictional serial killers. However I can not stand actual ones’ | Crime fiction
When Stuart MacBride invents a serial killer, there is one overriding rule that he follows. “It doesn’t have to make sense to us as long as it makes sense to the killer.”
The best-selling Scottish writer has studied all kinds of books on what motivates murderers – the FBI’s Handbook on Crime Classification; FBI agent Robert Ressler’s books on tracking down serial killers – and that is his lasting finding.
“There was a man, Richard Chase – if your front door was locked he went away because he was clearly not welcome. But when it was unlocked it was an invitation to kill everyone inside, ”says MacBride. “He thought he was being poisoned by Nazi UFOs through his soap dish, and the only way to keep his blood from turning into powder was to consume the blood and internal organs of his victims. The act must make perfect sense to the person doing it. I took that from research. So when I write I think if I were that person what would make sense? “
MacBride speaks of his home in the wilderness of northeast Scotland, where he lives with his wife and a variety of cats (Grendel, his Maine Coon, was bought with the proceeds of his very first advance about 16 years ago). His new novel, The Coffinmaker’s Garden, begins in a stormy way when serial killer Gordon Smith’s house falls into the sea, revealing the human remains he has hidden in his garden. Ex-Detective Inspector Ash Henderson, whom MacBride had run around the mill in his previous appearances (in Birthdays for the Dead, Ash’s daughter is the victim of a serial killer who kidnaps and tortures girls), is implicated in the case.
Like all MacBride thrillers, it’s brutal, visceral read, infused with the blackest of humor, and traveling to some very dark places. As I read it, with the UK becoming more restrictive and a lonely Christmas looming, I found it strangely comforting to be drawn into a world of horror, murder and chaos. MacBride has a good idea why this might be so.
“We have always loved stories like this. You go back to the days when we lived in caves and we sat around our fires and told stories of the monsters that were out in the dark. Thrillers do just that, ”he says. “We see the monsters we fear as a society in crime novels, and the detectives are superheroes without capes. You are King Arthur. You are Beowulf. These are the people we have always drawn to our fictions and stories. “
MacBride has loved crime fiction since he shaped the Hardy Boys as a child. He was trying to write his first book in his mid-twenties when a couple of friends tried it. He wrote a “terrible” comedy detective novel but persevered and ended up an agent. His fifth attempt at a novel, Cold Granite, made his debut: the first in the Logan McRae franchise shows the Aberdeen detective sergeant catching a child killer chasing the streets of the city. MacBride called the Grampian police and a hospital morgue and asked questions about everything from police proceedings to rigor mortis.
He had studied architecture in college before giving up and was working as a project manager for an IT conglomerate when he learned it was going to be released: “I was sitting in this room in Guildford with all these programmers going through this and testing this strategy, then comes the email that I had a three-book deal. “He told his wife, but no one else, and kept the deal a secret for more than a year until the book was published in 2005. After an 18-month sabbatical year, he decided to become a full-time writer. His last book, All That’s Dead (2019), was his 12th novel after Logan McRae. The Coffinmaker’s Garden is the third in the stories of Ash Henderson – everything jam-packed with “terrible crimes, murders, serial killers and lots of fries and beer,” as he writes on his website.
“I love a serial killer and I love writing about fictional serial killers,” he says, “but I can’t stand reading about real ones because I can’t get over the fact that they’re real people and people who kill them, never remember – it’s always the person who kills. I love to write and read about fictional ones because no one was injured in the production of a book. “
What is it like to write such disturbing visceral scenes? “I never sit down and think,” What would be the best thing I could do? “Says MacBride.” It’s hard to write, but not because I think, ‘Oh dear sir.’ It’s more about how I make you feel this than about me. How do I get this reaction from the reader? I take this as a challenge – how can I make you feel like this is something terrible? ”He only gagged himself once while writing a scene from the perspective of a man who a human eye had to eat or die. When I describe it to myself on Zoom – texture, crunch, saltiness – I almost choke too so I can see why; the scene was included in the second book he wrote and never did has been published.
The only time MacBride admits to being scared was when he called one of his cats, beetroot, from the woods behind his house and saw two eyes glimmering back at him in the torchlight. It wasn’t beetroot, a rescue cat with only one functioning eye.
“Everyone else was in the house,” he says. “So I said to those eyes, ‘What are you, a fox or a badger? ‘And that little voice in the back of my mind said, “I’m something much worse.” I gave myself the utmost will, locked all doors, thank you very much. “
This became the beginning of All That’s Dead. “A pair of eyes twinkled back at him – too far away to see anything but their reflected glow,” he writes in this novel. “There is a paper-like rustle. Then a cold metallic arm appears behind Nicholas as a ghostly white arm, painfully bright in the torchlight. The arm is holding an ax, the blade is broken and brown with rust. “A fox or a badger?” A little laugh. “Oh, I’m much, much worse …”