Fiction Reviews


(2009) Stuart B. MacBride, Harper Voyager, pbk, £7.99, 376 pp, ISBN 978-0-007-34926-5

This novel is set in a future version of Glasgow where a solution has been implemented to deal with convicted criminals: they are surgically mutilated and lobotomised by the state and are then used to perform menial tasks such as cleaning which acts both as a deterrent to any would be criminals and ensures such tasks are taken care of. No one is meant to come back from such a fate but in the case of a notorious serial killer, Dr Fiona Westfield, who regains knowledge of her identity, such a return is proved possible.

Will Hunter was responsible for making Dr Westfield pay for her crimes and since then has risen through the ranks to become Assistant Network Director of Tech Crimes and Police Actions. He is haunted by memories of past events which went horribly wrong and of which he is forced to revisit when occurrences of crimes in one of Glasgow’s high rise blocks resemble the VR riots that Will was involved in containing years ago. While he is concerned that the past is repeating itself, is this really the case or is this being used as a front for something more sinister? And how did Dr Westfield recover her mind from a procedure that there was supposed to be no return from?

The use of Scotland makes for an interesting backdrop in a world where many novels such as these are set in either America or London. There’s a smattering of Scottish culture and a sense that the law enforcement officers are living their own lives, that they are not perfect and that they are doing the best job they can under trying circumstances. A sense of realism adds to the drama of certain scenes, for example when Will desperately needs assistance right away but the nearest back up can’t join him immediately as they need to travel in from another area.

Jo Cameron, who Will Hunter is teamed with, adds a little light relief. She is affected by the events unfolding around her but in a different way to Will Hunter, who comes across as rather jaded. By the same token, he is also not afraid to break the rules when he needs to and to take risks if he believes there is a worthy cause to be pursued. Will and Jo develop a rapport whilst teamed together and at one point have to go undercover with interesting results.

A realism is also added to the novel where the technology used by the police is not entirely reliable, weaponry can be temperamental and there are devices that when in the wrong hands can be used to inflict hideous damage. It’s a very thought provoking novel. In a world where unemployment is so high and people in high-rise blocks are unlikely to succeed in viable careers or for that matter, find jobs at all, is the lobotomising of criminals and putting them to work in various jobs such a good idea?

With a large part of the narrative focussing on a serial killer regaining her mind and seeking revenge, there are graphic scenes of violence and some shocking descriptions of brutal murders and what the police find when they are called to a crime scene. Dr Westfield’s observations of the world change as she recovers her mind and it is interesting to see how her medical background enables her to survive in a half head state where she is unable to eat and needs to rely on artificial methods of gaining nourishment to survive.

There were times when it was hard to follow exactly what was going on in the novel as Will and Jo uncover a network of criminal activities and the circumstances of Dr Westfield’s half heading are gradually related. Will’s past is slowly pieced together and the reader gets to find out exactly what happened to him all those years ago to turn him into the haunted individual he now is.

It ends on a cliff-hanger laden with intrigue and unanswered questions as to the fate of the characters and what lays in store for them next. I found this to be a very dark and thought-provoking novel, intelligently written and with interesting observations on society and crime in a world where technology is not the answer to everything. It is very gritty with uses of swear words, sex and graphic portrayals of violence. It is likely to appeal to appreciators of crime novels with a liberal dash of science fiction and is an engaging – if dark – read.

Sue Griffiths

See also Duncan's (one of our Scottish reviewers) take on the trade paperback edition of Halfhead.

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