MacBride revisits the rugged terrain of Oldcastle, Scotland, with incarcerated ex-Detective Inspector Ash Henderson sprung from prison to assist in the case of a serial killer with a bizarre signature: inserting baby dolls into his victims in a parody of pregnancy. A task force has been organized, complete with inter-agency representation and the requisite experts, including prison psychiatrist Dr. Alice McDonald, who trusts Henderson to accomplish what has thus far been impossible in spite of all the resources brought to bear. Henderson has a personal stake: he was the officer that let the murderer get away. Under the direct supervision of Detective Sergeant Jacobson (aka Bear), Ash is added to Operation Tigerbalm in pursuit of the perpetrator recently nicknamed “the Inside Man.” Tethered to McDonald by an ankle bracelet, Henderson’s freedom is limited to one hundred yards away from her.
Despite yearning for his freedom after the mind-numbing experience of incarceration, Henderson is painfully aware that his release will incur the interest of his nemesis Mrs. Kerrigan, a local crime boss with ties to the highest echelons of power and the woman responsible for his current predicament. Plagued by devastating personal losses and painful injuries he endures every day thanks to Mrs. Kerrigan, Henderson isn’t about to refuse an opportunity to see the outside again—especially with the promise of freedom should he succeed (and nursing a hidden agenda to get rid of Mrs. Kerrigan and end the nightmare he has endured because of her enmity). Naturally impatient with police bureaucracy and now even less likely to tolerate the problems inherent in a task force, Ash plans to meet with the others as infrequently as possible while pursuing his own avenues of investigation, feeding Jacobson just enough to keep his boss satisfied. An old-school detective, Henderson is hindered by a police department in transition, agencies slowly being dismantled for efficiency. The very concept drives him witless.
While forensic psychologist Dr. Fred Docherty pushes a profile of “the Inside Man,” Ash takes his clues from the facts, a combination of interviews, Dr. McDonald’s examination of letters sent to the press by the killer and visits to the places where the victims were found. Although an attempt to interview the father of the latest victim creates a scene of bloody mayhem, Ash dances between his own agenda and convincing Jacobson that he is on track, enlisting the aid of DI Dave Morrow to learn more about Mrs. Kerrigan. With Alice McDonald attached, Henderson reels through the boggy streets of the prior crimes, encountering any number of obstacles along the way, dodging and weaving in a complex plot that requires him to balance Mrs. Kerrigan’s unrelenting attacks with actual progress toward solving the murders. MacBride fills the pages with impressions of the gritty streets where a killer moves with impunity, the poverty, petty criminals and disinterested bystanders, gloomy pubs and threatening thugs, the clang of closing prison bars and the easy violence that attends dark places.
Nothing about this novel is lighthearted, the humor black and the violence particularly detailed, whether a beating by two thugs or Mrs. Kerrigan popping out a man’s eye for effect. None of this is a problem, more or less the cachet of this particular writer. For me the problem is the length of MacBride’s novels, given the degree of chaos, violence and complications, a familiar tactic to insert radio dialog or song lyrics into physical confrontations, creating a real sense of the chaos at hand but so frequent as to become exhausting. I found it hard to sustain this level of action without respite. Grateful to reach the conclusion, I am too tired to appreciate the clever twist at the end, MacBride’s coup de grace.