Michael J. Malone’s Blood Tears opens from the murderer’s point of view, in the act of killing a man using the stigmata method to mirror Christ’s wounds. It’s brutal, disturbing, and gripping. It soon moves to the protagonist, Ray McBain, a Glaswegian detective who recognises the ideology behind the murder before the other cops do, and even before seeing the body. Turns out the victim is a paedophile who worked at numerous children’s homes, including the Catholic orphanage McBain grew up in, leading to the man making a few dodgy procedural decisions and getting himself arrested as a suspect.
What follows is a cop on the run, who must prove his innocence before his now-former colleagues catch him again. The only problem is, he is starting to wonder if he actually did kill the man. Dreams of his orphan childhood come back to him, making him question his sanity and motivations. It’s all nicely done. I read a Goodreads reviewer rate this book down because she thought the protagonist too unlikeable. McBain is definitely flawed. He should have left the case to other detectives because of his connection. He didn’t, and brought in a new detective, Allessandra, into his cock-up, threatening her career as a result. He continues to use her and his detective friend Daryl Drain (great name) to help clear his name, increasing their chances of career suicide for them not bringing him in. He swears like a mothertrucker, is having an affair with a married woman, and is friendly with a heavy-duty gangster. The reviewer surely has a point.
No. No, she doesn’t. All those flaws make the character interesting. You do think he’s a scumbag. He even uses hotel staff to check his room out before he goes in, scared the murderer might lie in wait. But you don’t need to have a likeable main character to think a book is good. You only have to look at Pete Bondurant in James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.
You do need to empathise, however. There’s plenty of that to go around. Malone doesn’t skimp on showing the evils of McBain’s orphanage, such as when the head nun wraps him up in his piss-soaked sheets as a punishment for wetting the bed. You could argue that the novel’s evil presence is the Catholic Church. The nuns run the school like a prisoner of war camp, where the kids are always one misstep from an eternity in hell. It’s not for the sensitive. So you see the conflicts going on in McBain’s head, and how memories and feelings he had long repressed surface in ways that make him wonder what happened and what didn’t.
The book does get stretched at times. He seems to lose weight pretty quickly, which helps to hide his identity along with his newly dyed hair, and you would think the husband of the woman he is having an affair with would push back when he finds out about the dalliance. I also think the ending got a little “ha-ha-ha, I’m-evil-look -at-me-twiddle-my-moustache-y”. But overall, the book kept you guessing, had plenty to grip you, and the reveal at the end about what happened to all the kids in the orphanage is genuinely upsetting.
A cracking read.