In "Now We Are Dead", Stuart McBride's latest novel, attention turns from his usual protagonist Logan McRae to Logan's colourful boss, Detective Chief Inspector Roberta Steel. Quirky, with a capital Q, Roberta got caught fitting up Jack Wallace, and ended up demoted to Sergeant, while Wallace got his freedom and his sentence quashed. Steel is convinced Wallace is responsible for a series of attacks on women, including the ones she got him put away for, but now he is back roaming the streets and she risks being thrown off the force for good if she goes anywhere near him. Her bosses won't listen and see her as harassing an innocent man, but Roberta knows Wallace is guilty and won't rest until she can prove it.
Roberta Steel is a larger than life character, whose behaviour goes way beyond what's acceptable, let alone normal. In some ways she is a caricature, the product of a cheeky cartoonist who presents a person at their most extreme: but Roberta is real. She is forever adjusting her clothing to accommodate her oversize breasts, belching, farting, drinking and playing being 'one of the lads', but she is also a wife and a mother, albeit one whose wife is very long suffering. Whilst "Now We Are Dead" has a strong story line, it is the portrayal of the central character which drives this book. We are challenged to accept someone whose whole persona suggests she is more likely to cause chaos than she is to solve crimes.
Roberta and her team, including the somewhat 'out of his depth' DC Stewart Quirrel, set about creating a smokescreen involving the return of a large number of stolen mobile phones to their owners, so that she can continue to pursue Jack Wallace. Women continue to be attacked on her patch and Roberta is desperate to prove that Wallace is responsible. Meanwhile he is creating his own smokescreen, by placing himself with people and in places where he can establish alibis. He even takes to waving at CCTV cameras as if to goad her. Roberta makes the connection between the crimes and the alibis and sets out to prove how Wallace is doing it. Roberta's actions bring her in front of her senior officers and Wallace's legal representative on more than one occasion, and the risk to her career is real, but eventually she gets the breakthrough that convinces her boss to back her. But her final pursuit of Wallace sees her risk more than her career as the tension builds to the climax of the novel.
What marks out this book as different from McBride's previous novels is the way he plays with his central character with an indulgence that challenges the reader to accept her in the role he has placed her in. There are times when Roberta's outlandish behaviour elicits the response 'you have got to be joking', or brings to mind that one childhood friend who seemed to have completely lost their moral compass. But despite all her faults you have to love her, if only because you want her to succeed in bringing Wallace to justice.