Malcolm Mackay

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Careful on these stairs. That would be some return, falling flat on his face the first day back. Not the first time he’s been to the club since he had his hip replaced. He’s been haunting the place for the last two weeks. Letting everyone see he’s back. New hip, same old Frank. Someone got the message.

Frank MacLeod is a hitman, been in the business for over forty years. No longer a young man, he is returning to work after a hip replacement. Peter Jamieson, one of Glasgow’s up-and-coming crime lords, and Frank’s employer, has a job for him, an easy job, something to ease him back into the way of things after his extended leave: kill Tommy Scott, thus putting a dampener on Shug Francis’ plans to extend his drug network into Jamieson’s territory. It should be easy; Scott’s little more than a kid, and Frank is carrying the weight of experience. When things go wrong, and Jamieson is forced to call in Calum MacLean, it looks like Frank’s days as a hitman, not to mention as a living, breathing human being, may well be coming to an end.

Malcolm Mackay stormed onto the crime fiction scene earlier this year with his astounding The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. His second novel, How A Gunman Says Goodbye, picks up a matter of weeks following the events of that first book. This time the story focuses on Frank MacLeod, an older gunman whose absence due to surgery precipitated much of the action in the first book. Frank is keen to get back to work, and to prove that he’s still capable of doing the job, despite his age and growing infirmity. It’s interesting to watch the narrowing gap between the front he projects – the elderly gent who walks to the shop and the pub on a daily basis for his loaf of bread and pint of bitter – and the man he is slowly becoming, as first he loses confidence in his own ability and then realises that the people around him – including his employer and friend, Jamieson – have lost all confidence too.

Calum MacLean, the central character of the first novel, is back, too, this time in a much more delicate role than before. First asked to carry out the unthinkable task – rescue Frank and finish the work that he was unable to do – and then the unsavoury one: keep an eye on the old man, and make sure he’s not going to do anything that will sink those around him. Calum has the added complexity of having picked up a girlfriend, who is spending too much time at his house, and asking too many questions about what he does for a living. Here, Mackay’s deft writing reveals two very different men sharing a single body: on the one hand, the cool professional killer; on the other a man so socially awkward that he has no idea how best to deal with the growing problems that this new part of his life has introduced.

Back too are the supporting cast of assorted gangsters and policemen, and the ambiguity that made Lewis Winter such a winner: there are no good guys and bad guys here, just varying shades of grey as good people do bad things, and bad people show occasional glints of humanity. Part and parcel of this, of course, is the narrator with the chummy voice who relates the events as if taking the reader into a confidence, filling in the small details that make each scene leap from the page.

There’s a knock on his door at about half two. Calum’s reading a book, Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, if you care. He’s taking his bookmark – one he got free at Waterstones with a book about ten years ago – and he’s marking his place to the line.

And sprinkling the text with the occasional turn of phrase that causes the reader to stop, re-read, and admire the beauty:

People like to get their revenge quickly, no matter what the common serving suggestion may be.

It’s difficult to imagine reading How A Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, despite the fact that both books feature closed-ended plotlines and should work quite easily as standalone narratives. There’s just so much background here that makes Gunman feel like the second part of a much larger book, rather than the second book in a trilogy. It’s at least as good as its predecessor, but you’ll lose a lot if you don’t read them in order. That said, Gunman does a lot to advance the larger story arc, setting the scene for the final volume due early next year: we see Jamieson’s manoeuvres as he prepares to take the next step up the ladder, and we watch as Detective Fisher, with all the pace and tenacity of Lieutenant Columbo, moves dangerously closer to the truth that puts Calum MacLean right in the centre of his sights.

With How A Gunman Says Goodbye Malcolm Mackay shows that he is more than a one-hit wonder. Filled with a cast of unforgettable characters, and with a plot that will keep the reader hooked from the first page to the last, this is the continuation of Mackay’s debut novel that we might only ever have hoped to see. There are plenty of surprises here, too: it’s a tale of friendship and loyalty, and how they can sometimes be mutually exclusive. And in its many twists and turns we get a glimpse into a world completely different from our own. By turns dark and funny, it’s a beautifully-written look at the criminal underworld of modern-day Glasgow. This – and its predecessor – is a book not to be missed.

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