|THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE
He’s touching the front of his coat, feeling the shape of the gun. Should have got rid of it. On any other night, any other job, he would. But this isn’t any other job. This, he intends, will be his last.
Calum MacLean is determined that tonight’s will be his last job as Peter Jamieson’s gunman. He has his escape carefully planned – Jamieson won’t be expecting to hear from him for at least a week after the job, which gives him plenty of time to put his plans into action – but the problem is that he can’t do it alone: he needs to get ID, cash and he needs somewhere to lie low while he waits for them, so he goes to his brother, William, who is only too glad to help his brother get out of the business he feels responsible for introducing him into. Meanwhile, the tension in Glasgow is mounting. Shug Francis is joining forces with Alex MacArthur to take on Peter Jamieson, while Jamieson is doing everything he can to ensure that DI Michael Fisher is focussed solely on taking Shug down. The last thing Jamieson needs is his gunman running and making him look weak – not to mention leaving a large skills gap in his organisation. Calum MacLean is about to learn that walking away isn’t that easy, even with all the planning in the world.
The final part of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy takes us once again into the heart of Scotland’s second city’s criminal underworld. As the story opens, we find Calum on a job – a two-for-one deal that will see him killing Shug Francis’ accountant and one of Jamieson’s employees, a grass who got found out. MacLean’s determined that this will be his last job, and once it’s finished he sets things in motion – the plan is to disappear, make it look like something went wrong on the job and Calum ended up on the wrong side of the gun. This is the Calum we have come to know well over the course of the previous two books – cold and calculating, smart and intuitive, a man doing a job he feels he has been forced into and who, following a disastrous relationship in the middle book of the trilogy, has decided he wants more from life than the isolation and fear that comes with being a gunman.
Mackay re-introduces us to the cast we have come to expect – Jamieson, Young, George Daly, Fisher – and widens his sights somewhat to show us what’s going on outside of this organisation. People we’ve only heard of are now taking centre stage, large as life – Shug Francis and his right-hand man, Fizzy Waters; old Alex MacArthur, the man to whose position Jamieson himself aspires. As Mackay leads us through cross and double-cross, it becomes clear that this is as much about politics, as much a battle of wits, as it is a physical battle between two armies. Just when the reader is beginning to feel comfortable that they have some clue what these men are thinking, Mackay gives the rug a gentle tug and leaves us back where we started. It’s beautifully-done, perfectly plotted to keep the pages turning, sucking the reader into this world that we already know – or think we do – so well.
As with the previous books in the series – The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter and How a Gunman Says Goodbye – Mackay uses a conversational tone to tell his story. Short sentences and the sort of tics we expect from the spoken word rather than the written pulls the reader in and propels them, at breakneck speed, through the story. The occasional use of a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach, allows us to see inside the heads of whichever character is currently centre-stage and gives the reader, without the need for narrative description, a sense of what is going on around them:
This is just a warning. Letting her know they can get to her at any time. That they can follow her around and make things awkward for her. Right, good, so we can forget about dying today. He’ll sit out there like an idiot, and tomorrow he’ll be gone. A warning doesn’t last forever. They’ll have other people for him to be all big and scary to. A man like Peter Jamieson isn’t going to waste an employee on her for long…Oh, shit! A knock on the front door.
Mackay breaks all the rules of point-of-view in his drive to tell a story. His Glasgow Trilogy is one of the few examples of where this works, and it’s down, I think, to his style of storytelling: the narrator jumps from one character to the next, giving us some insight into their state of mind, without the usual breaks in the narrative flow that we, as readers, demand to help us keep track of where we are. An ensemble piece, like the first two novels in the series, the story relies on the reader knowing a little bit of what’s going on with everyone, and only bringing everything together when it’s time to tie up the loose ends.
Mackay takes some time amongst the fast pacing and action to examine the relationships between some of the more important cast members. There are parallels between these people, despite their differences, and in The Sudden Arrival of Violence we get a clear picture of just how important these relationships are, and how quickly they can change, as most clearly evidenced, perhaps, by the book’s final thought (no spoilers here). At the centre of the story we find brothers Calum and William; long-term associates Jamieson and Young; and long-time best friends Shug and Fizzy, and the story is as much about the dynamics between the two halves of these pairs as it is about anything else.
Despite the book’s title, there’s nothing sudden about what’s happening here: like two tired boxers, Jamieson and Francis circle each other, searching for a weak spot, hoping for the perfect shot in case it’s the only one they have left. If anything, as the tension grows – and it’s a palpable tension that exists outside the pages of the book – violence is inevitable. When it arrives, it is swift and brutal and acts as the catalyst for everything that comes afterwards. Mackay is a cruel man, willing to put his characters through the wringer in the name of entertainment.
I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.