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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


calum maclean



Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (


Nate Colgan is a name feared throughout the Glasgow underworld. Now, as “security consultant” for the Jamieson organisation, he has the heft to back up the reputation. Nate’s new job coincides with the murder of one of the members of the Jamieson lower echelon; a new group has moved into Glasgow, from south of the border, according to rumours, and they look to be making a move on an organisation they see as weak. With Peter Jamieson and John Young still serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure in HMP Barlinnie, it’s up to Jamieson’s lieutenants – and the very capable hands of his new security consultant – to deal with the threat before the new boys move in, or the organisation fractures under the strain.

In a very short time, Malcolm Mackay has become a name to watch very closely in crime fiction circles. Every Night I Dream of Hell is his fifth outing since he burst onto the scene in 2013 with The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter and takes us back to the now-comfortable haunt of Glasgow’s criminal underbelly, and the gangs that run it. In a departure from earlier books, Mackay opts for a first-person narrative, presenting a much different voice from the chatty one we have grown used to. He also takes one of the characters who has been part of this world since the very beginning – Nate Colgan’s name appears as far back as Lewis Winter – and drags him into the spotlight, not only introducing us to this man we’ve heard so much about but not yet met, but putting us right inside his head.

As with his previous novels, Mackay hooks the reader very early in the story and quickly notches up the tension until it’s almost impossible to put the book down. This is a world with which regular readers are already intimately familiar, so there is little time wasted on backstory or set-up, the author correctly deciding that if the reader hasn’t been here before, it won’t take long to find their way around the convoluted structure of the Jamieson organisation and the city’s other criminal enterprises. Here are characters we’ve met before like Marty Jones and Kevin Currie, and there is as much interest for the reader in how much these characters have changed – how much they have capitalised on the organisation’s current state – since the last time we encountered them.

Nate Colgan himself is a revelation, the perfect example of how the man and the reputation aren’t necessarily the same thing. From the outset it’s clear that Colgan is extremely intelligent, despite his reputation as a hard man, and all that the phrase suggests. This is a man feared throughout Glasgow, yet when we meet him he is much more human than we might have believed. His new position within the organisation seems long overdue, but it’s obvious to the reader – if not the man himself – that he has been hired as much for his wit and intelligence as his muscle. Colgan is a man with few straightforward relationships: he has tried to keep his young daughter as far away from his reputation as possible and the sudden reappearance of the girl’s mother – readers of Lewis Winter will recognise Zara Cope, even with her clothes on – serves only to disrupt his delicate balancing act. Like Mackay’s other great protagonist, Calum MacLean, Colgan attempts to avoid any complex relationships with women for fear of how they might end, or how they might be used as leverage in the wrong hands.

While the voice is necessarily different, the tone of Every Night I Dream of Hell remains very much unchanged from earlier books in the series. This is dark crime at its very best, shot through with brief glimpses of light and humour. While Colgan may not necessarily be a good man caught in a bad situation, the reader can still feel some sympathy for him; this man who may have made stupid decisions earlier in life and who is now trapped because of them. Mackay has said the decision to use first person was a difficult one to make, but it suits this story and has been used to its advantage: in contrast to earlier books, there is an element of mystery surrounding the events of Every Night I Dream of Hell, an element that allows both Colgan and the reader to put on their deerstalkers, suck at their meerschaum pipes and wonder “whodunit?”. Mackay’s previous, all-encompassing style of storytelling may have made it more difficult to hide the clues than by keeping the novel’s protagonist in the dark.

One of the key strengths of Mackay’s storytelling is his ability to avoid absolutes: there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, just varying shades of “questionable”, regardless of what side of the law they’re on. DI Michael Fisher, who put Jamieson away, returns and even his motives aren’t entirely clear. This is the dark underworld of Glasgow, and Mackay knows that there is no saviour, there’s just the status quo and the bad things that sometimes must happen to ensure that it isn’t interrupted. For this reason, if for no other, Colgan is the perfect man to stand at the centre of Every Night I Dream of Hell: his thought processes and very character mirror on a smaller scale what is happening around him.

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.



Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (


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.



Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (


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.



Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (


Calum MacLean is twenty-nine years old and lives alone in Glasgow. He is a killer for hire, a hit-man who takes jobs to suit his own schedule and which allow him to minimise the risk to himself. When he accepts a job from Peter Jamieson, he is accepting a more permanent position within the Jamieson organisation. The move has perks, but with it comes a certain loss of freedom. The job is a straightforward one: kill Lewis Winter, a drug dealer so far down the food chain from the Jamieson organisation that he shouldn’t even be on their radar. But Winter is moving into Jamieson’s territory, and looks to have potential backing from a bigger player.

With this simple premise, Malcolm Mackay sets the events of his debut novel in motion. While Calum is ostensibly the story’s central character, he spends a good portion of the novel in the shadows, as perhaps befits his chosen career. Mackay spends time introducing us to the victim and his nearest and dearest, as well as various factions within Glasgow’s criminal underworld, and members of the Strathclyde Police. The lines of moral distinction between these characters are deliberately blurred: there are no good guys and bad guys in this story; Calum may be a cold-blooded killer, but he is also a man doing his job, while the handful of police officers seem to have agendas of their own in carrying out their investigations. The reader is left to form their own impressions and decide for themselves where their sympathy lies.

Mackay’s narrative style is beautiful. Using a conversational tone – a “just between us” approach to telling the story – coupled with the telegraphic style of James Ellroy’s finest works (though perhaps a bit more passive than Ellroy’s abrasive style), he places us directly in the middle of the action and, to a certain extent, makes us accomplices to what is going on. Frequent use of the word “you” – in the general sense, rather than the jarring second-person approach – makes this an easy and engaging read. We’re given details grudgingly, as if they don’t really matter to the story – they often don’t, but they paint a picture, make the characters seem more human, give us something to identify with in a group of people who are, for the most part, people we wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.

Saturday afternoon, football on the radio in the background, sitting on the couch with a book. The Painted Veil by William Somerset Maugham, if you must know, and he’s fascinated by it. It has lured his attention away from the radio; he doesn’t know what the score is any more. The older he gets, the less important that seems.

We’re lured quickly into a world where no-one talks straight, and where every question, every answer, every gesture has an implicit meaning that only members of this secret club can decipher. There’s a thrill to this for the reader, a sense that we are being given a glimpse behind the curtain, a brief look at a world that exists outside the boundaries of our normal experiences.

The clues are all there if you care to look for them. Perhaps you don’t care to; most people don’t. A casual conversation: two people who know each other on a first-name basis, without being too close. Friends who see each other on a weekly rather than daily basis. Friends who don’t care. Phone calls like that are made so often, so why care? It’s a job offer. A very definite offer of something long-term and lucrative.

The novel takes us through preparation, attempt and subsequent investigation, showing us the story from a number of different angles in the process. There is no mystery here for the reader as we, like the narrator, can see everything that is going on. But mystery was never the point; this is about the people, their relationships with each other, their interactions, their lies and half-truths. It is also the setup for a much larger story, the first part of Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy which is set to continue later this summer. If Mackay can maintain this momentum with the second and third parts of the trilogy, it stands to challenge Derek Raymond’s Factory series and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet as the benchmark for British noir fiction.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is something new and exciting. It is a crime novel to savour, a wonderful piece of fiction to settle down with and finish in as few sittings as possible. The voice takes a bit of getting used to, that pally, chatty approach to storytelling that Mackay has down to perfection, but a couple of chapters in it seems the most natural thing in the world. A well-constructed and well-paced plot and an engaging narrator combine to keep the reader hooked from early on. Quite possibly the best crime debut of the decade so far, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is not to be missed and marks Malcolm Mackay as a writer to watch in the near future.

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