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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Glasgow

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL - Malcolm Mackay EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£12.99

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.

THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER by Malcolm Mackay

LEWIS WINTER - Malcolm Mackay THE NECESSARY DEATH OF LEWIS WINTER

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£14.99

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.

COLD GRAVE by Craig Robertson

COLD GRAVE - Craig Robertson COLD GRAVE

Craig Robertson

Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)

£12.99

There is, it would seem, an unwritten rule for writers of cop-centric series that states that at some point the cop must become involved in an off-the-books investigation. Craig Robertson’s third novel, Cold Grave, sees the return of series characters Rachel Narey and Tony Winter, and drops them into the middle of a cold case that they have no business investigating.

1993 – Detective Inspector Alan Narey’s last case involves the brutal murder of a young woman on a small island in the middle of Scotland’s only lake. Not only is Narey unable to find the murderer, but he retires never even having discovered the identity of the murdered girl. Nineteen years later, Alan Narey is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. His daughter, Detective Sergeant Rachel Narey, hoping to relieve his burden before it is too late, decides to reopen the case. When her father’s only suspect dies shortly afterwards in suspicious circumstances, and the body count starts to rise, Narey and police photographer Tony Winter discover themselves working to a much more imminent deadline than the one imposed by Alan Narey’s failing mental faculties.

Craig Robertson’s third novel marks a welcome return for Narey and Winter. This time around, the narrative is more evenly split between the two central characters, and we start to see a much more likeable side to Winter – he gets less time to air his grievances this time around (though he does still manage a fair amount of whinging), and we are allowed deeper insight into his odd fixation with photographing the dead. Narey, we find, is a much more vulnerable character, and her increasingly difficult relationship with her father – a man who may or may not remember who she is at any given point in time – forms the core of her sections of the novel. Alan Narey’s rapid decline is heart-breaking to watch, and Robertson does an excellent job tugging at the reader’s heartstrings; it’s unexpected beauty in the midst of this dark and gritty thriller.

Once again, Robertson manages to nail Glasgow and its people to the page. We’re introduced to the seedier side of the city – a side that the tourist board will most likely not thank Robertson for highlighting – through a series of dark and dingy pubs and restaurants and a cast of hard men and assorted reprobates. Dialogue is written in a way that makes it easy for the reader to hear the thick accent in which the words are spoken, and once again littered with local words and phrases (don’t worry: more often than not make perfect sense in the context in which they are uttered). Football shines through as an important element of these peoples’ lives – the bars are often Celtic bars or Rangers bars, and the people themselves often divide along the same lines. It’s obvious, though, that the game and the teams are the external face of a much deeper rift along political and religious lines and we see a city – if not a country – simmering with barely-repressed rage and contempt.

The central plot – the nineteen-year-old murder of the young girl – is cleverly constructed and a frozen lake on the verge of thaw provides the enabler for the perfect crime.

Just twenty minutes later, he was walking back across the ice on his own, every step washing away behind him, every footprint slipping softly into the lake. The crunch of foot on snow and the glide of boot on the icy bridge to neverland disappeared without trace. All he and she had ever been were ghosts and every sign of them had become lost in the blue.

Misdirection and judicious use of point-of-view combine to keep the reader guessing to the end. The gritty feel of Snapshot is present, but tempered with a cold so deep and bitter as to be almost Scandinavian, and the humour is as black and expletive-filled as ever, introducing some much-needed levity at points throughout the story’s progress.

Cold Grave comes with a much more human side than its predecessor, in the relationships between Rachel Narey and her father, and between the protagonists and the unidentified dead girl. Even so, it maintains the dark and darkly-comic style that made Snapshot so appealing. Robertson, keenly observant and with a well-tuned ear, takes us on a tour of a rarely-seen side of Glasgow in the company of characters who, while not always likeable, are nonetheless easy to spend time with. Cold Grave is another excellent novel from a man quickly becoming one of the best crime writers in Scotland, if not Britain.

SNAPSHOT by Craig Robertson

308807 SNAPSHOT

Craig Robertson

Simon & Schuster (www.simonandschuster.co.uk)

£12.99

Glasgow, present day, and someone – a man with a high-powered rifle and a scope to match – is taking out the rulers of the city’s underbelly: drug dealers, murderers, extortionists. As the body count grows and war breaks out amongst the various underground factions, the Strathclyde Police find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to solve a crime, and stop a murderer that the rest of the world is lauding as a hero.

Snapshot, Robertson’s second novel, centres on the characters of Tony Winter and Rachel Narey. Winter is a police photographer, a gifted man who enjoys his work a little bit too much. He’s a leftover from an earlier time, fighting to stay in employment in a time when crime scene photography is increasingly becoming the domain of the crime scene investigators, Jacks-of-all-trades in an environment where saving money is key. Tony has a problem, a need to photograph the dead that borders on obsession, an itch to capture people on the borderline between life and death. Detective Sergeant Narey, who appeared in Robertson’s first novel, Random, returns here to investigate another high-profile case, despite the office politics that remove her from the investigation for a short time.

Snapshot is one of those novels for which the clichés breakneck and gripping, amongst others, were seemingly invented. Opening on a crime scene which introduces us to the key players in as economical a way as possible, the book maintains a frenetic pace for its 400-page duration. We are immediately immersed in the sights and sounds of modern Glasgow, and Robertson has no problem littering both narrative and dialogue with words and phrases that, to an outsider, can sometimes be difficult to understand. Don’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to miss anything important – an insult or jibe between friends. It feels natural and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, which offsets the grim central plot, a gruesome collection of dead bodies as seen through the lens of Tony Winter’s camera.

Winter is a strange character to put in the central role. He’s not a particularly likeable man, with his slightly creepy hobby and his whiny attitude: Winter is a civilian employed by the police force. As a result, he is outside the main body of the investigation and not privy to the information they are gathering, or the theories upon which they are working. As a result, he is prone to frequent strops when his friends, Narey and Addison, both key players on the team, withhold information from him. I for one wanted to throttle the man and tell him to get on with his work and stop his moaning on more than one occasion. But for all that, the book works, and you care enough for this man to want him to make it out the other side.

The only problem I have with the book is the cover – this sort of stock photography makes a lot of these British thrillers look the same and can, for me, be very off-putting. But it’s a minor quibble, given what lies behind that cover. Dark and darkly-humorous, thrilling and highly addictive, Snapshot is an excellent novel from a self-assured and talented author who has found his stride early in the game.

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