Is there a more unreliable narrator than one who is themselves a writer? The idea of a fiction within a fiction, of stories being told, are more pronounced. In Russel D. McLean’s latest novel, Ed’s Dead, struggling writer Jen Carter earns herself the title of “The Most Dangerous Woman In Scotland”, yet even she is unsure whether it is deserved or not. Is she discovering she has innate and previously unused skills as a cold-blooded killer, or is she simply and spectacularly unlucky? If it’s the latter, that’s a hell of a lot of broken mirrors.
It’s no spoiler to say that in Ed’s Dead, Ed dies. He is Jen’s boyfriend, a man who is at one-moment keen to seem her knight in shining armour, the next he is looking around for another potential conquest, doing so in plain sight. Jen is swiftly coming to the realisation that everything he does is what’s best for Ed – what makes him feel good and look good. As his associate Dave puts it, “He’s a dick. But he’s cool too, aye?”. At least one half of that statement rings true to Jen and she decides enough is enough. However she soon finds out that with some relationships, like the mafia, just when you think you’re out they pull you back in.
Ed meets a worryingly pleasingly grizzly end, and this is where the reading of the novel gets interesting. Jen is left with a dead boyfriend on one hand, a pile of cash and a stash of drugs on the other. McLean does a very clever thing in leaving enough ambiguity as to which events are accidents and which are less clear-cut, so to speak. Ed’s Dead would be a perfect choice for a book group as I can imagine arguments ensuing which could lead to blood shed themselves. Is Jen a new avenger, protecting herself and her own? Or, is she a cold-blooded killer who gets a taste for danger and death? When she isn’t sure herself, how can you be?
Ed’s demise kickstarts events which develop so quickly you have little time to take it all in before the next twist is introduced and the body count increases. At times you begin to think that Jen must have some dormant training in assassination, like The Bride in Kill Bill, or Samantha Caine in The Long Kiss Goodnight. At others you believe that she is just a victim of extraordinary circumstances which gather pace quicker than a Labour Party leadership challenge. McLean’s writing is visceral and in your face, placing you right there in the room. At times it almost feels like a platform video game – 18 certificate of course.
The influence of other mediums and genres is throughout the novel. The potential influence of gaming on attitudes to violence is referenced. Chapters have titles such as ‘Smiley’s People’, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘You Only Live Twice’, films whose themes of corruption, horror and institutionalised double-crossing are all present in Ed’s Dead. The workings of the modern media, where clickbait headlines are deemed more important than the story itself, are commented on as Jen becomes the perfect fodder for a media hungry for the next sensation.
There is also the constant presence of the Glasgow gangster, a theme well-known enough to be satirised in Ed’s Dead while still retaining a real sense of danger. For anyone familiar with the tabloid stories of east-end dynasties and ageing crime bosses, there are characters here who will be recognisable as a type, if not actually specific. The amount of books written about gangs in Glasgow may make them feel as if they are in themselves fiction, and McLean again uses this idea as to what is real and what is legend to great effect. Most myths are based in truth somewhere along the line.
Ed’s Dead is a thoroughly contemporary crime thriller which has its tongue in its cheek while maintaining the suspense and tension that readers would expect. At times it threatens to lose you with a plot twist too many, but it reigns itself in by having an anti-hero you care for, a supporting cast who are all memorable individuals, and by simply being terrific fun to read. I think it would be a shame if we heard nothing more from Jen Carter, but if that is the case then Russel D. Mclean has left us with a memorbale creation. As a result, he raises the question, “What would you do?” in similar extreme circumstances. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself in a situation where you think, “What would Jen do?”. If that is the case then things have got complicated, to say the least.