Where Extremes Meet: A Review Of Helen’s Fitzgerald’s Worst Case Scenario…

What is crime fiction? Discuss… It’s a question that has been nagging at me for a few years now. I used to think I knew what it looked like and what it read like, but then I realised that many of my favourite books could be described as crime fiction, from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, through Iain Banks’ Complicity, to Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room & many more. The scales fully fell thanks to two very different novels published in 2015 by Saraband Books which I read, reviewed, and then interviewed the authors. They are Graham Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Graeme Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, and from then on any prejudice I held (and I admit I did) disappeared.

But the question remained, “What is crime fiction?”. I have reviewed most of Doug Johnstone’s books on these and other pages over the years, including his most recent Breakers, and while crimes occur I have never really considered them “crime”. They are mainly concerned with the dynamics of groups – friends, family, co-workers, bands, university pals – and, to a greater or lesser degree, address social/political and cultural themes. His books are more about why people commit crime than solving the crime itself.

Similar questions can be posed concerning Johnstone’s fellow Orenda Books‘ author Helen Fitzgerald. Her novels, (which include The Donor, The Cry, and The Exit) often deal with deception (self and otherwise) and perception – how we perceive the world, how others perceive us, and, perhaps most damaging of all, how we perceive how others perceive us. Her characters make decisions, for various, and often understandable reasons, which then have devastating consequences. Her novels have been described as “domestic noir”, which is certainly apt, but they are also examinations of human behaviour and what happens when individuals are pushed to their limits and beyond.

Her latest is Worst Case Scenario. Mary Shields is trying to protect her relationship, her son, her reputation, and her sense of right and wrong, but feels she is losing her grip on all of these. A probation worker based in Glasgow, she is obsessed with the case of Liam Macdowall, a man who murdered his wife but who, while in prison, has become a poster boy for a variety of ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ who believe his conviction to be unfair, and who have taken his book CUCK as a primary text. Mary is determined that justice will be done, and is prepared to blur the lines between proper procedure and illegality to achieve her aim. Desperate times are perhaps the worst times for desperate measures, and Worst Case Scenario shows why this is in glorious and often gruesome detail.

One of the reasons that Fitzgerald’s books make such a connection with readers is her characters are utterly believable. They are us, but the situations in which they find themselves are extreme, posing the question, “What would you do?”. It’s a difficult feat to make such characters as sympathetic, or at least as empathetic, as they are, but they are ordinary people pushed to the edge, by work, family, their minds, their bodies – in short, by life. In many of Fitzgerald’s books the protagonist’s situation spirals out of control quickly. That could be any of us if circumstances dictate – we are all only a couple of bad decisions from crashing.

Helen Fitzgerald doesn’t worry about the possibility of causing offence – possibly relishing the opportunity. But it’s not shock for the sake of it – she wants to address aspects of the everyday which people often sideline, and there is an honesty in her writing which is rare. Mary Shields is an unforgettable character who life, and Fitzgerald, throws a hell of a lot at. She is swiftly approaching retirement, is menopausal, is a (barely) functioning alcoholic, obsesses, and sometimes fantasises, about her cases, and her son then starts a relationship with the worst person Mary could imagine.

Despite all of this it is the case of Liam Macdowall which comes to overshadow all other aspects of her life as she begins to use other clients and their cases to get the results she believes to be right, and as a result it all goes spectacularly wrong. It’s farcical (in the true sense of the word) but the humour is so black that it often catches you unaware.

Although the thrills, and literal spills, are plentiful it’s important to stress just how funny Worst Case Scenario is, but, as with the shock value, it is done with purpose. Fitzgerald comments on workplace politics, social and cultural hypocrisy, and the complexities of the modern world and finds them absurd. Her insights are keen and cutting. For instance, she examines the Pavlovian nature of popular protest, the role of the media, and how nothing appears real unless it is caught on camera or seen on screen.

Mary’s behind the scenes insights into red-tape and failings of the acronym obsessed world of the probation system, her not-so-passive relationship with her family and workmates, her use and abuse of supposedly sacred relationships – these are all deadly serious. Fitzgerald’s fiction is an expression of frustration, deciding that you might as well laugh or you’d definitely cry.

It has often been claimed that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy and few writers blur that line as Helen Fitzgerald does, and never more so than with Worst Case Scenario. Thrilling and hilarious, the reason her fiction works so well is because it is where extremes meet. What is crime fiction? Who cares – as long as the books are as good as Worst Case Scenario then you can categorise them any way you like.

Worst Case Scenario is out now, published by Orenda Books.

The Ties That Bind: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers…

As Scots Whay Hae! moves towards its 10th year one writer in particular has been with us most of the way – the estimable Doug Johnstone. Since 2011’s Smokeheads he has published novels at a rate of almost one a year (a fantastic run which should be celebrated) all of which have been reviewed on these pages, and, (along with Louise Welsh), he is the writer who has guested on the most SWH! podcasts to date. As such, a new novel is always eagerly awaited and welcomed, and with Breakers (his second with the excellent Orenda Books) he may just have given us his best yet.

You could argue that his novels can be split into two categories. First off there are the no-holds-barred joyrides of the aforementioned Smokeheads, Hit & Run, The Dead Beat, Crash Land and last year’s Fault Lines, each of which leave you breathless as the action unfolds at breakneck speed. It’s as if he has taken Tom Petty’s cri de cœur concerning rock music,”Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”, and applies it to those books.

The other strand of his work focuses as much on family drama as crime, and are arguably when his writing is at its most powerful. Certainly I would suggest that Gone Again and The Jump are his most affecting and memorable novels to date. With Breakers, however, he has managed to marry these two strands together as never before, taking the poignant and heartfelt familial drama of the latter and adding the thrills and spills of the former. As such it is the most ‘Doug Johnstone’ book yet, and suggests the best may be yet to come.

Breakers focuses on the life of Tyler, a 17-year-old whose home life is a Daily Mail reader’s’ worst nightmare/wet dream. His incestuous elder siblings use him as their own Artful Dodger when they go to work, which happens to be housebreaking around Edinburgh’s more salubrious areas. Tyler would leave this life, acutely aware as to what he is involved in and carrying the guilt that goes with it, although also acutely aware that those they target are the haves who have more than they could ever need.

But his reason for reluctantly accepting his terrible lot is that he can’t abandon his young sister to the uncertainty of a life with their addict mother, or to the mercy of the social services, a fate which is surely only a phone call away. Johnstone asks serious questions about what can push people to criminal behaviour, the pressures brought to bear, and asks us to consider what would we do in Tyler’s shoes. The answers aren’t easy, and nor should they be.

When a housebreak goes spectacularly wrong Tyler and his family face new threats, from the police, but more worryingly from one of Edinburgh’s most feared criminal families. With the turmoil that is his life just turned up many notches, Tyler picks a fine time to fall in love with the enigmatic Flick who, although living in the same city comes from another world entirely. Yet, as with the better John Hughes’ movies, they find that they have more in common than their backgrounds would suggest. While never trivialising or lessening the impact of the dark and disturbing themes in Breakers, their relationship offers hope and, for Tyler, a shot at redemption.

If you are a fan of crime fiction then Doug Johnstone will always deliver the twists and turns that you are looking for, and there are few writers who do this with the brio he does. However, his writing always marries brutal honesty – and barely concealed anger – with compassion, eschewing simplistic ideas of good and evil, gods and monsters, to confront the more complex reasons why people do what they do. He understands people and how relationships work, and fail, and that very often it is the ties that bind families which can be the hardest to address.

Breakers is published by Orenda Books.

Storm Warning: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay…

A new novel from Douglas Skelton is always reason for cheer so the recent publication of his latest, Thunder Bay (Polygon Books) was welcome news. It’s another departure in terms of style and setting from Skelton, a writer who refuses to rest on his laurels, always keen to explore different literary approaches to writing crime fiction. A prolific writer of non-fiction books on crime as well, he is steeped in his subject area and brings all his knowledge and understanding to his fiction. The style may vary but the name Douglas Skelton is a guarantee of quality.

His characters are usually to be found pounding metropolitan mean streets, but the action in Thunder Bay takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland and Skelton manages to make this landscape as equally dangerous and disturbing, understanding that the threat is not in the place, but with those who live there. In doing so he brings to mind many influences including films such as The Wicker Man and When Eight Bells Toll, the Shetland TV series, as well as island novels such as Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way, and Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones.

As with all of the above examples, Skelton understands that island life has a very particular, and, especially to outsiders, an often peculiar feel. Due to the necessary close-knit dynamic of such a community strangers are noticed and viewed with suspicion. Secrets are closely guarded but never forgotten, passed down through generations, and crime and recrimination are often two sides of a very similar coin.

Journalist Rebecca Connolly arrives into just such a community, travelling from the mainland to the appropriately named island of Stoirm in search of a story which will make her name. 15 years previously the island’s most infamous native, Roddie Drummond, was charged with the murder of Mhairi Sinclair but, in that singularly Scottish and often unsatisfactory manner, found Not Proven. This is a verdict which splits locals into factions which don’t heal despite Roddie leaving. His return for his mother’s funeral threatens to stir up all those old resentments and Rebecca is determined to discover the truth. What she finds is more shocking and sensational than she could ever have imagined.

Skelton understands people, both their strengths and flaws. He certainly understands the evil that men are more than capable of doing but manages to avoid making his characters monsters. He doesn’t simply divide them into white and black hats, they are more complex than that – sidestepping stereotypes while acknowledging types. He is also confident enough to have more than one storyline unfolding keeping the reader on their toes as to where the narrative is going.

Skelton proves once more that he is master of his craft. I can’t think of many, if any, other writers who bring such varied and distinctive styles to their books. With that versatility in mind, as well as his wry humour, a deft way with a cliffhanger, and a barely concealed anger at injustice, with Thunder Bay in particular the writer he most reminds me of is Iain Banks, especially the latter’s later novels The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth.

From the Clydeside crime novels of his Davie McCall series, through the tales of Glasgow gumshoe Dominic Queste, his action-packed New York novel The Janus Run (a movie adaptation waiting to happen) and now Thunder Bay, Douglas Skelton shows that he is a writer who you can’t pidgeonhole or pin down. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.

Thunder Bay is out now, published on the Polygon imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

That Was The Year That Was: It’s The Best Of 2018 Podcasts – Part 1 (Books)…

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For our Review of the year in Scottish writing and all things bookish Ali was once again joined by Booky Vikki herself, Publishing Scotland’s Vikki Reilly, to discuss their favourite books of the year and the state of Scottish writing and publishing. While doing so they try to identify the themes and trends of the last 12 months, look into what’s coming in the new year, forget the names of things (mostly Ali, to be fair), talk music, “Mayhem”, and explain why 2018 belonged to Muriel. It was quite the year and hopefully we go some way to summing it up and rounding it off for you.

The podcast is the perfect companion piece to our earlier post ‘The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s 10 Best Books Of 2018 (+1)…’ (see right), where you’ll be able to link to reviews of many of the books and writers that Vikki and Ali discuss. There’s a lot of love for writers and publishers alike, and although we didn’t manage to cover it all, we hope you’ll find something to pique your interest. Continue reading

Heart of Darkness: A Review Of Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker…

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The city of Glasgow has a complex relationship with real crime, one which probably explains the popularity of crime fiction not only in the city, but about the city. There are few places who aggrandise and almost celebrate its violent reputation, and those who are responsible for it, in the manner Glasgow appears to. Sicily and Chicago are two others which spring to mind.

As those who live in or visit the city will know, Glasgow is (with well-known and notable exceptions) a generally friendly and supportive community, large enough for many diverse people and opinions, but small enough for most of the populace to find some sort of connection with less than six degrees of separation. However, a braggadocious attitude to the brutal is never too far away, perhaps best summed up by folk hero and baggage handler, John ‘Smeato’ Smeaton, who, after kicking a burning man in the ‘nads,  warned any other potential terrorists that, “This is Glasgow; we’ll set aboot ye”.

Many Glaswegian gangsters have become celebrities, if not exactly celebrated, and there is a penchant for giving those involved in crime nicknames – The Godfather, Blind Jonah, Fat Boy, Babyface, The Licensee. One of the city’s most notorious serial killers was known as Bible John, due to his use of quotations from the Scriptures, and he became a bogeyman like figure to Glaswegians in the late-’60s and the ’70s – his police composite drawing peering eerily down from walls and out of phone boxes. To this day the legend endures, not least because he was never caught, and the case remains unsolved. It’s a classic example of the blurring of lines between fiction and fact when it comes to Glasgow and crime. Continue reading

Begin Again: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run…

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As regulars to SWH! will know, crime-writer Douglas Skelton is one of our favourite novelists. He has been a guest on our podcast, and his most recent novels, 2016’s The Dead Don’t Boogie & 2017’s Tag – You’re Dead both featured in their particular years’ ‘Best Of’ roundups. They were taken from his series of Dominic Queste novels, which feature a Glasgow gumshoe obsessed with film, noir, and film noir. Skelton has Queste speaking and acting as if he roams the streets of Brooklyn rather than Barlanark, so it makes complete sense that he has chosen to set his latest, The Janus Run, (a departure from the Queste books), in New York. This move makes for his most exciting novel yet.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Dominic Queste fan, and I hope we hear more from him before too long, but The Janus Run is a proper page-turner thriller, pure and simple – enthralling from start to finish. It feels as if this Atlantic crossing has freed Skelton as a writer. Instead of having characters pretending to be in the movies, this time they are in them. It’s as if he has brought all of his influences to bear – the novels, the films, and the TV shows which he loves are still in evidence, but without the direct references which, while great fun, always felt more than a little knowing. This time round Skelton shows rather than tells. Continue reading

Old Morality: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Shadow Of The Black Earl…

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One of the most welcome literary surprises of last year was Charles E. McGarry’s novel The Ghost Of Helen Addison. It introduced the world to private investigator, and bon viveur, Leo Moran, whose gift of second sight is both a blessing and a curse. To say this is a Glaswegian gumshoe with a difference is ridiculous understatement writ large. Quite simply, you will never have met a character like Leo Moran. In the SWH! review we said, “With The Ghost Of Helen Addison Charles E. McGarry has presented a new voice to Scottish crime fiction, and a memorable character to match. I’m looking forward to seeing how these novels develop…”. Well, look no further as the man is back in The Shadow Of The Black Earl.

If you liked the first Leo Moran mystery you are going to love this one. After a particularly upsetting funeral the dapper detective goes to stay with his now firm friend, the extravagantly named Fordyce Greatorix, at his family home of Biggnarbriggs Hall. There he encounters a range of eccentric characters who would not be out-of-place in an Agatha Christie novel. What unfolds is a whodunit which delves into the world of the occult, masonic and pagan rituals, and police corruption, as well as touching on every one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and then coming up with a few more. If you didn’t read the previous novel you may think this is business as usual in terms of Scottish crime fiction. You’d be wrong. With this second outing what’s now clear is that Leo Moran mysteries are something entirely different altogether. Continue reading

Holiday From Hell: A Review Of Jonathan Whitelaw’s Hellcorp…

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If it’s true that the Devil has all the best tunes, He (and it’s almost always a He) tends to get all the best films, plays and books as well – with one notable exception. Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, and Byron all depicted versions of Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer, and in the last 100 years the representations are innumerable.

One regular narrative trope is where the Devil leaves Hell to visit us here on Earth, notably in films such as The Omen, Angel Heart and even The Witches Of Eastwick. The stories range from the sublime, (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle), through the mawkish (Meet Joe Black), to the ridiculous, (God help us, Little Nicky – if you ever needed proof that neither deity exists then that film is surely it).

Jonathan Whitelaw‘s latest novel, Hellcorp, takes the above idea, runs with it, and has great fun with it. Whitelaw quotes Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company.”, which gets to the heart of our fascination with all things Hellish – it’s where the fun is to be had. The reason that endures is a whole other conversation. Continue reading

American Horror Story: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Andy Davidson…

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For the latest podcast Ali met up with the American novelist Andy Davidson before his event at The Edinburgh International Book Festival. In an ironically dreich Charlotte Square the two discuss Andy’s terrific debut novel In The Valley Of The Sun which is among the best of the year so far.

DhhU22jWAAAKJSQPublished on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books,  In The Valley Of The Sun is set in the small towns of the Texas desert. We’re calling it a vampire thriller unlike any other, but, as you’ll hear, that’s not necessarily how Andy sees it.

If you want a point of reference think Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark, or even Jim Jarmusch’s 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, among many other cinematic and literary influences. Dripping with blood, sweat and tears, it is as shocking as it is compelling, and in Travis Stickwell Davidson has created an anti-hero for the ages. If you are a fan of horror and/or crime fiction then you don’t want to miss out on this one. Continue reading

Black Magic: A Review Of Robin Robertson’s The Long Take…

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There are regularly heated discussions about the worth of prizes in art and culture. Recently announced, the Scottish Album of the Year longlist provoked debate about the worthiness not only of those on the list, but of the nature of the award itself as a very long, (and very strong), list of eligible albums was whittled down further to twenty by a chosen group of critics, journos, and others (of which I should declare that SWH! was one).

The arguments for are that the chosen records and musicians will benefit from the publicity, reach a greater audience as a result, and showcase the strength of Scottish music at the moment. Among the arguments against is that all such awards reduce art and culture to a competition, one which pits artists against each other, and which, at least according to one well-known and respected musician, can lead to anxiety and stress amongst those who find their music being judged in this way. Continue reading