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

Back To The Old School: A Review Of J.V. Baptie’s The Forgotten…

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1977. The year the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks, Elvis died, Star Wars broke box-office records, Bowie told us “We could be heroes”, and Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish moved across the border from Celtic to Liverpool – momentous events one and all. The way history remembers it, it was a time when real change was in the air, and for many it was the year which saw the beginning of the end of the ’70s and where the sparks which would culturally ignite the 1980s can be found.

1977 is also the year in which J.V. Baptie’s latest novel The Forgotten is set, and there is also that sense of change in the air as newly promoted Detective Sergeant Helen Carter struggles to be accepted by her colleagues in the Edinburgh CID. Helen has a family background in the police, her father being a retired Inspector, but this fact hinders her rather than helps. Those she works with accuse her of having an easy ride, yet her father is against her choice of career as well. Her older, alcoholic, partner Ted also disapproves, looking for alternative work opportunities for her behind her back, and believing that her leaving this life behind will make things all right between them, instead of taking a good look at himself. As she works on a multiple murder enquiry, she is hindered by prejudice and preconception at every turn. Continue reading

Pyroclastic Fantastic: A Review Of Doug Johnstone’s Fault Lines…

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Let’s lay our cards on the table before we begin – Doug Johnstone is not only one of SWH!’s favourite writers, but among our favourite people, holding the joint record for podcast appearances with the equally loved and admired Louise Welsh. As such, a new novel from the man is a cause for celebration round our way, so we have dug out the bunting out for his latest, Fault Lines, which is finally with us.

To say “finally” is admittedly harsh for such a prolific writer. From 2011-2016 he had written and published a book a year – Smokeheads, Hit & Run, Gone Again, The Dead Beat, The Jump and Crash Land  – a remarkable run of some of the most genuinely thrilling writing of recent times. 2017 was the first year with no Doug Johnstone novel for six, and while it is stretching a point too far to say we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, he was definitely missed. This is because a large part of the appeal of his writing is that there are many traits of true noir/pulp fiction in his work – quickly devoured leaving a keen desire to read what comes next. Continue reading

Claret And Anger: A Review Of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project…

It is all too rare that contemporary Scottish fiction looks to its own rich past to tell us something new. James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack and John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints are two fine examples from the last 10 years which spring to mind, and there are echoes of both in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel His Bloody Project. Channeling Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg and even Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s a novel which leads you down deliberate and dark dead-ends as  Macrae Burnet takes great delight in wrong footing the reader at every turn. Because of that rather than despite it, it is also one of the most enjoyable and involving novels you’ll read this year.

The games commence immediately with the Preface, which has the present day ‘author’ (who signs himself GMB) relating how he came across the memoir of one of his ancestors, Roderick Macrae, written during the latter’s time in gaol at Inverness Castle in 1896. It relates to terrible events which scandalised the Ross-shire village of Culduie in August of that year, and to which Roderick Macrae has accepted culpability. He is asked by his sympathetic advocate, Andrew Sinclair, to commit his version of events to paper, as well as the reasons behind his actions and any mitigating circumstances which he can recall, as Sinclair hopes to prove his client ‘not guilty’ for reasons of insanity.

What follows is a wonderfully vivid and moving account of the life of the young Roderick Macrae, so eloquently written that it explains why many who read it at the time, according to GMB, believed the document to be a fake in the manner of James Macpherson’s Ossian (another nod to Scotland’s literary past). However, there is other evidence as to its veracity, and we are encouraged that what we are about to read is no fiction. What follows, with echoes of the structure of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are various statements, medical reports, and other testaments from some of the individuals  who are also involved in this tale to supplement and often contradict Roderick’s memoir. Sympathies shift with every differing point of view as Roderick Macrae’s nature, intellect and morality are examined and pulled in different directions.

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