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.

That’s Entertainment: A Review Of David F. Ross’ Welcome To The Heady Heights…

It’s always a risk when a writer leaves well-loved characters and places behind to move on to something new. David F. Ross completed his ‘Disco Days Trilogy’ with 2017’s The Man Who Loved Islandsa fitting end but one which left both writer and reader questioning what he would do next. The answer to that is now with us in the shape of Welcome To The Heady Heights, (Orenda Books) and from the opening chapter it is clear that everyone can relax, sit back, and enjoy.

It’s a novel which gets to the heart of ’70’s Glasgow, capturing, and revelling in, the city’s wit, wisdom and widoes, and using them to examine human frailty and institutional corruption at its worst. Corporation busconductor Archie Blunt is a man with a mission, a proud Glaswegian who understands the city and those who bide there, and is glad to do so. When he find himself out of work and, at the age of 52, running out of time, he feels that life is in danger of passing him by. The one thing he has going for him is that he knows where the bodies are buried and who has dirt on their shoes, and starts to realise that such knowledge may be his best hope.

This set-up allows David Ross to turn his ever-so-dark humour and coruscating eye to the second city of the Empire and the decade of flares and Findus Crispy Pancakes, and it proves to be the perfect pairing. For those who are already a fan of his writing they will be familiar with the way he uses comedy, and often controversy, to examine and comment on matters serious. While having a ball with his memorable array of characters running amok, a central theme is the systemic abuse of minors by members, often well-loved, of the apparently respectable establishment, particularly with regard to the entertainment industry.

As much outraged as outrageous, you can’t shake the feeling that Ross writes in part to vent anger and frustration at the darkness and desperation of some people’s lives, and at those who would take advantage of them – often without a second thought. And while there is clear commentary on the highly-publicised sex scandals of Savile, Glitter, Clifford, et al., more current concerns are broached such as the continued march of celebrity culture, the myth that we are all due ’15 minutes of fame’, and how the spate of TV talent shows continue to exploit the young and vulnerable.

Archie becomes the driver to Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, a well-known TV presenter who, it quickly becomes clear, will never turn down the chance to debase and defile when opportunity knocks. He plans, along with other members of the mysterious ‘Circle’, to turn the landmark Great Eastern Hotel, (the infamous drop-in for Glasgow’s homeless and destitute), into the first Heady Hotel, a place to lure the unsuspecting and susceptible.

You may think this premise too outrageous to be believed, but when you consider the actions of those icons named above and their like, and how institutions and officialdom, knowingly and unknowingly, facilitated their terrible desires then, if anything, it is all too believable. These men see themselves as untouchable, above the law.

It is this hubris that Archie seeks to exploit, using the knowledge he has to help promote his hastily formed boy-band, The High Five – ‘Satan’s Bagpipes’ being sadly rejected as a name. This is his last chance of becoming a success, someone of whom his father could be proud, a desire which leads him to make a series of questionable decisions. As the stakes for everyone get higher the pace quickens and the tension ramps up to such an extent that you are left breathless by the end.

As evocative of the ’70s as Alvin Stardust riding a Chopper, Welcome To The Heady Heights is where those well-known Williams, Connolly and McIlvanney, meet. Ross uses Glasgow’s infamous No Mean City reputation as the backdrop to a story which lifts the lid on the worlds of showbuisness and politics and finds what lies beneath rotten. It’s one of the most thoroughly and unapologetically enjoyable novels you’ll read this year – riotous, courageous, and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also gritty, gallus and Glaswegian to its core – with Welcome To The Heady Heights David F. Ross has given us a novel to revel in.

*This review is part of the Welcome To The Heady Heights Blog Tour, and you can read what other people think by visiting the blogs and websites mentioned below…