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)…

DSC_0811.jpg

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

Three Is The Magic Number: A Review Of Stuart Cosgrove’s Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul…

 

46523465_252474145447194_8238799154168463360_n.jpgAll good things must come to an end, and this is sadly true for Stuart Cosgrove’s epic and engaging soul and civil rights trilogy. What began with Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul, and moved to Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul, ends with Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul, and while it is a crying shame that, for the moment at least, we won’t find out more of what happens next (although, as suggested in the title, Cosgrove does touch upon the future), as James Brown knew, when you depart the stage do it in style and leave them wanting more. Cosgrove is leaving us in the finest style, job done.

Anyone who has read the previous books will know what to expect in terms of form. Cosgrove takes us through the year of 1969 chronologically, month by month, and looks at events which may have begun in Harlem but which had ramifications way beyond the neighbourhood boundaries. His cast of characters are a Venn diagram of the well-known, the lesser-known, the expected, and the unexpected. For every Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and Donny Hathaway, there’s someone such as Fat Jack Taylor, Betty Mabry, Arthur Conley, and Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams) whose stories are vital – indeed they, and others like them, are the spine of Harlem ’69. Continue reading

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

51EU+Y6sarL.SX316.SY316.jpg

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

Great Scott!: A Review Of Allan Massie’s The Ragged Lion…

61RpmCjwEtL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

The first book of Allan Massie’s I read was his historical novel Augustus (I think in the late ’80s) and it made a deep impression on me. I hadn’t been a huge fan of historical fiction up to that point, preferring the modern and contemporary even then. Written in the form of a memoir by the titular Roman emperor in old age, what was so impressive was how Massie managed to get into the character and make the reader believe that this was his life, at least from his point of view.

It’s a style which served Massie well in 1991’s Tiberius, the second of his “Memoirs of the Emperor” novels, and it is one he similarly applies in The Ragged Lion, his 1994 novel about the life of Walter Scott which has just been republished by Polygon Books. For those who are fans of Scott’s fiction it is essential, but, as with the Roman Trilogy, it is also a great read for those interested in the history of the time as it looks at the people, places, events and attitudes through the prism of arguably the most famous Scottish writer, and, certainly at the time, the most celebrated. Continue reading

Listen Closely: Ron Butlin’s The Sound Of My Voice (Revisited)…

DSC_0772.jpg

Back in 2011 I wrote a post for the much missed Dear Scotland website on Ron Butlin’s 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice as part of the monthly Indelible Ink column. In it I made the claim that it was “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. A new edition is being published by Polygon, and I thought this was the perfect time to revisit it to see if that assertion still stood strong.

I should lay my cards on the table before we start. The Sound Of My Voice is one of those cultural touchstones which have become part of my identity. As with the music of The Blue Nile, the writing of James Kelman, the films of Bill Forsyth, and everything that John Byrne has ever done, it is something I evangelise about, attempting conversions whenever possible. These are important relationships and returning to them after time away brings the possibility of disappointment and disillusion if you find they no longer affect you as they once did. It’s a risky business.  Continue reading

Fowl Play And Finery: A Review Of Stuart David’s Peacock’s Alibi…

619at83IyAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Two of the most challenging types of writing are crime and comedy. For the first you have to avoid repeating well-worn clichés while still making it as recognisably belonging to the genre. For the second, well, it’s got to be funny – perhaps the most difficult trick to pull off on the page. A successful crime/comedy, therefore, is something which is to be celebrated.

Christopher Brookmyre and Douglas Skelton are two writers who get the balance right, combining the dark side of life with the blackest of comedy, but they are rare. A worthy addition to that niche section of your bookshelves arrives in the shape of Stuart David’s latest novel Peacock’s Alibi. Set in Glasgow, and with an unerring ear for what the word on the street should sound like, Peacock’s Alibi is like a lost Taggart script as written by John Byrne. Like Byrne, David writes dialogue that isn’t how people speak, but how they wish they spoke – funnier, wittier, and with a better line in the last word. Continue reading

Talking Books: A Preview Of Aye Write! 2018…

927478a6-2332-4a2a-be7b-a86600a344a6.jpeg

For 10 days in March (15th – 25th) Glasgow’s Book Festival Aye Write! is the only show in town for lovers of fact, fiction, food, poetry, prose, biography, comics, and any other form of writing that takes your fancy.  While the majority of events remain at the festival’s spiritual home of The Mitchell Library there is also plenty occuring at the CCA, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Tramway, City Halls, GFT and Glasgow University Chapel. But it is only right that Glasgow’s most famous library is the focus point for a book festival which is international in scope, but has its roots firmly planted in the city.

Here are SWH!’s carefully selected daily highlights to give you something to think about, but you can peruse the full programme at your leisure here.

You can also keep up to date with events as they unfold by following @AyeWrite on Twitter or on Facebook. Tickets can be bought here and you can click the links below for further details on the individual events.

619at83IyAL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thursday 15th – Stuart David, 7.45 – 8.45pm, University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel
Ex-Belle & Sebastian and current Looper, Stuart David is arguably better known as a musician than a writer, but his debut novel Nalda Said is one of the most-underrated Scottish novels of the last 20 years, and his memoir about his time in Belle & Sebastian, In The All Night Cafe is a must for any Scottish pop music fan. Now his latest novel, Peacock’s Alibi, is being published by Polygon, and SWH!’s very own Ali Braidwood will be in conversation with Stuart on the 15th to discuss the new book, the true story of Peacock Johnson, the Ian Rankin connection, and so much more. If you have a burning question you’ve always wanted to ask Stuart please come along as this is your chance to do so.

Peacock’s Alibi is published by Polygon Books, and you can hear Stuart and Karn David talking to the SWH! Podcast back in 2015. Continue reading

Bon Accord: A Review Of Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark…

DSC_0703
As mentioned in SWH!’s recent review of Olga Wojtas’ novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovarthis year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer Muriel Spark, and as well as all the events which are happening under the banner of #MurielSpark100, Polygon Books are republishing all 22 of her novels which, if you only know The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, (or nothing at all), offers you the chance to more fully acquaint yourself with the work of arguably the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century.

However, not much is known about the writer herself. To help rectify this Polygon have also published journalist, and founding editor of The Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor’s Appointment In Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark, an account of his relationship with Spark in her later life. A notoriously private woman, the book is a fascinating insight into how she viewed the world, and how the world in turn viewed her. Continue reading

Fine And Dandy: A Review Of Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison…

Unknown.jpeg

Against all expectations, the Christmas/ New Year period allowed for the reading of some of the books which have been sitting on SWH!’s ever present ‘must-read’ pile, and the next few posts will review at least a couple of those. First up is Charles E. McGarry’s The Ghost Of Helen Addison, which introduces us to Leo Moran, a Glaswegian private eye who is unlike any you’ll have met before, which is in itself a reason for cheer.

In the world of crime-fiction, and Scottish crime-fiction in particular, the belief persists that the genre is one which relies on familiar tropes, stereotypes and cliches. However, I would hope that the work of many of the writers of crime who have featured on these pages, including Louise Welsh, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Douglas Skelton, Michael J. Malone, Alice Thomson and Russel D. McLean, would have changed readers’ preconceptions if they persisted. All of those mentioned, and many others, have very distinct styles and are wildly and wonderfully different to one another. If you’ve yet to embrace Scottish crime fiction, you’re missing out. Continue reading