Slammer is the second Allan Guthrie novel I’ve read. I first came across Guthrie courtesy of Hard Case Crime, and as I’ve mentioned before Hard Case is a great way to find new crime authors. So when I heard that Guthrie had a new novel, Slammer set in a maximum security prison in Scotland, I knew I had to read it.
The protagonist of Slammer is 22-year-old prison officer, Nicholas Glass. Originally from Dunfermline, Nicholas, his 30-year-old wife Lorna and their daughter Caitlin have moved to Edinburgh for Nick’s new job working at “The Hilton,” a prison for violent offenders. Right from page one, it’s clear that Glass–who’s nicknamed “Crystal” by his fellow officers is a disaster waiting to happen. While the other officers are as tough as nails, Glass appears to be made of softer material, and the fact that he imagines that one of the cons named Mafia is his friend doesn’t help. Surrounded by killers who’ve played football with their victims’ heads and fellow officers who set Glass up for jokes and ridicule, it seems just a matter of time before something really bad happens.
And it does….
Slammer makes me think what a very unpleasant place prison must be. Guthrie’s gritty, dark tale is devoid of any heroic myths about prison life, and there’s not even a shred of camaraderie. Instead there are alliances forged between cons who could very happily rip each other’s throats out if given an opportunity, and in this hostile environment, a definite pecking order prevails. Unfortunately, Glass seems to be on the bottom of the pecking order according to both the cons and the guards, and that’s a very uncomfortable spot. Here’s Glass with Officer Fox, a man who’s “at least fifty, fat, and proud of it. He was the kind of man who’d walk around all day with his hand down his trousers if he could get away with it.”:
“So,” Glass said, finding it hard to believe he was struggling to keep up with the much older, much bigger man, and thinking, not for the first time given all the muscles on show here, that he should start working out, “how come nothing happens to Caesar?”
“How do you know what’s going to happen to him?”
“Well, fucking don’t,” Fox said.” Just do what you’re fucking told like a good little boy.”
Glass’s humiliating working life at The Hilton is hellish, and it can’t seem to get worse, but then a group of cons, sensing his weakness, begins pressuring Glass to do them a ‘favour.’ Squeezed by the cons, Glass’s life and his marriage unravel, and he spirals out of control. And here I’m going to include one of my all time favourite quotes courtesy of Al Capone: “Once corrupted–always controlled.” Glass finds out the hard way that one favour leads to another, until the day you wake up and find yourself totally screwed.
While I really enjoyed Slammer, about 2/3 of the way through, the author pulled the rug right out from under me. I can’t say much more without giving away some of the many surprises here, but while surprises and even shocks in plot-terms can be a good thing, Slammer‘s surprise made me think that I’d missed a chapter or that the pages of my copy had been printed out of sequence. I actually went back through the last few chapters to check the page numbers to see if there were any missing. There weren’t. The plot takes a leap and I didn’t leap along with it. It took me a while to rally myself again to continue the narrative, but continue I did, and I finished the novel, feeling slightly ruffled that Guthrie managed to ambush me in quite that fashion.
If you enjoy hard-boiled (read–violent), character-driven crime novels with a fucked-up, edgy sense of humour, then Slammer comes recommended but the recommendation comes with a bit of my earlier enthusiasm about the novel suspended. I’m still chewing over the ambush part, but I think I preferred the novel before it turned….