“Never hit a target you don’t need to hit. Ever. One murder gets the police interested, two gets them excited.”
In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, freelance hitman Calum MacLean takes a job from crime lord Peter Jamieson to kill a fairly lowlevel drug dealer who is poaching on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson would normally order a hit from within his own organization, but with his star, aging hit man, Frank Macleod, out of commission, Jamieson is forced to turn to freelance.
According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” quiet & methodical. Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young, are scoping out, and ready to recruit, an eventual replacement for Frank, so hiring a freelance outsider is not only a necessity but may also be a way of building a permanent business arrangement. Jamieson’s “instinct for the nasty work was unrivalled,” which explains his success, and while he’s the brains, Young brings his tactical ability to the organization. “Separately they were talented; together they were lucrative.”
When Jamieson hires Calum for the Lewis Winter hit, he considers Calum, who paces his jobs carefully, “not too hot, not too cold, but just right. A Goldilocks employee.” Calum, who prefers the freedom of freelance work, takes the one-off job with no reservations and applies his usual precautions. On the surface the job seems simple, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s stepping into a turf war between Jamieson and a challenger. Small-time Lewis Winter, under pressure from his much-younger, high maintenance girlfriend Zara Cope, has made a deal with another organization to move into Jamieson owned territory, and while this move brings a death sentence, it also ignites a series of fall out events.
And this is how this explosive hard-boiled crime novel opens:
It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller. Regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust, tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant. It happened, Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it.
This gripping tale is essentially a character study of a hitman. Calum is an unemotional, precision killer–a loner, an avid reader who prefers to keep his independence rather than trading it in for the “suffocating” security of working within an organization. As an independent, he can take or refuse jobs, and keep his criminal associations to a minimum, and so far, in spite of an already well-established reputation, he’s completely off the police radar. Calum understands that if he ever stops being freelance and takes a permanent job, “settling down,” as Jamieson calls it, he’ll be forced to take more risks, make more hits and will inevitably have a high profile with the police. It seems to be a consensus between Frank, Jamieson and Young that as hitmen age, most of them seek the security of working within a firm. Calum isn’t at that point yet:
Does he want something long-term and lucrative?
Small flat, small car, small savings, but always enough. He works for need, not luxury. Long-term means risk, and risk is to be avoided. There are gamblers in the business, but they all lose eventually, and the cost is final. So don’t gamble. You don’t need to. There are two reasons why people do: one acceptable, and one not, The unacceptable reason is greed, the prospect of more money, which they don’t actually need. The other reason is the thrill, and that’s different.
While this is a character study of a hitman as the story unfolds against the backdrop of the contract on Lewis Winter, the novel’s other characters are well-drawn. Author Malcolm Mackay paints a cohesive, disturbing portrait of Glasgow’s impenetrable, violent criminal underworld with its trashy clubs, nervous snitches, lowlife drug runners, sleazy drug dealers, skilled drivers, bottom feeder loan sharks, and brutal muscle men. It’s in this world that grasping Zara Cope “a slut, but a smart one,” passes from one criminal to another and realizing that her shelf life is short, she grabs the malleable, pathetic Lewis Winter as her permanent meal ticket. Lewis “is small-time, always has been. He is a man cursed. Every success was swiftly followed by a crushing failure,” but with Zara pushing for more, Lewis is ready to make some risky moves for his new powerful friends. Zara’s greed, when combined with Lewis’s desire to impress her and keep her, is the catalyst for explosive violence.
With corrupt cops and fragmented flashes of criminal organizations, we see that the mantra isn’t so much crime solution or even crime prevention as much as it is “crime management.” Through carefully crafted scenes, Mackay shows us multiple sides of various complex characters as they move through the hierarchy of the criminal world in which taking orders is imperative, initiative may or may not be rewarded with a bullet, and the most important element in a crisis is having associates you can call for back-up. In this world, contract hits aren’t killings–they’re statements of power. While many novels focus on the individual within society, the focus here is the individual within the criminal organization.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, written in a hard-boiled style that paradoxically welds an intimate knowledge of the criminal mind with an objective, factual distance is gritty, explosive and riveting, and it’s highly recommended for readers who prefer to read crime novels from the criminal perspective, but be aware that this is the first of a trilogy and after you turn the last page, you’ll want to continue the story in book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye.