“It’s not about winning. It’s about winning with as few losses as possible.”
The Night the Rich Men Died from Scottish author Malcolm Mackay is a brutal look at the Glasgow criminal world through the lens of debt collection. Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney left school, joined Glasgow’s unemployed and have no prospects whatsoever, so working odd jobs for flashy criminal Marty Jones sounds like a good idea. It’s Glass who eagerly pulls a disinterested Peterkinney into the game when Glass takes a muscle job beating up a man called Holmes who’s skimmed money from Marty.
The job goes well thanks to Peterkinney, but it could have so easily have gone badly due to a total lack of planning. This short, swift act of brutality is Peterkinney and Glass’s introduction into the criminal life. Glass is the one who glamorises the life, attending parties, snorting coke and playing house with a hooker, while Peterkinney, living in his grandfather’s depressing flat, initially just goes along with Glass’s plan, yet he turns out to be a natural.
Both young men begin their criminal life on the same rung of the ladder, but whereas Glass very quickly becomes a bottom feeder, Peterkinney, who “loves the feeling of power, of intimidation,” with cold unflappability and intelligence soon rises….
Mackay once again thrusts the reader firmly into the criminal world but this time it’s money lending and debt collection with tendrils out to all avenues of organization. Are there coppers out there somewhere? Yes, bent copper, the slippery Greig, makes another appearance here, once again lining his own pockets while creating his own paradoxical moral code. Mackay’s exploration of the vicious nuances of debt collection, “economy in the gutter,” explains each step of how this ugly world works. Obviously if people go to moneylenders and desperately sign up for 6,000% interest, then we are talking about punters who have no access to regular avenues of credit. This is a slice of the population who are already the underclass, and if they’re desperate enough to borrow, how will they repay sums of money that grow, exponentially, with interest daily? This is, of course, where debt collection comes into play. Unpaid debts with accumulated interest are sold for a percentage to debt buyers. Marty Jones, protected by the powerful Jamieson organization, runs clubs, women, drugs and has his fingers in all aspects of debt lending and collection, but there are also “dedicated” debt buyers. The morbidly obese Potty Cruikshank, who runs an old, well-established business inherited from his uncle used to own this world but now Billy Patterson,”clever and ruthless,” he’s “built a reputation as being relatively harmless. […] Nothing the big movers need to worry about.” Yet Patterson is moving up, is cutting into Potty’s business buying debts at a higher rate in order to elbow Potty aside.
That’s the business. They have to fall out so that they can try to take market share from each other. And they have to take market share from each other. Have to be seen to be growing, otherwise they stagnate. Stagnate, and you become a target. The industry turns on rivalry. Everyone knows this.
Debt buyers need debt collectors, and that’s how most of the trouble in this novel emerges. One debt collector skims off of a buyer, another debt collector ruffles the feathers of a rival organization, and yet another, in a drunken rage, goes far beyond his assignment. There’s a circular sense of fate to this novel that somehow lends a dark twisted morality to this tale of Peterkinney’s cold, calculating meteoric rise.
I read Malcolm Mackay’s: The Glasgow Trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence .) The trilogy focused on the power struggle between the well-established Jamieson organization and the up-and-coming ambitious Shug Francis. This turf war is seen mainly through the role of hitmen as independents and as integral to the criminal organization. While the focus on The Night the Rich Men Burned is on Glass and Peterkinney, other characters from the trilogy make appearances–usually as mere mentions. In this novel, Mackay, who has stormed his way into the world of crime fiction with four extraordinary books in the last year, applies his signature bleak staccato style to show the same brutal, cannabalistic world introduced in the trilogy, but we see it from a different angle, so while The Night the Rich Men Burned can be read as a standalone, you’re going to get a richer read if you read the trilogy first.
Patience is an uncommon virtue. Patience is often profitable. In this business, people like to rush things. They worry that if they play a long game someone else will blow the final whistle before their pay-off arrives.
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