Tag Archives: Glasgow

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins (1968)

“To escape from the darkness of the ghetto-mind, especially if you had been imprisoned in it for over forty years, you had to be ruthless as well as reckless. Whether you were to be condemned or congratulated would depend on what use you made of your freedom.”

Mungo Jenkins, a married man in his 40s decides to run off to Barcelona with Myra. They’ve been involved in an affair now for some time, and independently wealthy Myra pushes Mungo to leave his wife and three children; it’s now or never.

A very scotch affair

Mungo was born in the slums of Glasgow’s Culdean Street, “still today one of the scruffiest in the east end, and had been brought up by a half-mad old aunt said to be a rag-dealer.” Mungo is now an insurance superintendent for a small company. He married Bess, a factory worker, 24 years earlier, and they have three children together: Andrew, Peggy and Billy. Mungo has long stopped loving his wife. In fact he can’t stand her:

God knew he looked for nothing fancy in a woman of forty-six who had borne three children. He did not expect her to tint or dye her hair, but was there any need for it to be always so drab and untidy? She said she couldn’t afford hairdressers, slimming biscuits, expensive girdles, and flattering clothes, as well as a son at University and a daughter in the sixth form. That was all true enough, but surely she should have learned, in her twenty-four years of marriage to him, that the truth ought never to be used as a skulking-place? Then in her almost revengeful deterioration she had taken to leaving out her false teeth at night, because, so she claimed, keeping them in gave her inflamed gums,. Those shrunken kisses in the dark, demanded so coyly, had revolted him more and more. They were made worse too by her recounting, with inane laughter, some trivial gossip of house, street, shop, or whist-table.

Mungo thinks he could have gone so much farther in life without his wife and children, but now “he might be held captive until death by the innumerable coils of sheer commonplace habit.” Determined to announce his departure, Mungo, unwittingly chooses the worse time to abandon his family. Bess has cancer. …

A Very Scotch Affair follows the fallout of Mungo’s departure: the repercussions on his children and also the reactions of the family’s friends and neighbours. While Mungo thinks rather highly of his abilities, this view is perhaps not as accurate as Mungo would like to believe, and unfortunately, Bess’s adoring love has helped sustain Mungo in his conceit. While Andrew, involved in a mess of his own, doesn’t seem to blame his dad for abandoning the family, Billy, the youngest at age 12 hates his father, and when Mungo announces his decision to desert his wife and children, Billy reveals close observations of his father’s intellectual “fraud.”

All those books in the bookcase through in the sitting-room, he couldn’t even read them and they’re in English. He would take one, look at it, and then put it back. He’d do that with half a dozen. Then he’d sit down with one and try to read it, but after a wee while he’d drop it and read a newspaper instead.

And then there’s Peggy, an unusual young woman, circled with an aura of sadness, who has made an art of accepting the limitations of human behaviour.

Set in a poor protestant Glasgow neighbourhood rife anti-catholic sentiments, the book contains some colourful secondary characters: Bess’s mean-spirited friend widowed Flo, a woman who “refused to make an iota of allowance for inevitable human shortcomings.” She is being courted by the widower Mr Peffermill, whose “prim, self-importance” and circumspect behaviour hide a vicious mind. When Mungo runs off to Barcelona, he doesn’t just desert his wife and children, he deserts his class. Most of the residents of the close knit neighbourhood, united in their poverty and common values, are appalled by Mungo’s behaviour. Bess is very popular in the neighbourhood:

Her laughter and smiles brought smiles and well-disposed remarks even from those whose luck was out. It was like having a fire to sit at, on a snowy night, just listening to Bess Niven laugh. 

The book contains some (very small amount) Glaswegian dialect which may be difficult for non-English readers.

A Very Scotch Affair is marvellous. When the book opens, Mungo justifies his actions to himself, but the plot gradually reveals the unreliability of Mungo’s argument plus the fallout of his selfishness. When we meet Bess, yes fat, yes, dowdy, we meet a woman whose warmth, generosity of spirit, and love radiant to everyone.

In the small hallway, as he took off his hat and coat, he looked about him at the pathetic evidences of Bess’s unimaginative home-making; the red candles in their tin holders on the wall, the picture of red and white roses bought at the Barrows, the patched carpet, and the brass jug useless for anything but keeping Billy’s marbles in.

“That you, Mungo?” she cried from the living-room.

“Aye.” He smelled egg and sausage, baked in the oven, one of his favourite dishes. She would have spent time and care seeing it was just as he liked it. Aye but she never read a book from one year’s end to the other, and did her best to keep him from reading any.

Mungo isn’t really running away from his wife; he’s running away from himself. And of course, there are some tough lessons ahead, and while Mungo pays a price, others pay even more for his immense selfishness. And Mungo’s selfishness is incredible. He justifies his actions repeatedly, and everything is about Mungo. Even in the face of his wife’s illness and his decision to desert her in the time of her (and his children’s) greatest need, he’s the one who feels that he needs support and comfort.  For this reader, Mungo is added to the list of literary villains.

A Very Scotch Affair will make my best-of-year list.

Here’s Kim’s review:

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The Sudden Arrival of Violence: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 3)

“You live your life with big secrets and they come to define you.”

Book 1 in the Glasgow Trilogy, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter introduced main character, the meticulous, laconic freelance gunman, Calum MacLean. In this first novel, Calum is hired by crimelord, Peter Jamieson to kill lowlevel drug dealer, Lewis Winter. Lewis has been part of the Glasgow drug scene for years, but he’s started poaching on Jamieson’s turf. His execution will be a message to Winter’s powerful new friends.

Book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye heralds the return of the Jamieson’s organization’s aging gunman, Frank MacLeod to the job following his convalescence in Spain for a knee surgery. Both books examine the individual within the criminal organization with a solid argument to support that a gunman is destined to have a lonely, solitary life due to the nature of his chosen profession. Both Calum and Frank’s stories of how they operate and conduct business are set against the simmering turf war between Jamieson and car dealer Shug Francis, an ambitious man who wants to seize Jamieson’s business concerns. Jamieson is a mid-level gang lord–not a particularly good place to be. It’s easy to be cannibalized by another upward moving competitor.

the sudden arrival of violenceBook 3: The Sudden Arrival of Violence begins with Calum now under the yoke of the Jamieson organization. No longer freelance, he cannot pick and choose his jobs, and the book opens with Calum completing a very unpleasant hit against a civilian. The job confirms Calum’s decision: to leave the business while he still can…

While Calum plots his escape, Jamieson is plotting to bring down Shug Francis and his operation. This involves concocting a story that will implicate Shug in a violent crime, and using key people, carefully placed, to make sure that the police swallow Jamieson’s fiction. On the outside looking in is DI Fisher, busy putting two and two together and coming up, repeatedly, thanks to corrupt coppers, with the wrong numbers. Underneath the murky surface of both Shug and Jamieson’s organization are betrayals, mixed loyalties, and double crosses, and Fisher is picking up the pieces of gingerbread which lead him right to the conclusion Jamieson wants him to make.

Writing a review of the third volume in a trilogy presents a challenge as you can’t say too much about the plot without revealing spoilers from the other books, so instead, I’ll concentrate on characters and quotes.

There are two ways of playing the situation that Calum’s in. The subtle way, and the sledgehammer way. From where Calum’s standing, the subtle way looks like a waste of time. They know he’s running and they’re making moves against him. They must know that he’ll work out what they’re up to. Playing subtle achieves nothing. Can’t trick them, when they know more than he does. So you go down the sledgehammer route. You go aggressive, confrontational, none too subtle. You let them know that they’re in a bloody great big fight. Let the bastards know that if they want to take you down, they’re going to have to work for it. Few people can play that part well. Most aren’t intimidating enough. Calum is one of the few who is. They know how dangerous he can be.

The first two books in the trilogy examine the role of the individual in the criminal organization, and that theme continues here. The organization’s success rests on brilliant strategic planning but also loyalty to the organization plays a crucial role. In these uncertain times, both Jamieson and Shug Francis must appear to be in control, for some gang members may jump ship if they sniff weakness or disaster ahead. Jamieson’s right hand man, the strategical brain of the operation, is Young, an unpopular man, but Jamieson’s trusted lieutenant. Shug Francis has a similar relationship with Fizzy–a man he’s known since his boyhood. In this novel, both Jamieson and Shug question the decisions of their right hand men–can Fizzy grow with Shug’s big new plans? Does Young make a terrible mistake when he tries to block Calum’s exit strategy? Friendships within the organization are not encouraged as loyalty to the organization comes first before any personal feelings, and in book 3, that makes a difficult choice for muscle man, George–a man who’s accompanied Calum on many a job and even took orders from Young to sabotage Calum’s relationship with a woman.

Both George and Calum, still young men, are prime examples of how you ‘can’t be a little bit criminal.’ Both men want to pick and chose their jobs, but by this third volume, they are both being sucked down into the criminal vortex of the Jamieson organization. Here’s Shug mulling over his decision to get into the drug trade:

That’s the problem with things being easy. You think it’s going to stay that way. You think that if you can put together a car-ring, then you can put together a drugs network. Control it top to bottom. You become used to that level of control when you have an untouchable operation. So you plot. You organize. You employ. You identify the weakness in others. Identify the target and the mechanisms you can use to bring it down. Take the target’s share of the market. The  move onto the next. The next one always being slightly bigger than the last. Keep working it that way until you get to the top.

Peppered with memorable, strongly drawn, vivid characters, this excellent, hard-hitting series is highly recommended for crime fans who like their crime novels bleak and dark. This third volume of this gritty, hard-driving trilogy leaves the possibility of a fourth book (removing the ‘trilogy’ from the series) wide open….

Review copy.

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How a Gunman Says Goodbye: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow trilogy 2)

It’s the kind of industry where you have to be shockproof. People do things that logic can’t explain.”

In Malcolm Mackay’s crime novel How a Gunman Says Goodbye, the second book in the Glasgow Trilogy, we’re immediately back on familiar territory with a familiar character, hitman Frank MacLeod. In book 1: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Frank MacLeod, the aging hitman for the Peter Jamieson crime organization is temporarily out to pasture with a hip that needs surgery. It’s a bad time for him to be out of commission as small-time drug dealer, Lewis Winter, treading on dangerous ground, starts selling on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson, and his right hand man, the reptilian John Young, suspect that Winter wouldn’t take this step unless he had some powerful friends, so they conclude that Lewis Winter must be killed as both a statement and damage control. Since Frank MacLeod will soon be sunning himself in Spain for the recuperation period, Jamieson and Young take Frank’s advice and hire freelance hitman Calum MacLean to kill Lewis Winter. According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” and while Jamieson and Young consider that Frank is irreplaceable, they understand that they need to step outside of their organization for the hit and also that eventually, Frank will have to be replaced. That day hasn’t come yet…

How a gunman says goodbyeHow a Gunman Says Goodbye finds sixty-two-year-old Frank back in Glasgow with the Jamieson organization, and the turf war continues. This time the trespassers are two young men:

‘There’s a kid named Tommy Scott,’ Jamieson’s saying. ‘Wee bastard of a thing. We didn’t think much of him. He used to be a peddlar. Street stuff. Ran with a gang, sold to them–shit like that. Used to do deliveries on a bicycle. A fucking bike! I guess I underestimated the bastard. I’ve been getting complaints. The kid cutting into out market, up Springburn way. I tried sending a warning, but the little bastard’s tough. Determined, too. Got one of his gangs providing security for his peddlers. Only has three of four guys delivering for him now, but a couple of months ago he had none. He’s growing fast, and stepping on toes. I’m fed up of hearing people complain. I need my people to know I’ll protect their patch. I need Shug-bloody-Francis to know his men aren’t safe.’

Tommy Scott and his childhood mate, the hyped-up, irrational and compulsive, Clueless live together in a tower block, just one floor below the top.

Well, that’s just bloody brilliant. Very few places worse than that. Having to make an exit from a tower block is never ideal. You’re always a long way from your getaway.

Right. And a tower block, which can serve as a veritable fortress for the criminals who live there, is always a hostile environment for those who don’t belong. But Frank is confident and considers this a “soft job.” What can go wrong?

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the focus is the individual within the criminal organization, and that theme continues in the second book in this gritty trilogy. Whereas relative newcomer, freelancer Calum MacLean was the focus in the first book, old-timer, the legendary Frank MacLeod is the focus of How a Gunman Says Goodbye. Peter Jamieson considers Frank a friend, someone he will always trust, but Calum thinks Frank’s best days are over. For his part, Frank considers Calum, a kid who’s too slow with his contracts, “takes too long in the scouting,” a time waster who doesn’t understand the meaning of deadlines. It’s a crucial time in Jamieson’s crime organization; Jamieson must either be prepared to grow or be cannibalized by the suddenly hungry and aggressive Shug Francis. Jamieson must have a reliable gunman and he’d like to add Calum to the organization, but Calum wants the independence of freelance work.

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, author Malcolm Mackay shows the benefits and the drawbacks of being part of a criminal organization, and again those issues have relevance in this second book in the series. Being part of an organization gives you protection if you ever need assistance, and in theory, you should have more value, but there again, if you’re freelance, you can walk away any time you feel like it. Gunmen Calum and Frank are on opposite ends of their respective careers–Calum is gearing up to be the best hitman in Glasgow while Frank’s career is winding down. Looking at a lonely ‘retirement,’ Frank suddenly realizes that he has no life outside of the organization–no wife, no family, no friends, no hobbies:

You spend decades as a gunman, which few do, and you think of the world from a different angle. It’s all about secrecy and self-preservation. A lifetime of hiding the things you do. It changes you. It must have changed Frank, too. … He’s a gunman, and that’s all he’ll ever be. You spend so long teaching yourself to be that, you simply can’t become any other kind of person. You become so tied to your work it dominates your life. Destroys it.

On the other end of the spectrum is D.I Michael Fisher–a devoted, hardworking copper who’s trying to fit together all of the puzzle pieces of the Shug Francis-Peter Jamieson war. Fisher is a lonely man who’s every bit as isolated as Frank MacLeod:

He has to take action or see this all fall through his fingers. He’s not going to let another chance go. You spend years getting good results, doing your job the right way. You have a couple of failures, and people start to point the finger. They think you don’t have it anymore. He’s been guilty of that himself in he past. He knows how it works. A cop getting older–you start to question their ability to close a case. Are they still in touch with modern crime and policing techniques? Did they still have the hunger? Some do lose it. They’ve done their bit, now they’re looking towards the end. He’s not that kind of cop. His ending will be forced on him, he knows it. The hunger’s still there, but nothing is falling his way.

Mackay builds an argument for the similarities between two parallel organizations: the criminals and the police, and then, of course, there are those snitches and bad cops, spurred on by desperation, cynicism or compromising need, who traverse between both organizations.  D.I. Fisher feels the pressure to produce and feels himself near the brink of a career move–one that could make or break him, and both Frank and Calum’s careers are also on the brink of change. Mackay doesn’t belabor the comparisons between hit men Frank and Calum, one on the way up and one on the way down, but the connections are there, and in this novel both men face tough personal and professional choices. Told in a terse, unemotional style, again the emphasis is on the individual within the criminal organization with issues such as loyalty, friendship, and trust challenging the vital security of the Jamieson empire. While we see the ‘human’ side of our protagonists, Calum and Frank, Malcolm Mackay never allows sentimentality to intrude on the narrative.

Those who’ve read the first novel in the trilogy will not be disappointed by the second book in the series. Tense, dark and with a merciless gritty reality, Calum’s story continues. …

Review copy

 

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The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 1)

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.”

the necessary death of lewis winterWhen 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.

review copy

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