Tag Archives: Scottish crime fiction

The Last Hack: Christopher Brookmyre

“Who I really am is the person that exists online.”

Last year I arrived late to the Jack Parlabane series from Christopher Brookmyre with Black Widow, the seventh in the series. The series has followed the trials and tribulations of investigative reporter Parlabane, and in Black Widow Parlabane’s career is in the toilet. In The Last Hack, Parlabane, whose personal life is non existent, is hoping to revive his career. This thriller/crime novel presciently tackles hacktivism and corporate malfeasance.

The Last Hack

The Last Hack is partly the story of a young girl named Samantha Morpeth who, following the incarceration of her mother, is forced by circumstances to care for and support her sister, Lilly, who has Down’s Syndrome. Samantha is a powerless young girl whose life-path has been dictated by her drug addicted mother. Living in poverty,  bullied at school, rejected by the government agencies that are supposed to help her, Samantha is prey to her mother’s dealers who loot her home to make up for lost payment. It’s no wonder that Samantha, who is so powerless in life should turn to the internet to reverse her lowly position.

After Parlabane comes up with a story on hacktivism of a major bank, he is hired by Broadwave, “a burgeoning cross-media entity that has evolved from a completely new perspective upon news and technology.” Chances are he would have been passed over for the job were it not for his inside scoop from a hacktivist named Buzzkill. But when Buzzkill ends up in trouble, the hacker turns to Parlabane for help.  The job with Broadwave offers Parlabane a chance to get his career back on track but helping the hacker may jeopardize everything he stands to gain.

Unfortunately the plot of The Last Hack is quite convoluted. The book starts with a short prologue in which someone is “suffering the after-effects” of an electroshock device, and then the novel shifts to Samantha Morpeth who is sitting in a waiting room of a government agency. Then comes a section with someone calling around to a few different employees at the RSGN Bank. Then we switch back to Parlabane interviewing with Broadwave, and then it’s an internet chat between hackers. This is a group of hackvists known as Uninvited, and their next hack, against a major bank, is organised over chat. The chat is difficult to follow–not only the abbreviated computer-speak exchanges but again it’s a handful of characters who exist in cyberspace and have no other grounding. These strands connect, of course, but it takes an overly long time to connect the dots.

Free-floating prologues seem popular these days but when they’re followed by other seemingly unconnected strands, the book, instead of pulling the reader in, keeps the reader dancing on the periphery wondering what the hell is going on.  With the various strands packing the beginning of the book, it took me about 1/5 of the way through before I had a handle on what was happening. Once I got through the first 1/5, the plot took off. Of the two Parlabane novels I’ve read, I much preferred Black Widow.

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The Long Drop: Denise Mina

“He doesn’t say anything compassionate about Isabelle or Anne, two dead seventeen-year-old girls. To him they are no more than skin-covered stage flats in a play about him.”

I knew very little about the murders committed by Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel, who was hanged for some of his crimes in 1958, and while I tend to avoid fiction written about real people, Denise Mina’s The Long Drop sounded intriguing.

The Long Drop is both a reconstruction and a re-imaging of the case. The book opens in December 1957 with a businessman named William Watt who attends a meeting with career criminal Peter Manuel. The meeting has been brokered by celebrity lawyer Laurence Dowdall who, on the way to the meeting, gives Watt, his client, various pieces of advice about how to handle Manuel. This advice is needed as Peter Manuel is a slippery customer, manipulative, cunning and extremely dangerous.

The Long Drop

Dowdall, trying to hang onto professional integrity leaves Watt and Manuel alone. But why are Manuel and Watt meeting? For those (like me) who know very little about Manuel’s bloody, violent career, he was accused of, convicted and hanged for (as the book’s title suggests) murder. Watt’s wife, sister-in-law and daughter were three of the victims. They were shot in the Watt home, and initially Watt was the main suspect. The meeting between Manuel and Watt, brokered by Watt’s lawyer, is ostensibly for Watt to ascertain specific, secret information Manuel has regarding the murders.

The meeting morphs into a nightlong pub crawl with Manuel and Watt hitting many dingy, dank pubs of Glasgow. At this point, I put the book down. Could this have really happened? If you suspected that a man murdered your wife, daughter and sister-in-law, could you spend a whole night with him, buying him drinks? Truth is stranger than fiction. In the case of the Speed Freak Killers, for example, a large sum of money was promised to the killers in exchange of information about buried bodies. It’s possible that if you were desperate for information, you could put your personal feelings aside and make a pact with the devil. Possible if you had great personal restraint.

And William Watt was a desperate man. Although he was on holiday the night his family members were murdered, he’d taken the family’s dog, his wife’s dog with him–something he’d never done before, and eyewitnesses (who were later discredited) placed him on the road traveling back to Glasgow in the wee hours. Plus Watt had a mistress and his wife was an invalid. There was a lot at stake for Watt who was initially arrested but later released without charge.

Back to the book….

The Long Drop goes back and forth from the night (11 hours) in 1957 when Watt and Manuel went on an epic pub crawl to the trial of Peter Manuel in 1958. The night Watt and Manuel spend together reveals the dark side of a long vanished Glasgow. The smoke filled pubs habituated by the underworld in a city that will be renovated:

The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height. This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped out street fighters. A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.

Although this is a long dead case, with a terminal solution, Denise Mina brings the story to life while raising some intriguing questions both about the night Watt and Manuel spent together and about subjects raised during the trial. While Watt, who decides to “turn detective,” is seen as out-of-his-depth, a bit of a bumbler, Peter Manuel “is in a very different film. His would be European, black and white, directed by Clouzot or Melville, printed on poor stock and shown in art-house cinemas to an adults-only audience. There wouldn’t be violence or gore in the movie, this is not an era of squibs or guts-on-screen, but the implication of threat is always there.” 

Manuel is a sly, cunning psychopath and we see the various sides of the man. There’s the Manuel he’d like to be: a writer, a man about town, the man who’s courteous with women, but then there’s the sexually frustrated, violent son who intimidates his mother, and then there’s the charmer who tries to project his charisma and intelligence to the unbelieving jury. Manuel is a fantasist, a psychopath whose narcissism leads him to fire his defense counsel and conduct his own defense. We see Manuel’s staggering misreadings in the courtroom–evidence of his stunted emotional projection.

Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel. He has never known that. He can guess. He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing. But there is no reciprocation. He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.

There’s a reimagining here–a fiction element of the novel which I cannot address fully without spoilers.  I understand why the author became so obsessed with this case, and why The Long Drop was created. For this reader, Denise Mina offered a possible explanation in a fill-in-the-blank way. As a work of fiction, it’s an excellent read, but while the author’s version is plausible, there’s an ethical position to this imagining. Those involved cannot challenge the book.

I follow the reviews written by fellow crime addict reader Cleo, and she also reviewed Denise Mina’s book, The Long Drop favourably.

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Every Night I Dream of Hell: Malcolm Mackay

Enforcer Nate Colgan first appeared in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, the explosive gateway to a series of novels focusing on a Glasgow organised crime network. Colgan didn’t have much of a role to play as the ex-boyfriend of Zara Cope who, in the Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, is shacked up with a minor drug dealer who trespasses on someone else’s turf and subsequently pays the price. Colgan was one of the most memorable characters in the novel, and somehow it just makes sense to find him spearheading Every Night I Dream of Hell.

Every Night I Dream of Hell is the fifth novel in the Glasgow crime series. The first three in the series (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, The Sudden Arrival of Violence) explore the turf war between mid-level gang-lord Peter Jamieson and used car dealer with ambition, Shug Francis. In a grow or die scenario, one of the gangs will be destroyed and/or cannibalized by the other.

every night I dream of hell

In Every Night I Dream of Hell the turf war is over and Jamieson and his right hand man, John Young are in prison, and that leaves the remains of the Jamieson gang ‘managing’ the turf, the deals, the money and the bent coppers. Nate Colgan is hired as a “security consultant,” and it’s a role he’s not particularly comfortable with. Colgan sees the writing on the wall thanks to the in-fighting and overall lack of confidence in leadership, but a new threat appears in the form of a British gang who, smelling blood, have moved north to invade Jamieson’s territory. Naturally with a very visible, violent threat knocking at the door, Colgan is involved, but his position is made tougher by the fact that Zara Cope is involved up to her neck with the British gang.

Both Zara and Colgan are great characters. Colgan is a killer but he seems to have a cool head on his shoulders. It must have been a temporary lapse in judgement that caused him to allow the sly, opportunistic Zara to creep under his covers. Or perhaps women are his Achilles’ Heel? Colgan knows better than to get involved with Zara again, and yet there’s something there he can’t resist.

There was something sweet and sticky in her words, a trap I didn’t like the sound of.

Zara may be a lowly figure in the crime world, but she’s in the sights of DI Fisher:

You can’t chase every rat; you will end up getting lost in the sewers. You catch the ones you can. You keep an eye out for the most rotten of them; you don’t get distracted from the bigger picture. But some, Jesus, some of them you can’t stop chasing. It’s not a professional thing to admit to, no cop should get sidetracked by a criminal of no importance, but it happens. Someone infests your mind. Might be a victim you just have to help. Might be a criminal you just have to catch. Everything else drops into the background.

There’s a lot of back story to the plot, and this is supposed to either jog our memories of the last four books or fill in the blanks (if we haven’t read the books), but the catch-up occasionally weighs down Mackay’s bleak, machine gun -style. Any reader should do themselves a favour and read at least the first three books first–otherwise you may be completely lost in the sea of names and past associations.  Those who’ve already read the earlier books won’t be able to resist this one.

For this reader, Every Night I Dream of Hell, although it involved the same turf, some of the same characters, and the network and hierarchy of a brutal criminal gang, wasn’t quite up to the standard of the previous four. This may be because Colgan is a lot like the gunman MacLean in many aspects–wanting a slice of normal life but understanding that it comes at too high a price.

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City of Strangers: Louise Millar

In Louise Millar’s thriller, City of Strangers, newlywed Grace Scott returns from a two week honeymoon in Thailand to her new flat in Edinburgh only to find a dead man in her kitchen. The man’s shoes are poorly fitting, he has no socks, and later, according to the autopsy, it’s revealed that the man, who had no ID was starving. The police chalk up the body to a burglar who died accidentally in the process of a break-in, but Grace has a vague dissatisfaction with the verdict which becomes amplified when she finds a scribbled note amongst her wedding presents.

With the signed note as a clue, and propelled by the uncomfortable knowledge that her own father died alone, Grace decides to pursue the man’s identity and find his family. What begins as a fairly simple connect-the-dots mission soon spirals out of control as Grace begins to learn two very different versions of the dead man’s life. She travels to London, Amsterdam and Paris with questions that lead her into the violent underbelly of the criminal world.

city-of-strangers

There’s a second story strand back in Edinburgh involving Ewan, Louise’s former journalism classmate and his boss, Sula, at Scots Today. Sula is chasing a story which concerns two bodies found in a pit cave: one man was an Australian hiker, and the other was a drug dealer, and Sula asks : “why would an Australian tourist be buried on top of one of Edinburgh’s finest drug dealers?” Of course these two story strands eventually connect.

Ewan and Sula are wonderful characters, and yet they are secondary figures in this tale. Their dynamic and dialogue sizzles and altogether seems much more real than that of Grace and Nicu the hunky prize-winning photographer she meets in Amsterdam. There’s one point when Sula pumps an unwitting PC  for information. He’s been guarding a crime scene in the cold, and she wanders up to him with a spare bacon roll. At another time, she borrows a greyhound as a prop to join other dogwalkers. The touches of humour which underscore how far some reporters will go to get a story help balance the darker, sadder aspects of this tale.

City of Strangers begins as a crime story but then morphs into a more complex, fleshy thriller. While I chewed up the story involving Ewan and Sula, my two favourite characters in the book, I had a much harder time with Grace, who dumps Mac, her newlywed husband without a word to pursue the photojournalist career she knows she wants. I found myself mulling over other plot scenarios: would it have been better if Grace’s husband Mac didn’t exist at all (but then he becomes integral to the plot later,) or what if Grace and Mac had already had longstanding marriage problems when the novel begins? I’ll land on the latter as Grace as a newlywed just didn’t work for this reader. She was too happy to sail off and ‘find herself’ which smacked much more of an unhappily woman than a newlywed–even one with a long-standing relationship such as Grace had with Mac. Grace is essentially drawn as a woman in the midst of a personal crisis having to choose career over domesticity, but the newlywed tag doesn’t mesh, and every time she ignores Mac’s texts or drops his calls, her actions push that post-honeymoon credibility.

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Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

black-widow

Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

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Open Wounds: Douglas Skelton

“Maybe he’s reached the end of his shelf life.”

Open Wounds, the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall Scottish crime series, finds the series protagonist, now 38 years old, still leading  ‘The Life,’ ten years since a prison sentence. McCall works for “Glasgow Godfather” Big Rab McClymont but wants out of the violence, something he confides to childhood friend, Bobby, a former crim who now owns a decorating store and leads a quiet family life. McCall, who was brought up in an incredibly violent home, stepped into The Life seamlessly, but now some of his past actions chew away at the dark reaches of his consciousness; he’s beginning to question his actions, and in the type of work he’s in, where loyalty is premium, conscience and questioning orders are both luxuries he can’t afford.

A violent job with explosive sidekick, Jimsie, a man who enjoys inflicting physical punishment and has a “tendency to go over the top,” leaves McCall with the definite feeling that he no longer has the stomach for the work.

open wounds

When McCall’s boss tells McCall to ‘fix’ freshly released Jerry O’Neill who’s talking to The Criminal Case Review Commission, the object is to shut the man up, but O’Neill claims he was framed by McClymont, and with McClymont seizing O’Neill’s former business concerns, there’s something about O’Neill’s story that rings true. McCall starts digging into the case on his own assisted by former cop, Donovan, now private detective. On the other end of the spectrum, McClymont leans on bent cop, Jimmy Knight, aka The Black Night for help.

“It happens,” Knight went on. “Guy gets older, slows down, doesn’t have the heart for things he used to. Man like McCall, without the ambition or the brain to be anything other than what he is, well, he can outlive his usefulness. Time to be put out to pasture, maybe.”

A complication in McCall’s life occurs when he becomes involved with a woman who lives in the same apartment complex. In his line of work, McCall can’t afford personal relationships, but the desire for a normal life proves to be a testing point.

The author presents an interesting portrait of a much-feared enforcer whose reputation causes those he visits to quiver at the knees, and yet, through the narrative, we see a man, in early middle age, developing doubts about the world he embraced, unquestioningly, decades earlier. There’s an edge of humour in the novel that lightens this dark, violent tale, and McCall’s deep attachment to his dog wins this character a lot of points.

Blood City, Crow Bait, and Devil’s Knock are the first three books in the series, and although it was no problem to read and enjoy Open Wounds as a standalone (the backstory and past events are woven in well), I feel as though I’ve missed some excellent books and that I should have read the series from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. Other reviews across the internet express the same sentiment.

Special thanks to Crimeworm for pointing me to this book.

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The Night the Rich Men Burned:Malcolm Mackay

“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….

The night the rich men burned

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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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….

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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. …

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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.

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