Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Profile Books.

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Runaway by Peter May

runawayHit the road, Jack…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Jack Mackay is expelled from school, he decides to run away to London. He tells his friends, the other four members of the band he plays in, and they decide to go with him – partly to get away from problems in their own lives, and partly to seek fame and fortune. It’s 1965, and London is swinging – the place to be for all aspiring musicians. But it’s also a place where young people can find themselves manipulated and used, and caught up in events they can’t control. And Jack’s London adventure ends with a killing. Fifty years on, one of the band members, Maurie, now terminally ill with cancer, reveals that the person everyone thought was the killer was innocent, and that he knows who really did it. He persuades Jack and Dave, the two remaining band members still living in Glasgow, to go back with him to London to put things right while there’s still time.

The publicity blurb for the book tells us that parts of the story are based on May’s own experiences of running away to London as a teenager. As with his last few books, this one has a double timeline. The story of the ’60s London trip is told by Jack in the first-person, while the present day section is third person, though still very firmly from Jack’s perspective, and both sections are written in the past tense. Though we know from the beginning that someone is murdered, we don’t know who or why until near the end, so this has more of the feel of thriller than a mystery. We also know that Maurie knows whodunit, so there’s no investigation element. Instead what we have are two linked but very different stories of the characters heading to London, and the gradual revelation of what happened to the boys in the earlier storyline once they got there.

Both timelines have a great feeling of authenticity and, as always with May, the sense of place is done superbly. I hadn’t realised May grew up in the Southside of Glasgow (as did I), but the accuracy with which he describes it suggests he must have done. Although he’s writing about a somewhat earlier era than my own, the places, attitudes, language and lifestyle are all spot-on. Spookily so, in fact – I kept finding parts of my own life mirrored in the story and spent much of the early part of the book being reminded of events and places in my own past.

The Pond in Queen's Park on Glasgow's Southside...
The Pond in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s Southside…

The two journeys, 50 years apart, allow May to show the changes across the country in that time, and he does so very well. Both journeys take the form of road-trips, punctuated by accident and disaster, but lifted by a healthy dose of humour. Along the way, the boys rescue Maurie’s cousin from her drug-dealing boyfriend and she becomes one of the gang as they finally arrive in London and start looking round for the streets paved with gold. And at first, when they are given lodgings and a job by a man who promises them a chance to cut a demo disc, it looks as though they have landed on their feet. But it’s not long before things go wrong and start to spiral out of control.

The trip undertaken by the older version of the men in the present day is filled with a mixture of nostalgia and humour. It’s through Jack’s reminiscences during this trip that we see the earlier story unfold, and see him reassessing with the eyes of experience the risks to which his younger self laid himself open. Gradually we see how his whole life has been affected by the things that happened back then, with this trip giving him a chance for some kind of resolution and even redemption.

Peter May
Peter May

The one weakness of the book for me was the crime element itself. The murder and motive for it weren’t quite strong enough to justify the lengthy lead-up – in fact, it felt a little as if it had been tacked on to justify the book being classed as a crime novel. The strength of the book is in the relationships between the boys as they face up to the realities of life; and later between the men as they come to terms with the events that had such an impact on each of their lives. The ending felt a little contrived to bring the whole thing to a neat conclusion.

Overall, though, this is an excellent read that convinces me again that May is at his strongest when he’s writing about his own native country – his instinctive feel for the places and people is far more convincing than even his best researched books set elsewhere. But perhaps I’m biased…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Interesting little note…

Apparently May and his old friend Stephen Penn have released an album, also entitled Runaway. Sadly there’s no video for the title track on youtube but here is Peter May singing Big Bad Wolf


(I don’t do music reviews so shall leave you to judge it for yourself. But you just gotta love the bikini-clad dollybirds! Ah, middle-aged men and their little fantasies – what would we do without them? 😉 )

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Where the Dead Men Go (Conway Trilogy 2) by Liam McIlvanney

Gangland headlines…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

where the dead men goWhen top crime reporter Martin Moir of The Tribune turns up dead, his colleague and friend Gerry Conway finds it hard to accept that his death was suicide. Conway had been a mentor to the younger man but Moir’s success in getting exclusives about the workings of the underworld had given him top billing on the paper. Now Conway must return to covering crime at a time when two rival gangs are facing off against each other and a street war looks likely. And he must also try to find out the truth of what happened to Moir…

Set in present day Glasgow, this is a well written story with noir-ish tendencies. Glasgow is shown as a city of violence where rival gangs divide up the turf and corruption is rife. Conway’s job as a reporter gives McIlvanney the opportunity to look at the changing world and diminishing importance of newspapers in the age of online news. Conway’s character is well developed as we see him struggle to juggle the demands of the job and his family (partner, ex-wife and children). As Conway’s investigation begins to uncover the depth of the corruption, he and his family become the targets of the gangland bosses. A flawed hero, Conway’s integrity is put to the test when danger threatens and, as in all noir, moral certainties become blurred.

Liam McIlvanney is the son of William McIlvanney of Laidlaw fame so it’s hard to read this book without drawing comparisons. Like Laidlaw this book concentrates on the seamier side of Glasgow life, the underworld and gangsters for whom violence is a way of life. Both writers are noir-ish in their view of the city and both see justice as something that happens beyond the bounds of courts and law. However, while I found William’s picture of ’70s Glasgow frighteningly accurate, Liam’s portrayal of the present-day city seems somehow outdated. Of course, as in any big city there are still gangs and gangsters in Glasgow, but they don’t keep the city in fear the way they once did. I felt Liam overplayed the importance of the gangs and the level of corruption and this detracted from the overall credibility of the story for me. William McIlvanney used Glasgow dialect and speech patterns to brilliant effect in Laidlaw; Liam barely uses dialect at all and I felt this was a distinct lack that prevented the book from being as firmly rooted in the city as it might have been. In fact, this book could really have been set in any big city, whereas in Laidlaw Glasgow was brought uniquely to life.

Liam McIlvanney
Liam McIlvanney

Unfair to compare father and son, I know, but hard to avoid, especially since Liam McIlvanney has chosen to re-inhabit the territory that his father made his own. Without comparison though, this is a good read on the whole, well written and with strong characterisation. The plot is complex and interesting, although I had a few issues with its credibility and not just the ones I’ve mentioned already around the portrayal of Glasgow. Overall, though, this is an above average crime/thriller that will certainly encourage me to look out for more of Liam McIlvanney’s work in the future. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

Wha daur meddle wi’ me…

😡 😡 😡 😡 😡

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

laidlawWhen Jennifer Lawson’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they’re not alone in the search. Jennifer’s father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city’s underworld – men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on…

McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer – a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.

Set in the late 1970s, this is the Glasgow of my youth and I found it reeked of authenticity. The language, the attitudes, the hard-drinking culture centred around the city’s pubs, the humour and bravado that defended against the ever-present threat of violence – all more extreme in the book (since I didn’t mingle too much with the underworld!) but all very recognisable. And, sad to say, the sectarianism and homophobia were as present and as open in the real world as in the book.*

“Across the street the door of the Corn Exchange opened suddenly and a small man popped out onto the pavement, as if the pub had rifted. He foundered in a way that suggested fresh air wasn’t his element and at once Harkness saw that he was beyond what his father called the pint of no return.”

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

The characterisation throughout the book is particularly strong, each character as believable as the next. Though there’s an air of menace throughout, there are only a couple of graphically violent episodes and they are all the more shocking for their rarity. Fear runs through the book and, as with all the best crime fiction, moral certainties become blurred round the edges. McIlvanney’s use of language is brilliant – the Glaswegian dialect is completely authentic, and I particularly enjoyed how Laidlaw slips between educated English and dialect depending on whom he’s speaking to. I now fully understand why this book is considered the progenitor of the Tartan Noir genre – I can see it’s influence on so many of the current crop of Scottish crime writers, not to mention the early Taggart series – and I’m duly ashamed that it took me so long to get around to reading it. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley.

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*Before Visit Scotland sues me, I’d just like to point out that Glasgow has changed now and is a wonderful, sophisticated place full of welcoming, warm-hearted, friendly and non-violent people!! Honest!

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