Rather be the Devil (Rebus 21) by Ian Rankin

Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

While Rebus is having dinner with his long-term girlfriend, forensic pathologist Deborah Quant, in the Caledonian Hotel, he tells her of a murder that took place there years ago, when a famous rock star and his entourage were staying in the hotel – a woman who, it appeared, was probably murdered by her lover, except that the lover had an alibi. The murder was never solved and, as he tells the story, Rebus’s interest in it revives. Time for a little amateur sleuthing! Meantime, gangster Darryl Christie has been beaten up and Siobhan is on the case. The obvious suspect is Big Ger Cafferty, the older gangster whom Darryl has pushed aside, but Cafferty hints to Rebus that there’s a Russian connection. (No, fear not, Comrade Trump isn’t in it!) Malcolm Fox has been moved to the Specialist Crime Division in Gartcosh. They are quietly looking into some of Darryl’s business interests and reckon the investigation into his beating will be a good opportunity to nose around his affairs, so Malcolm is sent back through to Edinburgh to liaise with Siobhan. And so the scene is set for another full-cast outing, all the detectives and gangsters gathered together one more time.

Ian Rankin

Anyone who’s been reading my reviews for a while will know that Rebus is up there at the top of my list of favourite detectives, and Ian Rankin can really do no wrong in my eyes. As always, the plotting is great, with the various strands crossing and interconnecting. The old murder story is a traditional whodunit, where alibis and motives are key, while the gangster story allows for plenty of action and a good, believable thriller ending. There’s lots of room for the regulars to interact with each other, which is always one of the major joys of the books – tension between Siobhan and Malcolm because she’s jealous of his move to Gartcosh, concern over Rebus’s health as he undergoes some tests, and Rebus and Big Ger continuing their roles as the elder statesmen of policing and crime, running rings around the young’uns as usual.

However, in truth, I couldn’t help but notice that there are a good deal of similarities to the last book. The rivalry among Darryl, Big Ger and their Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, has been rumbling through a few books now, and shows no signs of coming to a conclusion. In retirement, it’s harder to create reasons for Rebus to be involved, and the excuse of Big Ger only being willing to deal with him is becoming a little worn. I hate to say it because I love the old man so much, but I think it’s time to let Rebus go and allow Siobhan and Malcolm to take over as the lead characters. Either that, or Rankin should break his own rule and take us back in time to revisit Rebus as a younger man, when he was still on the force. That’s not to suggest I didn’t enjoy this one – I did, thoroughly, and I’m sure other Rebus fans will too. But this and the last one have felt like encores, given as a treat to those who’ve watched the whole show and want a little bit more. And I think it would be better if Rebus left the stage while the audience is still applauding.

James Macpherson

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by James Macpherson whom some of you will remember as Chief Inspector Michael Jardine in the long-running STV series, Taggart. I’d listened to him narrate Rebus before, in the short story collection The Beat Goes On, so knew he’d be good. But actually he’s even better in this one – the length allows him to create different personalities for all the characters, and his range of Scottish accents and voices is fabulous. From posh Morningside gents to wee Glesca nyaffs, he can do them all brilliantly! He has a real understanding of the recurring characters, so his interpretation never jars. And his timing for the humour is perfect – he often made me laugh out loud. I heartily recommend his readings to any Rebus fans out there – I can’t imagine a better narrator for them, and fully intend to back track and listen to his readings of some of the older books.

For anyone coming new to the series, I’d definitely recommend starting much further back – this one depends to a large extent on familiarity with all the relationships amongst the regulars. But for existing Rebus fans, another thoroughly enjoyable book. Rankin writing and Macpherson narrating are a dream team – pure pleasure! Highly recommended.

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Open Wounds (Davie McCall 4) by Douglas Skelton

Genuine Tartan Noir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

open woundsDavie McCall is a gangster with a moral code – he doesn’t hurt women, children or ‘civilians’. But that doesn’t stop him from hurting other people – badly, when they’ve done something that crosses one of his personal lines. He’s always felt in control of his violence though, until recently, when he suddenly found he was enjoying it. Now he wants out of the ‘Life’, but he’s scared – not of what his boss might do to him, but scared that he won’t be able to change, won’t be able to leave the desire for violence behind him. Meantime, he’s still working as a heavy for Rab McClymont, who’s not just his boss but an old friend. So when Rab asks him to lean on a man, Fergus O’Neill, at first Davie’s fine with that. O’Neill was convicted a few years back of a horrific burglary that involved rape, but is now out pending appeal and is publicly accusing Rab of having fitted him up for the crime. When Davie begins to believe that O’Neill may have been innocent, he still can’t believe that Rab would have been involved in a rape, even indirectly. So he begins to investigate…

This is a great book that I’m strongly recommending you don’t read. At least not straight away. It’s actually the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall quartet, and I very much wish I’d read them in order, partly because there are lots of references to the previous books in this one which meant I was a bit lost at the beginning, and partly because having now read this one, the first three will have been a little spoiled for me since I know how the series resolves. That won’t stop me reading them though! The first in the series is Blood City.

The book is set in Glasgow gangster culture and has a totally authentic feel to it. These are low level gangsters, running dodgy businesses, small-time drug dealing, protection rackets and loan-sharking. As well as giving a great sense of place, using mainly real locations, Skelton has a complete grip on Glaswegian “patter”, the humour that covers the harshness of life on the edges of society. The dialogue isn’t really written in dialect so non-Scots would have no difficulties with it, but the speech patterns and “voices” are spot on.

Normally I would have a serious problem with being able to empathise with a man who uses violence as a tool, but Skelton provides a ton of moral ambiguity, both about Davie’s victims and regarding his background, that makes him understandable. And his own internal struggle to hold onto some kind of moral code lets the reader be on his side, willing him to win out against the demons that haunt him. I couldn’t help but think of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – Davie might be how Laidlaw would have turned out if he’d been born into the life of the gangster, and with a few better breaks in life Davie could have turned into Laidlaw. They share that sense of clear-sighted vision about the society they move in, the same philosophical acceptance that there’s only so much any one man can do to change things and the same core of morality that makes them swim against the tide even when they feel themselves being sucked under.

Douglas-Skelton
Douglas Skelton

Though I struggled at first from not having read the earlier books, by about a third of the way through I had gathered enough about the background for that aspect to stop being an issue, and from that stage in this worked fine as a standalone. The plotting is great, with several strands weaving in and out of each other. Davie is a kind of mentor to a younger thug, trying hard to stop him from losing his humanity. He’s increasingly at odds with his boss Rab, whose growing suspicions of Davie’s motives threaten their old friendship. There’s a corrupt police officer on the take, and this strand is handle particularly well – Skelton shows him believably as the exception rather the rule within the police, disliked as much by his fellow officers as by the lowlifes he bullies and uses. The characterisation throughout is exceptional, with every character ringing true – no clichés or stereotypes here. And in the end all the strands come together to an ending which is credible and satisfying without being falsely uplifting.

This is genuine Tartan Noir, grounded in the real recognisable Glasgow of today – a rare treasure amidst some of the overblown melodramatic dross which is so often wrongly acclaimed as giving an authentic picture of life here. I’m delighted to have stumbled across Douglas Skelton and he is now part of that select band of Scottish crime writers to whose future books I will look forward with keen anticipation.

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

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Even Dogs in the Wild (Rebus 20) by Ian Rankin

Rebus in a deerstalker?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

even dogs in the wildSiobhan Clarke has been called in to investigate the murder of David Minton, a former Lord Advocate (chief legal officer of the Scottish Government). At first, it looks like a robbery gone wrong, until a note is found on Lord Minton’s body – I’M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID. That evening, as Siobhan and Malcolm Fox share dinner, they are told of a shooting in the city – the target Big Ger Cafferty, retired gangster and long-time Moriarty to Rebus’ Holmes. The shooter missed, and Cafferty is refusing to talk to the police about it, so Siobhan suggests bringing Rebus in on it as the one man to whom Cafferty is likely to open up. Problem is Rebus is now retired (again) – and so begins his new career as a ‘consulting detective’. Fox meantime has been seconded to a team through from Glasgow who are carrying out surveillance on a Glasgow gangster and his son, in Edinburgh looking for one of their employees who has betrayed them and run off with a truck-load of drugs.

The book gets off to a great start with a short prologue where two gangsters are in a forest to bury a body. But things don’t go quite to plan. It takes quite a long time for all the various strands of the book to come together, but as always Rankin handles the plotting with sure skill, meting out the information with perfect timing to keep the reader’s interest from flagging at any point. This book is more noir in feel than some of Rebus’ recent outings, being very much about the gangsters of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The thing I love most about Rankin is that his books and characters are set very much in the real, recognisable world of present-day Scotland, and that shows through in his treatment of the gangsters here. He portrays them as less relevant than they used to be, with so many of their old fields of activity having become either legalised – money-lenders now advertise their exorbitant interest rates on TV, and gambling has become brightly lit, family fun – or less lucrative, with the police more successful in preventing protection rackets, for instance. Much organised crime is now carried out via the darknet rather than on the streets. Cafferty and his Glasgow counterpart, Joe Stark, are rather outdated dinosaurs – still dangerous in the parts of society in which they operate, but not universally feared or admired as the old-time gangsters once were. Gun crime is shown as it truly is – extremely rare and not a major issue in Scottish society. (There was 1 – yes, one – gun murder in the whole of Scotland in 2014.) It’s very refreshing to get such a true picture, rather than the nonsense that fills so many books in the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre, most of which describe a society that is as realistic as Hobbiton, or as outdated as Dickens’ London.

Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar. Photograph by Murdo Macleod
Ian Rankin in Rebus favourite pub, the Oxford Bar.
Photograph by Murdo Macleod

However, the book isn’t only about the warring gangsters. There is another strand that touches on a subject very much in the current news – the historical abuse of children in care homes. Again Rankin handles this with all his usual skill and sensitivity, showing not only how it affected the children at the time but how the after-effects of abuse can cascade down through generations. And he does it without resorting to shock horror tactics, voyeuristically salacious details or crocodile tears. As a result, the story feels both authentic and credible.

There is perhaps a little less reference to the political side of Scottish life than there has been in the more recent books, but I think this is a good reflection of post-referendum life, where the close result has somewhat left the nation feeling that it’s in political limbo. But the storyline touches on the power structures of both police and government, and especially on the abuse of power at the top.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

This wouldn’t be one I would necessarily recommend as a starting point for newcomers to Rebus. There are so many characters from previous books in it that I think it will work best for existing fans, who understand how the relationship between Rebus and Big Ger has developed over the years. But for me, a new Rebus is always a huge treat – Rankin is so in control of his writing and plotting that reading his books is an effortless joy. Another strong entry in the series that I’m sure fans will enjoy, and great to have Rebus back in action after the long two years since the last book. Here’s hoping his ‘consulting detective’ days are not over…

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

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The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

The Grand Old Man in shorts…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the beat goes onLast year, after one of his friends died unexpectedly at a young age, Ian Rankin announced that he’d be taking a year or two off from novel writing to have a bit of a rest. I assume this collection of short stories has been issued to fill the void that many of us Rebus fans would have felt without a new book for the winter. And, since I haven’t read any of these before, it filled that void very satisfactorily.

There are 29 stories, ranging in length from a few pages to near-novella, but with most falling into the 20-40 minutes-to-read zone, so perfect bedside table material for late-night reading. There is also an interesting essay at the end where Rankin tells the story of how Rebus came into existence, which gives us some biographical snippets into how Rankin himself became a crime writer.

Normally, when reviewing a short story collection, I find myself commenting on the variable quality of the stories, but I really can’t say that with this one. I found each of the stories, short or long, to be pretty much equally good, and while they obviously don’t have the complexity or depth of the novels, they show all Rankin’s normal talents for plotting and characterisation, and are as well written as the books. In fact, because we know the main characters so well, Rankin doesn’t have to spend much time on developing them, allowing him to pack a lot of story into a compact space. A few of them have a Christmas or New Year theme, I guess because they were originally written for newspaper or magazine Christmas specials. And a couple make reference to stories from great Edinburgh writers of the past – Muriel Spark and Arthur Conan Doyle – giving a glimpse into Rankin’s own influences.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

Each story is entirely consistent with the Rebus we know, but sometimes angled so that we see a new facet of his character, or get a closer look at an old one. They are spread throughout his career, with the first story being the most recently written – a prequel more or less to his latest novel Saints of the Shadow Bible, when Rebus was a new detective learning the ropes – right through to his retirement (which we now know didn’t last long). The bulk, however, are set in the earlier period, so there’s more of Brian Holmes as his sidekick than of Siobhan Clarke, who only came into the series mid-way through. I found this particularly pleasurable since it’s a long time since I’ve read any of the older books and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with a younger Rebus. I was intrigued to realise that, although I tend to think back on the early Rebus as one of the drunken mavericks of his day who has since mellowed with age, in fact in comparison to a lot of today’s detectives he was actually both functional and professional throughout – clearly it’s the genre that’s shifted, rather than Rebus…or Rankin. I also felt there was more than a touch of William McIlvanney in the earlier stories, but that his influence seemed to fade as they went on, presumably as Rankin developed into his own equally strong style.

The stories include all kinds of mysteries, from shop-lifting to murder, and the occasional one is really more an observation of a particular aspect of Edinburgh life than a crime story. In total, they left me in no doubt that Rankin is just as much a master of the short story as the novel. I found this a completely satisfying collection, and one that I’m sure to dip in and out of many times again.

* * * * * * * *

Just for fun I tried the newish Whispersync feature for Kindle with this one – that is, that if you buy the Kindle book, you can add the Audible version at a reduced cost (or for ‘free’ if, like me, you have a bunch of Audible credits you haven’t yet used). Technically, it didn’t really sync on the Kindle Fire which was a disappointment – it meant that when switching from reading to listening I was always having to find my place. Not too much of a problem with short stories, but could be tedious in a full-length novel.

James Macpherson
James Macpherson

However, this particular Audible book is superbly narrated by James Macpherson who, you may remember, took over as the lead in Taggart after Mark McManus died. Not only is he an excellent narrator, but his voice and accent are ideally suited for the character of Rebus and as a skilled actor he also creates different personas for all the other many characters who appear in the stories. I thought it was a first rate recording, and thoroughly enjoyed splitting the book between reading and listening. It’s something I would do again – especially for short stories. A good narration can definitely add something to the original. On the audiobook version, too, the essay Rankin on Rebus is narrated by Ian Rankin himself, which made it a little bit extra-special (especially since he has a lovely voice too). I’d happily recommend the book, the audiobook or both to all Rebus fans out there, or even perhaps as an introduction for new readers to the grand old man of Tartan Noir.

Amazon UK Link
Audible on Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible on Amazon US Link

Strange Loyalties (Laidlaw Trilogy 3) by William McIlvanney

Moving the stars to pity…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

strange loyaltiesIn the third and, to date, last outing for Jack Laidlaw, he is grieving for the death of his brother, Scott. Although Scott’s death was accidental – he was knocked down by a car – Laidlaw believes that his brother’s state of mind played a major part in his death. And so as the story begins, he has taken some time off work to try to find out what had led Scott into the depression and heavy drinking that marred his final months. As he talks to the people who knew Scott best, Laidlaw finds there were things he never knew about his brother and begins to realise that the answers he is seeking may lie far back in Scott’s past…

Nobody had said ‘crime’. But that dying seemed to me as unjust, as indicative of meaninglessness as any I had known. And I had known many. For he had been so rich in potential, so much alive, so undeserving – aren’t we all? – of a meaningless death. I knew.

I should know. He was my brother.

The first book in the trilogy, Laidlaw, would certainly be in contention on any list I might draw up of best crime novels, possibly even best novels overall. The second, The Papers of Tony Veitch, came very close to matching it in quality. So for me, this one had a couple of hard acts to follow, and it was with some trepidation that I began to read. And, although this is undoubtedly an excellent novel in its own right, in truth it didn’t reach quite the same heights for me, though only by a small margin.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is very much a matter of personal preference. The Laidlaw brothers grew up in Ayrshire so, unlike the previous books which were very firmly set in the Glasgow of my youth, this one takes place mainly away from the city. McIlvanney himself was an Ayrshire lad so for him the emotional connections are just as strong, perhaps stronger, but for me, there wasn’t the same resonance as in the other two. It also meant there was very little of McIlvanney’s wonderful use of Glasgow dialect which so enhanced the earlier books for me. The other reason is that this one is written in the first person from Laidlaw’s perspective, whilst the first two were third person. I found Laidlaw a more believable character seeing him from the outside, as it were. Being told his philosophical thoughts in his own voice meant I found that, just occasionally, he came over as a little pretentious.

William McIlvanney Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph
William McIlvanney
Photo: Chris Watt for The Telegraph

However, slightly less good from McIlvanney is still about a zillion times better than excellent from most authors, so I certainly wouldn’t want either of these quibbles to put anyone off reading this one. McIlvanney’s prose is wonderful – there is a poetic edge to it that makes the reading of it an intensely pleasurable and often emotional experience. I don’t usually use such longs quotes as this but I feel this gives a true flavour of the deep understanding and love of – pity for – humanity that pervades these books:

But, imagining Scott’s nights here, I populated the emptiness. This had been one of his places and some small part of his spirit had been left here. Holding my own brief séance for my brother, I conjured vivid faces and loud nights. I saw that smile of his, sudden as a sunray, when he loved what you were saying. I saw the strained expression when he felt you must agree with him and couldn’t get you to see that. I caught the way the laughter would light up his eyes when he was trying to suppress it. I heard the laughing when it broke. He must have had some nights here. He had lived with such intensity. The thought was my funeral for him. Who needed possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do and how you be were the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing.

His characterisation is superb – each person flawed but believably so, and he writes them with a sympathy that makes it hard for the reader to condemn. He is very much of the school that believes criminals are made, not born, and for his characters there is always the possibility of redemption. Some of the most moving scenes in this book are of a petty criminal back in Ayrshire to look after his dying mother in her last weeks. No McIlvanney character is black or white – they are all multi-shaded and multi-layered, and Laidlaw has the empathy to see them in the round. And it is Laidlaw’s empathy and understanding that makes these books special, because through him the reader is also brought to feel a sorrow and a pity for the way the world is.

One of my favourite quotes is Flaubert’s “Human language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. In this trilogy, McIlvanney’s writing surely moves the stars.

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The Papers of Tony Veitch (Laidlaw Trilogy 2) by William McIlvanney

A love letter to a city…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. He knows why he’s looking for Tony – his name’s come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. But Laidlaw doesn’t know why some of Glasgow’s hardest men seem to be wanting to find Veitch too, and the question is – who’ll find him first?

After being stunned by the first in the trilogy, Laidlaw, I approached this with some caution, for fear it couldn’t match up. But it does. We’re back in Laidlaw’s world – a good man trying to make sense of the hard and violent world he inhabits, trying to find justice for the people left on the margins. He’s not a loner, exactly, but he stands a little apart from the world – an observer with a compassionate eye, a philosopher. He’s not a team player – how could anyone live up to the exacting standards he sets? Even he continually fails to be the man he’d like to be, and his self-awareness won’t let him hide from that.

One was young and pretty, made up as colourfully as a butterfly. The other was older. She had been pretty. Now she was better than that. She looked mid to late thirties and as if she hadn’t wasted the time. She had eyes that suggested you might find Ali Baba’s cave behind them, if you knew the password, and had managed to arrive before the Forty Thieves.

The language is wonderful. It slips in and out of dialect seamlessly and the dialogue catches the tone and patterns of Glaswegian speech in a way I’ve never come across before. I can hear these people speak – hear the humour and the bravado and the aggression. He shows beautifully the odd mix of the Glaswegian character, with its kindness that must always be kept carefully hidden for fear of seeming soft. His villains are frighteningly hard without ever tipping over into caricature, and the ever-present threat of violence is chillingly believable.

“Coulda made something o’ himself. But a luckless man. All his days a luckless man. The kinna man woulda got two complimentary tickets for the Titanic.” The unintentional humour of her remark was like her natural appetite for life reasserting itself. Harkness couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if Glasgow couldn’t shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave.

The plotting is complex and takes a different direction than the reader is at first led to expect. Tony is from a privileged background, in the financial sense, though not perhaps in terms of love. But somehow he’s got himself mixed up with the underworld of gangs and hardmen and now his life seems to be in danger. As Laidlaw hunts for him, the reader gradually gets to see different aspects of Glaswegian society, from Tony’s rich, successful but cold father to the gangsters dispensing their own form of justice towards anyone they feel has betrayed them.

Photo: www.blueskyscotland.blogspot.co.uk
Photo:www.blueskyscotland.blogspot.co.uk

From his vantage point in Ruchill Park, Laidlaw looked out over the city. He could see so much of it from here and still it baffled him. ‘What is this place?’ he thought.

A small and great city, his mind answered. A city with its face against the wind. That made it grimace. But did it have to be so hard? Sometimes it felt so hard…It was a place so kind it would batter cruelty into the ground. And what circumstances kept giving it was cruelty. No wonder he loved it. It danced among its own debris. When Glasgow gave up, the world could call it a day.

William McIlvanney
William McIlvanney

But oddly, what this story is most about is love. The love of a sister for the brother who has fallen through life’s cracks into alcoholism and vagrancy. The love of a son which leads him to try to protect his parents from learning the truth about his brother. The love for a woman, which can lead a man to destroy his life. And most of all, the love of a city – the clear-sighted, complicated yet profound love that Laidlaw has for this place of contradictions where kindness and cruelty meet head-on. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity. A great book that gets my highest recommendation.

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Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

saints of the shadow bibleDouble jeopardy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the ‘double jeopardy’ law is relaxed, the Solicitor General asks Malcolm Fox to reinvestigate a case from the ’80s, one involving a young DC Rebus. It had been thought at the time that the officers of Summerhall had tampered with the evidence to allow a murderer to go free – a murderer who also happened to be an informer to the head of the Summerhall team. Meantime, in the present day, Siobhan Clarke and Rebus are back working as a team. With the new rules on retirement age, Rebus has been taken back into CID but has had to take a downgrading to Detective Sergeant, meaning Siobhan now outranks him. They are called out to what looks at first like a straightforward road accident, but a couple of things about the scene make them suspect there may be more to it than that.

When I try to pin down why Rankin is head and shoulders above most crime writers, it really comes down to two things. Firstly, the quality of his writing never wavers – he knows how to tell a good story, his pacing is superb and his plots are always both complex and believable. His characterisation is second to none – Rebus and Clarke have been real people to us for years now, people we feel we know, and Fox is rapidly joining them as just as important a character. They don’t perform superhuman feats, nor does every book end with them being saved from hideous danger. There is a realism that makes us believe this is how the police really work – we’ve even seen Rebus over the years learning to toe the line as the Police Force has tightened up on mavericks and corruption in real life.

Secondly, Rankin has his finger on the political pulse of Scotland – his books always relate to the main concerns of the day, without ever obsessing about them and without ever taking a stance. In this book, there are three parts of the plot that could only be written about at this point in time – the change to ‘double jeopardy’, the reorganisation of the various regional police forces in Scotland into one national force and, most of all, the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum. Rankin doesn’t beat us about the head with these; he just works them through the plot, as they are worked through Scottish society. So as well as telling a first-rate crime story, Rankin also reflects our society back to us – again, total realism.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin

I admit it – Rankin always gets five stars from me. When I pick up one of his books, it’s in the comfortable knowledge that it will be great. So when I say that this one is the best of his that I’ve read in years, how can I convince you? I could tell you that we’re beginning to get a nostalgic, elegiac strain running through Rebus’ story; that we’re seeing Siobhan blossom into the fine senior officer we, like Rebus, have always known she would be; that Fox, now moving out of Complaints into CID, is learning to appreciate the basic integrity that underpins Rebus’ sometimes casual disregard for the rules. I could say that reading this book will let you understand how the City of Edinburgh is changing now it’s a political capital; how the upcoming referendum is filtering through every aspect of Scottish life; how policing methods are changing in this new millennium. Or I could just say this is a well-written enjoyable police procedural with a complex plot that will keep you guessing throughout. But, in short, what I will say is – read the book. Read the book!

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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.

* * * * *

*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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Pilgrim Soul (Douglas Brodie 3) by Gordon Ferris

pilgrim soulDarkest places of the soul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The first two novels in the Douglas Brodie series were very good noir thrillers – fast-paced, explosive and full of black humour. This one is very different and takes the Brodie series to another and much darker level.

Brodie is asked to investigate a spate of burglaries in Glasgow’s post-war Jewish community. But when the burglar is found murdered it gradually becomes clear that there is a connection that leads back to the horrors of the concentration camps – horrors that Brodie has been trying to forget since his role as interrogator of war criminals after the war.

Ferris handles this dark and difficult subject with a great deal of sensitivity and humanity. The details he gives of some of the dreadful acts that were carried out in the camps are kept to the minimum necessary for the development of the story – Ferris carefully avoids the use of gratuitous detail. Instead he concentrates on how these events are still affecting his characters, including a very moving portrayal of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the men of my father’s generation, the ones who came back – a generation who mainly bottled up their feelings about their war experiences, who talked of the camaraderie of war but not the horrors, and I felt that in some way Ferris was giving these men a voice that the stiff-upper-lip culture of the time had perhaps denied them.

Gordon Ferris (www.scotsman.com)
Gordon Ferris
(www.scotsman.com)

But although the subject matter means that this book is much darker than the previous ones, this is also a first-rate, tightly plotted thriller – well-paced, plenty of action and still with room for occasional flashes of humour. Brodie’s relationship with Sam is developed further and Danny McRae, hero of Ferris’ other series, plays a part in this one too. In a previous review, of Bitter Water, I compared Gordon Ferris to Ian Rankin. This book leads me to compare him to Reginald Hill, an author who could give his readers intelligently light entertainment in one book then take them to the darkest places of the human soul in the next. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the Brodie books but this one also moved me deeply – highly recommended.

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Bitter Water (Douglas Brodie 2) by Gordon Ferris

Bitter WaterMurderin’ bampots…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the second in Ferris’ Douglas Brodie series which started as a Kindle sensation with The Hanging Shed. Tartan Noir at its finest, putting Brodie’s Glasgow right up beside Rebus’ Edinburgh.

Brodie is now working as a crime journalist in Glasgow when a spate of vigilante attacks hits the city. At the same time, his colleague, senior reporter Wullie McAllister is covering the murder of a councillor and suspects corruption at the heart of Glasgow Corporation. Brodie’s relationship with Sam Campbell is still on-off as she struggles to get over the after-effects of their last adventure.

Gordon Ferris
Gordon Ferris

Ferris doesn’t stint on violence and gore as the attacks and murders mount up and in true thriller style the climax is explosive. But along the way we are treated to some great humour, much of it very black. However the thing that makes these books really stand out is Ferris’ descriptions of post-war Glasgow (Brodie has only recently returned to Glasgow after serving as a major in the Second World War) and his completely authentic use of Glasgow slang. No psychopathic killers here – these men are murderin’ bampots. I’m not old enough to remember Glasgow in the forties, but the language and attitudes of the characters chime in with my own memories of how people of my parents’ generation talked and felt.

Horseshoe Bar, Glasgow
Horseshoe Bar, Glasgow

The locations are so accurately described they whisk me back in time, though some of the places still exist today. The Horseshoe Bar, for instance, is still a thriving institution. Ferris writes so well that you never get the impression he’s researched the period – you feel certain he must actually have lived in it.

In my view, Ferris is the most exciting new Scottish crime writer on the scene and in Brodie he has developed an attractive, compelling lead character whose second outing is even better than the first. Highly recommended.

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