Ewan Gault (2021) The Sound of Sirens.

I took Ewan Gault’s novel with me to get my Covid booster and flu jab. An hour-and-half waiting. It’s a pocket-sized book with the print a bit too wee for my liking. But I got stuck in and read most of the short twenty-six chapters in one long wheeze. I kept a few of the pages back to enjoy the denouement when my mind was a little clearer.

Crime/Thriller category. Tartan Noir. Ian Rankin, who wrote William McIlvanney’s latest Laidlaw, knew better than most, the Glasgow detective didn’t solve crimes but solved the world. The setting, Port Cawdor, bypassed by an A-road. Train station closed by the Beeching cuts. The headland were everybody knows everybody else’s business, and it’s a crime to be young. Not that they need much help with the heroin problem in a wee fishing village making national headlines. We’re more in Alan Warner’s Morvern Caller and The Sopranos territory.

First lines. Any aspiring novelist or story writer is told it’s the first line that reels the reader in.  You need to feel it on your tongue that this is the story for you.

The morning I got out of my dead cousin’s bunk and went to the mirror. I still wasn’t used to being at sea and felt sick half the time.

Books ask questions of the reader. The obvious one here is how did his cousin die? Which has to do with plot.

The less obvious one is who is the narrator? Well, that’s simple and complicated, as it should be.

We’ve got both insider and outside accounts. By insider I mean first-person accounts, the story as told by ‘I’ seventeen-year-old Malky Campbell. Bildungsroman. When he gets off his uncle’s fishing boat he buys a bottle of vodka and Great Expectations. I could witter on about the symbolism between the child Pip and the convict Magwitch, but really, nobody gives a fuck.

Amid the Dickensian poverty of Port Cawdor is the dual income, Tory voting, affluence, of those that have had a leg up and made it. Characters such as Inspector Stark, his headmaster wife and Zoe, the head girl at the school. One of the ‘brainiacs’ destined for medical school and better things, which meant never having to return to Port Cawdor.

Inspector Stark as his name suggests, is not one of the chummy insiders at the local nick. He’s the outsider that knows he’s becoming a cliché, investigating the case of why and how Malky Campbell’s cousin, Joe, died on board his da’s fishing boat. We are no longer with the ‘I’ narrator, but third-person, distanced, but close enough to the action. His goal is clear, he’s not overly concerned with the local crime family, the Kerr’s, or the collateral damage they’ve caused, but wants to get Mr Big.   

Junkie Josh sums up the gap (lines so good it was used twice):

‘We are the unprofitable bycatch of humanity. They’d like to throw us in the sea’.  

Literary representation or merit. I’m often not sure what that means. But I’m jealous of how good some of the writing is.

…long days of summer break sweet as a drunk girl’s mouth. Honeysuckle.

I tried to catch the cleaning woman’s eye, she was standing sentry still…A shabby pigeon bobbled across her newly cleaned floor, drawing a wing over its face, like a person going to court trying to hide behind a blanket.

Weaknesses—not really—but things I’d have looked at.

Plot: Although Zoe mirrors Nicky as the good girl/bad girl Malky could hook up with. Nicky’s shambolic and heroin addicted lifestyle means that they meet when they meet. Seems to me naturalistic (whatever that means).

Zoe meeting Malky in a petrol station off the A9, seems forced and unnaturalistic.

Secondary Characters: You don’t want them to be like the identikit Highland towns with shortbread and tartan that Malky hammers through with Zoe in the car. I can’t remember the name of the entertainer who explained that when the curtain goes up, his character had to be dressed a certain way, with shiny black shoes, and sound a certain way. In the next act, his character could be wearing carpet slippers and the audience wouldn’t notice. But the Council workers—Gav, Iggy, Pete and Frank—whose jobs I’m sure Ewan Gault is familiar with (as I am) seem much of a muchness. I couldn’t pick them apart.  But perhaps that’s my failing and not the author’s.

Port Cawdor lives, dive in deep. Ewan Gault has much to be proud of. Read on.  

Craig Robertson (2010) Random

This book is a bit of set-up for a debut thriller writer. The tag on the front cover tells the would-be reader, ‘Six Victims, One Brutal Killer, No Rhyme, No Reason, No Mercy’. The hard-sell for crime fans.  And in smaller font it tells you this guy is like Mark Billingham and Val McDermid. Wow, I say, I’ll need to read this, it’s been lying on my shelf, getting dusty for two years and when I read the first chapter it might have been another ten, because I don’t know who Mark Billingham is and if he writes like this, I don’t care. But then I read the book in one go. It took a few hours.

The background noise inside the book is motive. Why is this guy killing random people? What made it attractive for me was the setting – Glasgow.

The cops are the good guys, trying to capture the bad guy. But there’s also bad guys, trying to capture the killer, because he killed one of their own, a drug dealer. A loss of face, for an Arthur Thompson like kingpin, means somebody else needs to pay and loss their face too. Then you have the fourth estate, mainly the Daily Record, reporting on the case.  (Craig Robertson was a former journalist, writing what he knows.)

I guess in all Tartan Noir there’s a bit of Laidlaw philosophising, about taking revenge and needing to dig two graves, one for the victim. Not having a pattern, is itself a pattern. Serial killers and the mistakes they’d made. The ones that got away, Bible John and Jack the Ripper. The narrator is called by the press, Jock the Ripper. One theory was the Ripper’s murder of prostitutes was a cover up, of his real motive, protecting someone higher up, perhaps a member of the Royal family. Nudge, nudge.

Family plays a big part in the narrator’s life, but we know he’s fucked up, but when he kills a lawyer, you get the feeling he kinda deserves it. But when he kills a newly married man, the narrator’s motive become blacker and twisted and when he sets out to stalk and kill a random teenage student in the pubs in Ashton Lane and ends up in the Twisted Thistle with a cop at his back, it seems justice has been served. That would have taken him too far into the dark side. He backs off.

The book gallops along at a fair pace. The narrator reading press reports, we the reader too can scan, word for word. He’s a pal on the inside of the gangster underworld that reports back to him the latest doings. We know the type. And as a taxi-driver he listens to what the people of Glasgow are saying about the killer they’re now calling The Cutter, because he takes a finger from each of his victims with a pair of secateurs and sends them to the press or to the police. He doesn’t take a finger from his last victim, but still manages to give the police and gangsters the finger.

Here’s where it goes a bit iffy. We know why he done it. We know how he done it, because he’s telling us his thoughts and feelings and we’re looking over his shoulder, seeing what he’s seeing, hearing what he’s hearing, smelling what he smells. You want me to paint a picture, pal? Unfortunately, that’s what Robertson does. The denouement is too protracted. Too many loose knots are tested and tied, even down the last, falling, prayer from the narrator’s lips. Less is more. Jesus wept. Read on.