Saturday, 17 August 2013

Glasgow - in monochrome and colour

I really enjoyed Malcolm Mackay's The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter.  Its sheer, uncompromising oddness (enormous list of characters, with descriptions, before you could start; absolute refusal to deal with Glasgow's vernacular or geography; brutally cut-back prose. The cold, semi-autistic protagonist, Calum Maclean, up and coming gunman in Glasgow's divided crime scene.

It's part of a trilogy, and I was keen to read the sequel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, featuring more about Calum's ageing mentor, Frank Macleod. There's the same long cast list at the start, now feeling even odder and somewhat ponderous, almost amateurish. And while the influences on Mackay are again obvious (Charles Willeford, James M Cain, Hammett, Derek Raymond) the book's velocity is slower than its predecessor's.

It's still a very good read, once you're committed to the stylistic quirks. But some of the more intimate situations described stretch credulity too far, and that rigid, laconic austerity in terms of location gives way to a sudden, throwaway pin-pointing of places. Renfrew. The South Side. The West End. The descriptions are over-long and tension is built too slowly. Only in the last section of the book do you become utterly locked in to Frank's fate and Calum's role in determining it.

Getting the sequels out quickly was obviously paramount in the publisher's mind. I can understand that they had a pulp pattern to follow and the third book is already being advertised in billboards on the Glasgow Subway. But How a Gunman Says Goodbye gives every indication of too much haste, and less-than-ruthless editing. Still weird and very readable though.

Liam McIlvanney's All the Colours of the Town was published two years ago and is also a thriller set in Glasgow. It too is part of a trilogy, I now discover, following the adventures of its central character, a journalist called Conway. The sequel, Where the Dead Men Go, is out in a couple of weeks.

McIlvanney is a very different writer from Mackay. He's an academic, a professor of Scottish literature in New Zealand. He has either a major family literary heritage to draw upon, or a big bad monkey on his back (or both) due to the fact that his old man is the godfather of tartan noir, William McIlvanney. And he loves, rejoices in, absolutely wallows in the glorious, sprawling detail of Glasgow. I suppose New Zealand would do that to a guy.

I loved All the Colours of the Town (only £1.19 for Kindle now. Just buy it!). It's convincing on internal newspaper politics, made me achingly homesick for the west end of Glasgow, and is one of the very few crime novels to tackle - and it does so with an impressive sense of history - west of Scotland sectarianism and its links to Northern Irish terrorism. While some of the writing is a tad florid and there is some Martin Amis-like verbal obscurantism, there are set pieces here that will stay with you forever: Trapped in a  car during an Orange Walk in Larkhall; the various sounds of a tenement close when you're unexpectedly left at home on a weekday.

Only the bad-dad-who-never-sees-his-wean aspect of Conway's life feels like genre furniture. The rest is very assured, extremely gripping and non-formulaic. As for the sequel, well. We shall see, shortly.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Glasgow part one: Field of Blood.

The best 'Glasgow noir' books are, in my humble opinion: William McIlvanney's The Papers of Tony Veitch (just shading the same author's Laidlaw). Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room, and Frederic Lindsay's Brond. Only the last has been televised, and in an absolutely superb version directed by Michael Caton-Jones in the mid-1980s. There's a brief and not very dramatic clip on YouTube. 

But over the past few weeks I've found myself walking on the noir side of Glasgow courtesy of more recent tomes. And, having just returned to the Zetlandics after a brief sojourn back in my home city, watching BBC Scotland's Field of Blood took me back once more to the mean streets of the Dear Green Place.

Field of Blood was an odd experience. Its first outing (why are the BBC commissioning these compressed two-parters? The lamentable Shetland was another piece of televisual booksqueezing) passed me by completely, and for whatever reason I'd failed to realise it was set not just in Glasgow, but in the world of Glasgow newspapers in the 1980s. Not unfamiliar territory for me. The central character, Paddy Meehan, originates in the books of Denise Mina, of which I've read just the one, her first, Garnethill. I enjoyed it but never read anything else by her, and I'm not sure why. I've interviewed her for radio about music, and she was an absolute delight. But like Val McDermid and Alex Gray - I've read one novel each by them, too - the world of her prose was a place to which I didn't want to return.

Anyway, Field of Blood. I caught a trailer which was jaw-droppingly bizarre. It was like River City meets Life on Mars. Ford Kiernan! David Hayman! And, for goodness' sake, the great David Morrissey. All in the murky half-light of miner's strike Glasgow newsrooms, clubs and back alleys. I iPlayered the first episode and after wrestling with the self-consciously 'banteresque' dialogue at first, I began to enjoy it.

The plot was nonsensically, at times hilariously derivative, an amalgam of Bleasdale's GBH, the original State of Play (also featuring Morrissey) and (choose any episode) Taggart. But the look of the show was great, owing much to the TV adaptation of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet (featuring, ahem, David Morrissey) and the aforementioned Life on Mars (Season two, the Audi years). The cars were just about perfect (Citroen CX! Austin Princess 'Wedge'! Rover SD1!) and there was fastidious attention to detail in set design, from the Tunnock's Teacakes and early Macintosh computers to the ties, lapels and moustaches. The newsroom, though, was way too small.

There was a cartoonish element to the acting, but some of it was leeringly great, especially David Hayman as McDade, the miner's union boss. Katherine Kelley was marvellously OTT as the Armani-clad Rebecca Brooks from hell, and Morrissey reliably wide-lapelled. Ford Kiernan was all snappy one-liners hiding his  Great Inner Heartache and Vulnerability, but I warmed to his tanktops too.

Interestingly, this was written and directed by David Kane, who scripted the dismal pilot for (inexplicably recommissioned) Shetland. He's obviously far more at home on the mean streets of 80s Glasgow and in the sarcastic bastardin' verbals of the city too. The lack of time to develop character and foreboding, as in the magnificently sprawling Broadchurch, is a problem. But the seductive setting and full-on acting kind of compensate.

I liked it. In the end, it was no Red Riding or Shadow Line, and certainly no Brond, which was a strange, at times distressing and always disturbing take on the nature of evil-in-Glasgow, actually made in the era Field of Blood was set in, and paralleling its political plot in some ways. It isn't available to watch these days, though Lindsay's book, and its terrifying sequel Jill Rips (made into a movie starring, wait for it, Dolph Lundgren) are deservedly still in print.

Right, that's enough. I'll talk in due course about my other Glaswegian adventures, courtesy of Liam McIlvanney (son of) and Malcolm Mackay. But for now, have a look at Field of Blood on iPlayer while it's still available.