Written by Malcolm Mackay — Calum MacLean is a hitman. He doesn’t drive a fast car, wear sharp suits, or designer shades. He would pass unnoticed at the checkout queue in the local Tesco. But, in the criminal underworld of Glasgow, he is feared and respected. Although still a young man, he is prepared to go in the evening and put a bullet into the brain of his target. It’s nothing personal, you understand. Calum doesn’t do personal. He tried, but when he got too close to a university student called Emma, his boss recognised the danger, and shut the relationship down. In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, he killed the eponymous loser – a rather sad but sympathetic figure – who had outlived his usefulness. In How a Gunman Says Goodbye he reluctantly, but efficiently, did away with the man who had been his guiding light and mentor.
MacLean’s paymasters are gang boss Peter Jamieson and his cynical assistant John Young. How they view each other is contradictory but crucial to the narrative. Calum thinks he is independent. Jamieson thinks that Calum is his puppet. Young watches both like a hawk, waiting for signs of weakness. After killing the corrupt accountant of one of Jamieson’s rivals, Calum casually executes the man who drove them out to the burial site. Kenny McBride was a half decent, if not very bright, foot soldier in Jamieson’s organisation. But he’d been talking to the police – to an officer who is not on Jamieson’s payroll.
When Kenny doesn’t return to his girlfriend’s house after this particular job, she fears the worst, and makes a phone call to the one copper, DI Fisher, who she thinks is not enmeshed with Jamieson’s operation. Meanwhile, Calum has decided that he has had enough, and wants out. Not through any belated attack of conscience over the men he has killed, but rather because he is fed up of having to lie to girlfriends about what he does for a living. He decides to disappear, but he cannot do this without the help of his older brother William. William is more or less honest, despite running a used car business, and is well aware that he must not probe too deeply into Calum’s chosen way of life.
Calum scrupulously organises his exit, but his plans are made more complex when the uneasy peace between Jamieson and a competitor, ‘Shug’ Francis, turns into open hostility. With DI Fisher working hard to bring the gangsters to justice, a sickening and unnecessary act of violence turns everything on its head. For the first time in his career Calum finds that things have become personal. Very, very personal.
Mackay writes in a blunt staccato style, which drives the narrative forward at a brisk pace. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he does not bring Glasgow into the narrative in a descriptive way. The city is just a lightly sketched backdrop against which hard men play out their hard lives. Calum is a brave choice as a main character. While we cannot seriously be expected to like him we do care, albeit against our better judgment, about what happens to him. In many ways, the book is bleak and glacial. Human pity is in short supply, and there is an abiding sensation of everything happening away from the sunlight, perhaps under the flickering fluorescent tubes of a dingy snooker hall, or the wan glow of a streetlight struggling to shine through the drizzle. This is a triumphant conclusion to Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy, and is worth every one of the five stars awarded.
The Sudden Arrival of Violence is released 16 January.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars