Book review: Bloody January, by Alan Parks

Alan Parks's first novel comes festooned with praise from a number of writers of Tartan Noir. This will understandably encourage many to buy it. John Niven, himself a bestselling novelist, says it's 'taut, violent and as close as you'll get to 1970s Glasgow without a Tardis.' He adds that Parks is 'a natural successor to William McIlvanney'. Well, every man to his own opinion.

Alan Parks

For my part I doubt if this novel takes you very close to 1970s Glasgow, except for some of the fine descriptions of the uncreative destruction resulting from the decision to carve motorways through the city. This is not because of the occasional mistake such as the assertion that homosexual acts were no longer against the law in 1973 – in England, yes, but Glasgow, like the rest of Scotland had to wait till 1980 for the law to be reformed. It is really because Parks’s Glasgow is identikit Tartan Noir Glasgow. Readers will find it agreeably familiar. The ingredients are standard: cops are foul-mouthed and drunken, some of them bent. The hero cop gets horribly beaten up, but recovers with extraordinary speed. There are lots of vice girls and madams, and of course their clients are judges, lawyers, politician, aristocrats etc. Ordinary Glaswegians, the kind who go to work everyday and are good family folk, don’t feature much.

There are good scenes, the dialogue offers no disturbing surprises, and the plot rattles along with nice twists and turns from the first chapter, when a cop is summoned to Barlinnie by an inmate of the celebrated Special Unit who tells him that a girl called Lorna will be murdered tomorrow.

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So I’ve no doubt that fans of Tartan Noir will lap this one up. And why not? It’s a good and enjoyable example of the genre.

But don’t let’s pretend that this novel and many like it are examples of true-to-life gritty realism. They are entertainments, and only the very best are more than that. They are

no more true to real life than the classic English village detective novel with its locked rooms and nicely contrived plot used to be. That genre offered you murder as an agreeable puzzle to be solved; Tartan Noir, like the novels of the American hard-boiled school from which it derives, offers you murder as sensation, corruption as comfort. It is only the rare author who transcends the genre to remind us that at its best the crime novel can offer not merely entertainment but social and moral criticism.

This is where Niven’s generous assertion that Parks is “a natural successor to William McIlvanney” rings false. There were hardmen in McIlvanney’s three Laidlaw novels, and they might give off a sense of menace; there was corruption too, but McIlvanney was interested in its effect on the corrupted. He wasn’t much interested in sensation, and not at all in violence as excitement. He was concerned with ethics, with, for example, how a policeman possessed of a certain power, should conduct himself. He addressed himself to crimes against the spirit as well as the body.

It does a novelist no good (except perhaps commercially) to be over-praised. According to another puff this novel “sets Alan Parks in the same league as Ian Rankin and Louise Welsh”. Well, of course there is usually some distance between the top and bottom clubs in any league and Celtic and Partick Thistle are both in the Scottish Premiership. Bloody January is a good example of Tartan Noir, and much of it is enjoyable. But it’s also a first novel and has many of the faults characteristic of first novels, chief among them the author’s determination to cram too much in, to maintain a hectic pace, and allow the reader too few pauses. Moreover the dialogue, which is standard gritty crime novel talk, never sounds in the head. It’s monotonous, without individuality. Bloody January would have benefitted from some sharp editing, removing superfluous scenes, toning down others. The picture of Glasgow in the Seventies unquestionably owes more to television and other novels than it does to the reality of the city as it was then, but this very familiarity should guarantee the novel’s success. That said, it would be a surprise if Parks didn’t go on to write better ones.

Bloody January, by Alan Parks, Canongate, 312pp, £12.99