Crime fiction has rarely been short of gifted writers making a buck: Chandler, Hammett, Elroy, Higgins, the much underrated Ed McBain, significant talents paving the way. Literary novelists have selectively used the genre to flex other muscles – Julian Barnes, Brian Moore, lately John Banville, each pseudonymously so. Banville has recently, and pseudonymously, rebooted. Where once the genre was thought inferior, now it is flaunted as a testing ground for ambition and reputation.
Gordon Ferris’s reputation is rising fast with an impressive list of five titles to his name. Gallowglass, his sixth, is the final instalment of his Glasgow Quartet, starring crime reporter Douglas Brodie. By contrast, Falling Fast is Neil Broadfoot’s debut, set in Edinburgh, also deploying a crime reporter, the young yet shrewd Doug McGregor, as protagonist.
The similarities are striking – Scottish cityscapes, tough-minded crime hacks who report from the thick of the action, not the sidelines. But Brodie’s man-of-the-world experience contrasts with the rookie eagerness of McGregor who plies his trade on today’s mean streets, while Brodie walks the gas-lit, greyer, more formal, morally and socially rigid post-war 1940s.
Falling Fast, the first of a promised crime-buster trilogy, takes place in the cynical, devil take the hindmost world of Edinburgh’s crooks and politicians. “Tartan noir” is the publisher’s epithet, but its darkness is episodic rather than constant. Ferris’s setting is less familiar, almost formal, purveying a sense of bygone decencies and decorum which suckers the reader for startling twists.
Broadfoot’s opening is the best-written slice of his book (though there’s gripping action yet to come). A woman plummets from the Scott Monument: “For an instant she believed she had become the angel he always told her she was …(she) could reach into the flawless blue of the November sky and touch Heaven itself.” A howling wind drowns her rising screams. Just who is she? Did she jump? Was she pushed? And who is the ‘he’ in her dying thoughts?
McGregor, the Capital Tribune’s rising investigative reporter, is less than excited by what seems a suicide. Likewise the police, but when they learn that the splattered body is the daughter of a Tory list MSP, Richard Buchan, they turn edgy, at which point DS Susie Drummond, McGregor’s contact inside the force, gives Doug the heads-up on the political connection. Then Doug’s phone rings: “ ‘Katherine Buchan didn’t kill herself ... McGinty pushed Katherine Buchan to her death. I’ll send you something to convince you.’ “
Derek McGinty, notorious hard man, convicted sex offender and thief, is already on Doug McGregor’s radar, and when McGregor receives through the post an old school photograph of McGinty and Katherine together, he shares the information with Susie.
The insider-cop/snoop-reporter co-operation is the key to the narrative’s drive; each feeds off the other’s information, hunches and insights, extending the ripples of the tale, knocking off-balance likely suspects, unearthing a battery of associated crimes. Child sex abuse, drug dependency, a criss-cross of menacing undercurrents, vengeful intimidation and bodily harm, foisted on Doug and other key characters, salt the action, drawing together McGinty’s and Katherine’s murky miserable pasts.
The chapters are short, a series of stabs, swift, to the point. The style is informative, atmospheric, often underscoring mood. Above all, the knots in the plot unravel with timely stealth to produce a believable, mostly satisfying (slightly over-egged) ending.
Left dangling is the matter of Doug and Susie. Will their collusion become a collision or a fusion? With two further episodes of the trilogy to come, Broadfoot has scope to deepen these characters into something richly rewarding, making the books themselves more resonant and achieved.
Gordon Ferris, in Gallowglass, his robust last hurrah for Douglas Brodie, shows how professional relationships might meld into something fulfilling. Since The Hanging Shed, the first of his Glasgow Quartet, Brodie’s relationship with advocate Sam Campbell, has steadily blossomed, seeming fated to end in tears – but of joy not sorrow.
A shock then, that Gallowglass starts with streaming tears at a freshly dug grave. There two black-garbed women – one of them Sam – witness Brodie laid to rest. Having been charged with the murder of Scotland’s premier banker – and certain to hang on account of overwhelming evidence – Brodie has taken his own way out.
Fans of the series will be dismayed that their hero is axed at the novel’s outset. But there is method in Ferris’s madness. Brodie’s funeral is not what it seems, and soon the Glasgow Gazette’s chief crime reporter, convincingly resurrected, and in disguise, is pursuing the banker’s ruthless killers, revealing why he’s been framed.
There is much in Gallowglass to admire: the authority of voice, the period detail that brings the 1940s convincingly alive, the authentic feel of the various worlds the story inhabits, whether that of plodding cops, booze-raddled journalists, small-time thugs or the big-time bankers swindling and fiddling.
Ferris takes the tale into the undercover world of secret agents, where crime and adventure combine to produce a John Buchan-like tale of a race against time. And there is a maze-full of unexpected twists and turns, a few dead ends, mistaken identities that will keep you guessing (erroneously) to the end.