Spain’s reputation as a haven for British crooks on the run has provided endless copy for crime reporters stretching back decades. While the profit-laden glory days of tabloid journalism are long gone, there is still a very real market for online scoops in the online world of journalism about bank robbers and other violent thugs who have taken their chances on the Costa Del Crime, rather than face a prolonged stretch in one of the Windsor Group hotels, such as Barlinnie or Wormwood Scrubs.
Sensational it may often be, but the best crime reporting tends to be based on cold, hard facts. As recently as August last year, the National Crime Agency issued a list of the 11 most dangerous fugitives believed to be living in the bustling expat community on the Spanish coast. Among their number were individuals wanted for murder, drug dealing and large-scale money laundering. While the UK prepares to leave the EU, it’s clear that many British criminals do not plan to follow suit.
Anyone who has ever glanced at one of Glasgow’s big-selling red top newspapers will already know that Scottish crooks are just as likely to be caught by the rozzzers while ordering a San Miguel on the beach as gangsters from Essex. “Fled to Spain” is a story in three words.
With such a catalogue of villiany available to browse, it’s surprising that more Scottish crime writers have not chosen to explore the criminal web stretching from the Central Belt to the beach loungers of Benidorm. Regular readers of Tartan Noir could be forgiven for rolling their eyes every time a body is discovered in Glasgow’s East End, or in a posh Edinburgh flat, or outside a dodgy boozer down by Aberdeen harbour. Scotland is a small country, but in the world of crime fiction, it is positively tiny.
So it’s a relief to see a writer as capable as Peter May – author of the bestselling Lewis trilogy – look to expand his boundaries by switching the action to the Costa Del Crime for his latest thriller, A Silent Death. It’s on the hills above the Med in a luxury villa – and not on the side streets of the Gorbals – that we meet ex-pat fugitive Jack Cleland, a gangster with a grudge after his girlfriend is gunned down in a police chase.
Vowing revenge, Cleland sets out to destroy the Spanish detective involved, and her family. It’s at this moment we’re introduced to Glaswegian lawman John Mackenzie – a blundering investigator who is seconded to help the Spanish authorities. He’s the kind of guy who will shoot his mouth off without thinking, only to spend the rest of the day wondering why everyone was so offended. Suddenly placed in a foreign climate, there’s ample opportunity for Makenzie to cause havoc.
Fans of crime thrillers will find plenty to enjoy here. A Silent Death benefits from the kind of polished plot and familiar characters you would expect from a writer with more than four decades’ experience in TV and print. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, but some may find May’s level of detail – particularly when it comes to the particulars of Spanish properties – rather grating. At times you wonder if you’re being given a tour by an estate agent, keen for you to invest in a high-end timeshare.
A Silent Death reaches its gripping climax in Gibraltar, the last rock of Empire, which provides a suitable backdrop to reflect on the meaning of Britishness and European cooperation in the era of Brexit. Law enforcement is just one of dozens of complicated issues that have been barely discussed in the rush to exit the EU. Will life for Britain’s fugitive crooks become easier post-Brexit? It’s a question no one can answer with any authority right now. But it is sure to provide yet more material for thriller writers like May.
A Silent Death, by Peter May, Riverrun, 432pp, £20