Book review: Double Proof, by Martin Stewart

Although it may stretch credulity in places, this detective story is written with great verve and introduces us to an engaging hero, writes Allan Massie

Long ago I knew someone who used to read an Agatha Christie novel with pencil and notebook to hand, writing down what he thought were clues or red herrings. It may have helped him to work out whodunnit. He would have had a hard job applying himself to Martin Stewart’s first novel, however. Still he might have nodded approvingly to Robbie Gould, Stewart’s hero, ex-boxer, ex-journalist, ex-husband of a senior detective, once to his irritation hailed as a “psychic Crime-buster”. He isn’t that at all, but rather an old-fashioned paper-and-pencil man, his scribbled notes joined together with a maze of linking lines.

Be that as it may, Robbie is recruited by a rich lady, Imelda Dalziel, widow of a whisky magnate, whose son, Albie, has been kidnapped, with a ransom demanded. There’s a lot of whisky in the novel, though Robbie dislikes it, preferring coffee and cheap red wine. To explain the whisky background would take more words that I have for this review, so let’s just say it’s complicated, very complicated, and that while Robbie finds Imelda likeable, he immediately takes a scunner at her brother-in-law Bertie, now head of the Dalziel firm, and engaged in what promises to be a very expensive law-suit.

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In the approved manner of Tartan Noir, anyone with money is suspected of being engaged in shady goings-on, and the long-established gentleman’s club of which Bertie is a distinguished member is well-stuffed with gangsters, with more muscle men to hand than morals. As is also usual today, some of the plot involves research on lap-tops – young Albie has begun making money as an influencer. To complicate matters, there are some fearsome Japanese gangsters too and, of course – no Glasgow crime would be without them – a couple of violent bent cops, happily thick as mince. If this all sounds a bit much, don’t worry. As TS Eliot said of poetry, enjoyment can precede understanding; or something like that.

Robbie himself is an engaging character. A bit of a slob and only somewhat foul-mouthed, he is brave, dogged and bright, kindly too. He is also very brave – to the point of being foolhardy. Like the heroes of Dick Francis’s fine novels, he suffers some very nasty beatings and comes us ready for more. Indeed, in the course of the few days of his investigation, he receives wounds and batterings that would put an ordinary man in hospital for weeks, But he keeps going, soaking up the punishment and returning it in good and – I have to say – agreeable measure. Meanwhile Imelda, tiresome at first, becomes his courageous and admirable sidekick, utterly committed to the search for her son.

In all, this is a piece of very enjoyable fiction. As you may expect, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, which, after all, is true of most escapist novels. You may also learn quite a lot about whisky, as Robbie has to, and about the ridiculous prices that exceptional whiskies can command. It is also crime fiction at its most frivolous. The best crime writers – Simenon, Chandler, PD James William McIlvanney, John Banville, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina – are fundamentally serious. Murder and corruption aren’t games for them. Violence is abhorrent, even if inflicted in a good cause.

That said, this is Martin Stewart’s first novel for adults – even if it appeals to the teenager surviving in so many of us. It is written with great verve, it holds the attention, and in Robbie Gould the author has created an engaging character who is, I suspect, capable of development. It is persuasively plotted, no matter how improbable much that happens undoubtedly is. The story gallops along, and, though I found much of the whisky stuff some way less than interesting, it will doubtless appeal to many. I began reading Double Proof without much enthusiasm and then found myself enjoying its extravagant unreality.

Double Proof, by Martin Stewart, Polygon, £9.99