We are all familiar with the Glasgow crime novel and its conventions now. There will be violence and corruption, crime lords and turf-wars. The police will be embattled, not reluctant to take the law into their own hands. Nevertheless the hero will be a cop and, in Raymond Chandler’s famous phrase, “a shop-soiled Galahad”. There will be a certain tenderness for the city’s outcasts – prostitutes and battered alcoholics. Crime bosses will have links to the Establishment represented by councillors, lawyers, businessmen. There will be grim seedy pubs and, usually, up-market bars. There is never a shortage of corpses. The plot will be complicated, not always easy to follow. The city has a bleeding heart and most days it is raining.
May God Forgive is a good example of the genre, enjoyably readable, hovering on the verge of being incredible, not quite toppling over. The hero, as in Parks’s previous novels, is Detective Harry McCoy, product of a wretched childhood, father a battered alcoholic on the streets, himself a hard man but one with sympathy for the unfortunate. Now, just out of hospital, not fully recovered from a stomach ulcer, he has reported for duty just as Glasgow is horrified by a hideous crime. An arson attack on a hairdresser’s has left five dead, four of them small children. Three youths have been arrested. A mob is howling for their blood, but as the van is taking them from the courthouse to prison, it is rammed by a truck and the boys are whisked away.The assumption is that this is a rescue attempt, but here the publishers have served the author badly, by disclosing in the blurb what he has chosen to keep concealed for more than 50 puzzling pages.
The novel is set almost 50 years back at a time when the heart was being torn out of the city as motorways were driven through it, years before the slogan “Glasgow’s Miles Better” was coined and it became the European City of Culture. McCoy’s Glasgow is not far removed from the No Mean City of the razor gangs, though the crime lords have themselves moved socially up-market, one at least aiming for respectability by proposing to finance the building of a new Catholic chapel. Another keeps the police at more than arm’s length by way of his distinguished Edinburgh lawyer, though here Parks confuses the roles of solicitors and advocates. (There is some poor editorial work here, the lawyer being a knight on one page, plain mister a couple of pages later.)
There is a parallel plot, concerning the murder of a teenage girl, and the question for McCoy is whether this is in any way linked to the arson one. Like other Tartan Noir policemen, he requires some assistance from crime bosses with whom he has long had some relations. The violence of the novel is at times extreme, though, as the convention of the hard-boiled school of crime has it, men recover remarkably quickly from injuries that would land others in hospital for weeks. There are also scenes of repulsive torture, vile to read , nevertheless compelling, and there is a sadly convincing strand of the plot conserved with child abuse, something more fashionable in crime novels today than it would have been in the 1970s when this one is set.
This is the fifth Harry McCoy novel and, unless his stomach ulcer brings about early retirement (or indeed kills him), there is no reason why there shouldn’t be many more. He is an adequately convincing hero and Parks is a gifted story-teller. He knows when to cut a scene short and is adept at the important craft of pacing the narrative. He is good on weather, always important as a means of establishing mood. The settings are always convincing – the horrible squalor of doss-house hotels and shebeens – the dreadful décor of the upwardly mobile of gangsters’ homes. The plot brings in many fine things and others that are suitably grisly, and for a long novel it moves with a satisfying speed. There may be more violent deaths than is probable, but this is an acceptable convention in the rich and now crowded field of tartan noir.
May God Forgive, by Alan Parks, Canongate, 371pp, £14.99