Interview: Crime writer Malcolm Mackay
SO, I ASK Malcolm Mackay, how long did you work as a hitman in the seedy underbelly of the Glasgow crime world?
The baby-faced 31-year-old almost chokes on his orange juice, revealing that this is only his third or fourth visit to the city – and he’s never had a job of any sort for any length of time, let alone being a cold-blooded contract killer. He’s just flown in for the afternoon from his Stornoway home, where he was born and bred and still lives with his parents. But surely he must have been a killer-for-hire at some stage in his life? “No,” replies the debut writer who is being hailed as tartan noir’s most authoritative and authentic new voice.“I just sit in my bedroom at home and make it all up,” he laughs, adding that he’s ashamed to admit he actually does very little research.
Which is perhaps just as well since Mackay, who is single, writes in a tough-guy style that is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at their most hard-boiled, although the Lewis man’s Glasgow-set work is even more perversely dark and shadowy than, say, Farewell, My Lovely or The Maltese Falcon. Down these mean streets of no mean city, a man must go.
Mackay clearly has a vivid imagination, so vivid that his trilogy of novels, about a young, efficient Glaswegian hitman, have been bought by Pan Macmillan’s Mantle imprint for an advance of £100,000. “One hundred grand! I honestly couldn’t believe it when they told me. I still can’t quite credit it,” he marvels.
His first novel, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, is published next week and carries the tagline: “It’s hard to kill a man well…” It is Mantle’s biggest title this year. In July, the second in the series, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, comes out, while the final book, The Sudden Arrival of Violence, will be published in 2014. Both sequels are complete. Mackay, whose writing has such a filmic quality that the film/TV rights are being pitched, is currently doing a final edit on the third novel, but is giving nothing away as to the fate of his protagonist.
Prior to publication, he’s gained high-profile admirers, ranging from the novelist and columnist Allan Massie, who lauds his “cool, laconic and very enjoyable” style, to Ann Cleeves, creator of the Vera Stanhope crime novels, recently dramatised for television. Indeed, Cleeves rhapsodises about Mackay’s “spare and taut prose” and its “deceptive simplicity”.
In addition to the pared-down writing style, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter has all the gangster genre’s classic ingredients: brutal, dramatic characters who instil fear, hard men dealing in the profits of human misery caused through lives ruined by drugs, the sort of villains who don’t want to know where all the bodies will be buried when other gangs muscle in on their turf.
The book’s 29-year-old anti-hero is Calum Maclean, a loner who comes across as even more reserved than his creator. The book opens with him sitting alone in his Glasgow flat one Saturday afternoon, half listening to football on the radio and reading W Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel The Painted Veil. The phone rings. A meeting is arranged. Lewis Winter, “a long-term, small-time drug dealer,” has become a problem, stepping on crime boss Peter Jamieson’s toes. Jamieson wants him murdered. This is Calum’s mission, should he choose to accept it, which of course he does.
A shy, soft-spoken, buttoned-up individual, Mackay meets me, at my suggestion, in Glasgow’s legendary Horseshoe Bar on a dreich day, although it might as well be raining in the public bar because Mackay, who is recovering from a cold and an eye infection, never undoes his black jacket, keeping himself tightly zipped up – just like Calum.
He has no idea where the character came from. “I was going to write a police procedural,” he confesses. “Then I started thinking about a hitman – I’m a big fan of American crime writers such as Jim Thompson and Hammett, who created bad guys who were fascinating and appealing, despite being borderline psychotics. You just want to go on reading about them.
“Calum is a killer but he has no qualms about the morality of what he does and that’s what interested me about him. He worries about his professionalism, about doing the job well. Also, I do think we share some characteristics. We’re both introverted, although obviously I could never kill anyone – only on the page,” says Mackay who is still reeling from his unexpected success.
“All these things are happening to me – this is my first interview; I’ve just been photographed for The Scotsman walking down the sort of dank alleyway I’ve never been in in my life although I’ve written about one just like it in my book – the sort of place other people might use for unattractive purposes – and we’re sitting here in this bar I’ve never been in with a copy of a book I’ve written. It’s unreal.
“I keep wanting to pinch myself – I’m convinced it’s all a dream, that it’ll all stop in a minute, that I’ll wake up soon.”
The dream has actually been born out of something of a personal nightmare for Mackay, who had to leave school early. Educated at the Nicolson Institute – “the only secondary school in Stornoway” – Mackay was diagnosed with ME and had to have home schooling. “If I hadn’t been ill, I’d have probably gone to university and left the island for good,” he says. Instead, he stayed. When he recovered, he worked off and on in call centres and “just drifted around.”
His father, Malcolm, is a painter and decorator and his mother, Elma, was a home help. It wasn’t a bookish home, he says, nor was he ever a big reader. “I didn’t read much at all in my teens and I certainly didn’t write anything. I was in my twenties before I started looking up books on the internet, then buying them from Amazon. That’s when I discovered pulp fiction. When I started writing, it was just a hobby. I was killing time between jobs.”
He wrote The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter and sent it off to an agent in London. “It all happened so fast I couldn’t believe it because it had been this secret little project stored in my computer,” he recalls. His parents and older sister, Helen, are delighted at his achievement. His dad’s read the first book of the series and enjoyed it, but they’re keeping it away from his mum. “It’s too sweary – and I really don’t want my mother knowing about the darker parts of my mind,” Mackay confides. “I’m trying to keep all the morally decent members of the family away from it.”
Unusually for a crime novel, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter has little sense of place. It’s set in Glasgow, but Mackay acknowledges that it could be any big city anywhere – even in America. “But I chose Glasgow because I think the characters are very Scottish, particularly Frank MacLeod [an old-school hitman and Calum’s mentor who you can picture being played by Brian Cox if and when they make a movie version]. The beauty of Glasgow is it’s a small city of more than a million people – you never have far to go.
“By which I mean someone like Calum would learn every nook and cranny of the place. I write that he drives around the city, exploring areas he doesn’t know, but I never mention street names or specific areas – mainly because I don’t know the city anyway. Also, in the crime business, everyone knows everyone else – it’s a small, hermetic world,” says Mackay, who writes that Calum “made sure he knew Glasgow better than it would ever know him. If he needed to move quickly, he would know the route.”
Standing outside the bar in the grey smir, Mackay says he can’t wait to get back to Stornoway and the peace and quiet of home, although he’s planning to get a place of his own soon. He’ll stay on Lewis, however. Clearly, Glasgow, where the streets are dark with something more than night, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, is not his kind of town.
• The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle, £14.99).