I wonder how many people know the real rules of crime. Here’s one: guns can get you caught easily so you have to be careful about disposing of them. Fair enough: every criminal should know that. But how many of them also know that patience is the one quality they’ll need most? Or that happiness makes them more risk-averse? Or that nothing is as good for business as being the sort of person you wouldn’t look twice at?
Those at least are some of the rules Martin Sivok, a Czech hitman lying low in Glasgow, either lives by or discovers. He’s the protagonist of Malcolm Mackay’s excellent standalone thriller For Those Who Know The Ending, and by and large they serve him well.
Take the one about patience. A stranger in town can’t rush things, never mind a stranger in a new country. He has to check, and double-check, and even then he can’t be wholly sure that the man he meets who tells him of a simple job knocking over a Coatbridge bookie’s is who he says he is, and that the job won’t involve him treading on anyone else’s toes.
So he’s also got to know whose toes he is likely to tread on in the first place, and that means making a mental Machiavellian map of who’s who in Glasgow’s gangster world: who’s flashy and ambitious and on the way up and who is in jail or growing lazy or old and vulnerable for takeover by someone else. Which means asking around without being seen to ask. Being nosy without being nosed out. And that in turn is a bit like being a spy without any of HMG’s resources to fall back on.
Mackay makes all of this a lot easier for the reader by thoughtfully providing a three-page guide to his characters at the start of his book. This is particularly impressive: in my edition of War and Peace, Tolstoy only provides two.
For Those Who Know the Ending is the first of Mackay’s books I have read. I have come to them quite late. It’s his sixth, and they’ve all been published in the last three years. I knew that they had been showered with awards – Scottish Crime Book of the Year, Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read, and shortlisted for many more – but my love of crime fiction is quite erratic, and I can only presume that in the last three years I must have been going through a cantankerous cynical phase.
Yet now that I’ve finally discovered Mackay’s fiction – gripping, dark, so immersed in the underworld that there’s rarely a cop in sight – I can see how it stands comparisons with such genre giants as George V Higgins. But whereas Higgins could draw, in books such as The Friends of Eddie Coyle, on an immersive knowledge of real-life criminals gleaned from work as a Massachusetts attorney general and journalist, Mackay has no such advantage. He lives, and has always lived for every one of his 34 years, in one place in Scotland that hardly seems to have any small-time criminals, never mind any big-time gangsters. Stornoway.
Although it’s not as bad now as it was in his teenage years, ME has placed restrictions on Mackay’s life. He’ll be at Stirling for his Bloody Scotland event a week on Sunday, but it’s a relatively rare appearance and he has to accept that it might take him days or even weeks to fully recover. His condition, he says, “just contracts your life, reduces its radius and freedom. You just can’t wander off. I’d love to be able to go on extensive book tours but I have to be very careful not to push myself, otherwise I’ll end up back where I started.”
By that he means his teenage years, when ME meant that he was housebound and had to be homeschooled until he was 16. “That was pretty much the end of my education as I didn’t go to college or anything. I missed out on the social aspects of that, but at the same time it gives you a slightly different perspective on things, so when it came to writing I was very much self-taught, as opposed to learning from what I was reading at school.”
What he read at home were the American noir classics – Jim Thompson’s Pop 1280, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, anything by Elmore Leonard (though nothing yet, I note, by George V Higgins) – and in his mid-twenties he started trying to write crime fiction “jut to entertain myself”. For three or four years he didn’t get far – or at least far enough to discover his own voice. Then, in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, his 2013 debut, he did.
Even though the critics raved about this, the first in his “Glasgow Trilogy”, he knew it had faults. “I used to get bogged down in one of the characters’ lives. A lot of that was probably me trying to be clever, as if I’m saying ‘Look at me, I’m inside the mind of a character, saying smart, self-reflexive things. Then you realise you should always be moving forward, and how much of that you can slice away without losing anything.”
All of this self-knowledge – along with the confidence to go against the crime-writing grain and downplay any strong sense of place as being distracting – he has worked out by himself, through trial and error, in blocked-out sessions at his computer that allow him time to rest between working. I can’t help being impressed.
He is polite, charming, modest about his achievements and doesn’t strike me as being in the least self-pitying about his ME. “It was a bit harder to cope with being that bit more cut off as you go towards adulthood,” he says with typical understatement. “Now I have learnt to live with it as something in my life that I don’t particularly like but there’s not a lot I can do to get rid of it.” n
• For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay is published by Mantle, price £16.99. He will be appearing alongside James Oswald and Craig Robertson on 11 September at the Albert Halls, Stirling, as part of Bloody Scotland, which runs 9-11 September, www.bloodyscotland.com