The prospect of yet another crime drama set in a major Scottish city will leave some readers groaning in despair. From McIlvanney to Jardine, Rankin to MacBride, there is no shortage of books serving up gritty thrillers set on windswept streets, full of hard-bitten characters who enjoy drink as strong as their opinions. Tartan Noir, as some persist in calling it, remains a profitable business for publishers. Every year, more authors shuffle on to the scene, promising new twists on a long-established genre filled with over-familiar tropes. There’s always another detective ready to kick-in your door or a low-level crook who has accidentally stumbled upon a big deal. Set down your drink, son, because here’s some hard-won wisdom in the shape of a no-nonsense cop who sometimes bends the rules to get results.
In this crowded marketplace arrives Stuart David, a successful musician and one-time member of Glasgow indie darlings Belle & Sebastian. His 2015 memoir of the band’s early days, In the All-Night Café, was well received and suggested here was a writer capable of stringing a sentence together as well as a chord sequence. But B&S fans hoping David migh have taken inspiration for his subsequent literary career from his time in the Scottish alt-rock scene – perhaps a murder-mystery centred around the Monorail record store – will be disappointed. Instead, his first fictional effort for a major publisher dusts down a character he first introduced at the turn of the century.
The improbably-named Peacock Johnson is a Glasgow wideboy who – does it need to be said? – is no stranger to the boys in blue. One copper in particular, local homicide detective Duncan McFadgen, is convinced that our boy Peacock is responsible for hurling a known police informant from a balcony before he could spill the beans on the theft of a painting from Pollok House. But what could easily have become a depressingly familiar hike through crumbling housing estates and worn-out drinking dens mercifully turns out to be a story full of humour and memorable set-pieces. Instead of plodding down the usual path, pen dripping in blood, David keeps his readers entertained throughout what is a pacy thriller with an above-average laugh count.
There can be few crime novels that feature a suspect being quizzed in the changing rooms of a men’s section in a Buchanan Street department store, with background questions being interspersed with opinions on Prada suits and the suitability of blazers for a forthcoming “police social”. Such romps owe more to classic American crime dramas like Diagnosis: Murder than the work of other Scots contemporary writers.
This is not a story for fans of heavily researched police procedurals. McFadgen at times more resembles an embittered uncle, searching for his lost inheritance in a skip, than a serving officer in the Queen’s finest. He less tramples over Peacock’s constitutional rights than repeatedly jumps up and down on them.
But the at times surreal quality of the relationships between the central characters is what sets this book apart, not least the one between Peacock and his long-suffering but equally determined wife Bev. While her husband frets over his latest project, and the continuing attentions of a police officer determined to pin him down for murder, Bev is more concerned at the pink monstrosity of a bridesmaid’s dress she is expected to wear at a friend’s wedding.
David also makes a decent effort at sending-up Scotland’s continuing infatuation with crime thrillers. “Do yourself a favour, pal,” our hero Peacock tells McFadgen. “Lay off those Ian Rankin stories for a while. You’re driving yourself daft, son. They’re just books. Fairy tales for grown-ups. You’ll end up giving yourself a cerebral haemorrhage.” The breezy dialogue is not always satisfying, but David has nonetheless created a potential gem in the lovable rogue Peacock.
Peacock’s Alibi, by Stuart David, Polygon, 215pp, £8.99