Book review: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter - Malcolm Mackay

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The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is a crime novel set in Glasgow. It’s a bit out of the common run, being cool, laconic, matter of fact.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

By Malcolm Mackay

Mantle, 312pp, £14.99

There is little sense of the city itself, partly perhaps because Malcolm Mackay was born in Stornoway and still lives there. But this doesn’t matter. Mackay’s interest is in plot and character. His Glasgow underworld is imagined even though the novel is written in flat documentary-style. The real criminal underworld is doubtless different from “the industry” Mackay portrays; nevertheless his version is convincing. There is scarcely a false note in the action. That’s to say, it’s well enough written to ring true, even if it isn’t.

Calum is a hitman. He is not yet 30 but he has been doing the job for years. He is independent, a freelance, with no wish to be beholden to any employer. He does the job he’s paid for, gets out, and steps aside. Killing people doesn’t worry him. His only anxiety is to leave no evidence behind him and to avoid arrest. So far it has worked. He has no reason to believe he is on the police radar.

He is recruited for a job by an organisation, their usual hitman Fred, now elderly, being out of action owing to an operation for a hip replacement. Fred has been Calum’s mentor. It’s a straightforward one. Lewis Winter is a low-level player, a drug dealer who “has been making moves, and not being subtle about it”. Calum wants to know if he is still working alone. “This matters. Winter alone means killing Winter. Winter in an organisation means killing Winter and paying for it later. People can’t be seen to be weak.”

As the title indicates, Winter will be killed, and Calum’s preparations for the strike will be careful. Mackay recounts them convincingly; yes, you think, this is indeed how a professional might set about it. More impressive still is the author’s ability to present Calum sympathetically – we see things from his point of view –even while he is engaged in a cold-blooded murder which will not disturb his conscience.

The second part of the novel deals with the police investigation and the consequences of Winter’s death. The policemen themselves are a mixed bag, unimpressive in performance, some of them conscientious, others with their own compromising links to members of the underworld.

As for the consequences for Calum, these will depend first on whether he had made any mistakes, second, on chance, and third, on whether the information he was given about Winters’ status was accurate. If it wasn’t, he may be in trouble. In which case, the question would be whether he can maintain his independence or must ask for help from his employers. That, of course, would itself be compromising.

There is much that is impressive in Mackay’s handling of his mat- erial. He doesn’t engage in lengthy description of his characters; he lets them reveal themselves in action and in talk. At the same time he treats them sympathetically. The victim, Winters, is a failure, a rather pathetic figure struggling to keep his footing on the lower ranges of the criminal world. There is no suggestion that he is in the least concerned for the consequences for his customers. Yet there is a certain gallantry in his struggle to keep going and to please his surprisingly glamorous girlfriend, Zara. There is something to admire in the way she behaves too, standing up to the police, fighting her corner. In short, there is a generosity of feeling in the novel which is rare in crime fiction. The world portrayed is a grey one in which right and wrong are not matters of black and white. People act in response to the circumstances which constrain them.

Raymond Chandler praised Dashiell Hammett for giving murder back to the sort of people who commit it. This wasn’t quite fair on the classical, as opposed to the hard-boiled, mystery novel, because, after all, murders are committed by a variety of people, and many murders are domestic crimes. Nevertheless a crime novel set in the shadowy world of organised crime carries conviction when the writer has thoroughly imagined his milieu, refrains from glamorising, and writes with authority. Malcolm Mackay does all that. This novel is the first in a trilogy. I suppose Calum will lose his independence, be trapped in the machine, and that things will get worse for him. I look forward to finding out. Meanwhile it’s a pleasure to greet another accomplished writer to the burgeoning school of Tartan Noir.