Review – For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay
For Those Who Know the Ending
Malcolm Mackay, an award-winning Hebridean author, cites Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain amongst his favourite hardboiled writers, and you can feel their influence on his sixth novel, set in contemporary Glasgow. He creates a world where being a hit-man is a career choice, one with the opportunity to travel and see the seedy underbelly of different cities. With these familiar elements, Mackay’s tale could easily become a tired tale full of clichéd characters. Instead, it is a fast-paced, page-turning journey through a nightmarish world of ruthless men.
Martin Sivok arrives in Glasgow from the Czech Republic: “First day off the plane in Glasgow and he realised he had learned the wrong English.” He’s a hit-man without a home, trying to gain a foothold in the city’s crime scene. It’s not easy to become part of an industry that relies on trust, loyalty, and personal recommendation. Sivok finds himself doing low-level jobs with low-level pay. He needs to move up the food chain and earn serious money, especially now that he has more or less moved in with Joanne Mathie, and finds himself happily settled with her. He reluctantly hooks up with Usman Kassar, “thin as a rail, smooth cheeked and full of grins”. Kassar is a small time criminal with big time ambitions. Together the two plan to pull off a daring heist, putting them firmly in the cross-hairs of the Jamieson family, one of the most feared criminal families in the city. This brings Nate Colgan into the picture, “security consultant” for the Jamiesons, and a man who knows how to unleash the darkness inside himself. He also knows that if he doesn’t sort out the Jamiesons’ little problem, he could be on the receiving end of their fury. Not only do the Jamiesons want their property back, they want to make an example of those who have dared to move against them. And so the game begins, but not all playing know the ending.
Mackay’s setting is Glasgow, a city that he has only visited a handful of times, and it shows inasmuch as the story could be taking place in any large urban environment, and the absence of Glasgow’s distinct personality is jarring.
Although the main characters are criminals of one kind or another, Mackay contrasts their violent, brutal work with everyday lives that are ordinary to the point of being dull. They have bills to pay, relationships to make work, and children to care for. The only extraordinary thing about them is their job, and even then they have to dress appropriately and turn up on time. In this scenario, even the most ruthless men have some redeeming qualities, blurring the line between good and bad until it becomes a vague, grey smudge.
Mackay’s writing is clean and spare, with flashes of dark humour, as when he describes a wannabe gangster trying to impress a woman: “She gave him a look that a beautiful woman would give a pathetic, thirteen-year-old boy and got up”. His sentences are often short, almost staccato, as you might expect from a fan of hardboiled fiction. Some of the minor characters are thumbnail sketches but Mackay gives his main characters plenty of light and shade with a pleasing economy of words. Women do not feature strongly in the main action. They are wives, girlfriends, and daughters, looking the other way while the men go about their business, and waiting for them to come home in one piece. The men’s personal relationships do however provide a glimpse of the person behind their frightening exteriors, showing that they are capable of more than anger and violence.
A cast of characters is included which is useful in determining who’s who (and who’s after whom) in the incestuous world of professional criminals. Mackay handles the material well, revealing how each character fits into the whole and succinctly explaining the various vendettas, loyalties and betrayals. It is a quick read, but not one for those who enjoy the cosy end of the crime genre. There is violence and suffering but those involved accept it as an occupational hazard. Mackay has produced a satisfyingly twisty tale but his real skill lies in making monsters not only human, but characters that deserve a little sympathy for their brutal lives. It is this moral ambiguity that makes this novel such a gripping read.