I’ll Keep You Safe
Review by Shirley Whiteside
TARTAN Noir may be a useful marketing term that helps sell Scotland’s many crime writers to the world but it fails to show how varied their books are. Two new novels give a flavour of the stylistic diversity being produced.
Bloody January, a gripping debut novel by Alan Parks, is set in Glasgow in the first few weeks of January, 1973. When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead before turning the gun on himself, it is left to dishevelled Detective Harry McCoy to find out why. With Wattie, his new sidekick in tow, he is determined to find out why two teenagers died in such a shocking way. Was it a random killing by a boy high on drugs or was the girl a planned target? McCoy’s Glasgow is a dark, brooding city, where the line between the police and the underworld is frequently blurred. He uses drugs to keep himself awake during long shifts, and relaxes with a joint with Janey, a prostitute, when his work is over. Parks peppers the dialogue with industrial strength swearing but it never feels gratuitous, being perfectly in keeping with the patter of the various characters he has created. McCoy haunts some of Glasgow’s grubbier corners, from down-at-heel pubs to greasy cafes and dangerously derelict buildings hiding lucrative criminal enterprises. He goes to Paddy’s Market looking for an informant, and Parks takes the opportunity to explain the history and hierarchy of the market, with better goods being sold under the bridge away from the worst of the weather. This kind of insider knowledge grounds the story firmly in the Glasgow of yesteryear, long before it became miles better and a cultural hot spot. McCoy’s investigations lead him to the Dunlop family, one of the richest and best connected families in the city. Their public face is one of sober respectability but behind the scenes they are corrupt and ruthless. Warned to stay aware from the family, he is determined to do whatever it takes to solve the murder-suicide of two young people. McCoy joins a distinguished cadre of hard-boiled detectives, loners who prefer to do things their own way, and he is an intriguing addition to the canon.
Peter May returns to the Hebrides for his latest tale which features husband and wife, Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane. The Macfarlanes are in Paris to promote their unique cloth, Ranish Tweed, a lighter and more colourful version of Harris Tweed. Niamh receives an anonymous email saying that her husband is having an affair, which seems to explain the recent tension between them. Shortly afterwards, she witnesses the car Ruairidh is travelling in explode. Still in shock, she is questioned by Parisian police and realises that they suspect she might have had something to do with her husband’s death. Eventually she is allowed to return home and takes her husband’s remains, stored in a coffin meant for a premature baby, back to Lewis. Back home she has to negotiate family politics when all she wants to do is grieve for her husband.
The present day story is told in the third person, whereas Niamh relates the story of her relationship with Ruairidh and the growth of their business. This works well and offers essential background information about the couple from Niamh’s point of view. As a young child Niamh had fallen into a bog and was in danger of being sucked under. It was Ruairidh who slithered out on a wooden plank to save her. ‘I’ll keep you safe,’ he said.
May has conducted extensive research into the Hebridean weaving business, giving his tale of the fictional Ranish Tweed a solid foundation. He explains the different looms that are used, how the cloth is made at home by islanders, then finished in the local mills before being sold around the world. His descriptions of the Hebrides are lyrical and the changeable weather echoes Niamh’s erratic state of mind. Yet some of May’s characters are disappointingly clichéd. For example, Lee, the outrageous and self-indulgent fashion designer who gives them their first break, and Ruairidh’s mother, the archetypal disapproving mother-in-law. Niamh is well-rounded, her sorrow and confusion eliciting genuine sympathy. Even so, the latter section of the novel seems to lose its way. Niamh is still beset by problems but the denouement, when it finally arrives, is implausible. It undermines the mystery and tension that May has meticulously built up to that point, and the story ends with a whimper rather than a bang.