Posted in Book Reviews

For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay – Herald Review

Review – For Those Who Know the Ending by Malcolm Mackay

Shirley Whiteside

For Those Who Know the Ending

Malcolm Mackay

Mantle, £16.99

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.

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HEAD ON – BRIDEWELL

This is a short story I wrote for the HEAD ON project.

HEAD ON – BRIDEWELL 1913

My Head On inspiration
My Head On inspiration

I can hear the tapping on the pipes, the other women using Morse code to talk. I tried to learn it but there wasn’t time before my first mission to pick up enough to hear what they are saying now. I like the rhythm, it helps me to block out the occasional scream. I’m still picking glass out of my dress from when we smashed the windows. I’d never felt so alive before and even when the police came I wasn’t frightened. My arms are sore now from where the officers grabbed me and pulled me away, fingertip shaped bruises starting to bloom. Men were jeering at us calling us unnatural and even whores. Some women stood there looking disgusted but some cheered us on our way into the Black Maria. We laughed and sang songs, so pleased with ourselves and our day’s work. We were suffragettes and we were changing the world.
At court I asked an officer where they would be taking us after sentence. Bridewell, he said, smiling. It sounded lovely, like the name of one of those fancy new villas being built just outside the city. When we arrived from the court I realised the officer was making fun of my ignorance and we were at Duke Street Prison. It is huge and blackened and smells like a sewer. I was put in a cell with an old woman who works the streets of the Trongate. She smells almost as bad as the prison and snores and grunts in her stupor. At least she isn’t bothering with me. The walls are damp and the mattress I’ve been given is stained. I’m sure I saw something move on it. There is a chipped brown potty under the bed that might once have been white. I know I will have to use it soon but for now I am trying to ignore the urgent messages my bladder is sending me.
My father wouldn’t come to court, said I had shamed him and my family. My husband didn’t even answer the message I sent to him. When I was being taken down I thought I saw my mother, huddled in a corner, her hat pulled low and a scarf up around her face but I could see her eyes, pinched and worried. I hesitated, smiled to let her know I was okay and an officer pushed me so hard down the steps I almost fell. One of the other women caught me and helped me get my balance back. It was then that I realised I wasn’t going back to my nice, comfortable home. I was going to prison.
We are all under strict instructions to refuse food. I don’t know if I can do that. I’ve heard such terrifying tales of women who’ve been brutally force fed and how it has broken their health. Am I that brave? I don’t know. I can see the dawn rising through the little window in the cell. In a few days time I may find out just how much courage I can muster.