“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Monday, November 3, 2014
Review: WHERE THE DEAD MEN GO by Liam McIlvanney
Very few of the new Scottish crime writers, however, will come under the microscope in the same way as Liam McIlvanney. The Acknowledgements in Where the Dead Men Go (Faber), McIlvanney’s second crime title, opens with a reference to a person ‘who made the whole book possible’, but ‘who would rather not be named’. It’s safe to assume, though, that that person is Liam’s father, William McIlvanney, creator of the imperishable Laidlaw but also a poet and essayist cited by Ian Rankin as the inspiration for Inspector John Rebus, and generally credited as the godfather of ‘Tartan Noir’.
Opening in Glasgow in 2012, Where the Dead Men Go is a first-person tale told by Gerry Maguire, a newspaper reporter who has returned to his old stomping ground at the failing broadsheet Tribune on Sunday after three years away. Once a crime journalist, now a political correspondent, Maguire initially resents being sent to cover a gangland shooting when the Tribune’s star crime reporter, Martin Moir, can’t be contacted. Shortly afterwards, the reason for Moir’s apparent negligence is made horribly clear when he is discovered in his car at the bottom of a flooded quarry. All the signs point to suicide, according to the police, and it subsequently emerges that Moir had motive enough to take his own life – but Maguire is not convinced, and embarks on his own investigation.
What follows is a hardboiled thriller laced with a bleak kind of poetry. McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a hardscrabble world, its juxtaposition with the leafier suburbs and its satellite towns only emphasising the stark reality of a city stripped of any illusions about itself. Even the intermittent snowfalls that might prettify another setting are deployed here as a filter of sorts, through which we view Glasgow as a harsh, frigid and unforgiving place.
The gangland shooting and Moir’s disappearance – the journalist enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the city’s leading gangsters – is just the latest eruption of warfare in a city that has almost become inured to the simmering violence of an ancient conflict. “Glasgow’s civil war ground on,” writes McIlvanney, “a city like a failing state. The regime controlled the centre and the West End, the good suburbs, the arterial routes. East and north were the badlands, the rebel redoubts, where the tribal warlords held their courts and sacrificed to their vengeful gods. The M8 was the city wall, keeping out the barbarian hordes.”
For all the historical references, however, it’s a very contemporary tale. McIlvanney weaves the imminent referendum vote on Scottish independence into the story, and also incorporates violent sectarianism and political corruption. The decline of journalism is yet another theme, as Maguire cites Woodward & Bernstein, and quotes Thomas Jefferson on the importance of a free press, even as he bemoans his personal failures as a reporter working at a struggling, American-owned Sunday newspaper as readers fall away and budgets are slashed.
Where the Dead Men Go is on one level a persuasively thrilling crime novel that gets under the skin of Glasgow to an unsettling degree, but it also functions as a compelling document of its time and place, and one written in terse but elegant style. If it is as invidious as it is inevitable to compare Liam McIlvanney with his illustrious father, then the very least to be said is that the comparisons are entirely valid. ~ Declan Burke
This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner.