“It starts with a telephone call.”
Right from the first page, you know there’s something different about this startling debut novel from MacKay. It’s a Scottish novel, but it reads like something else. The clipped style comes straight from the US hardboiled playbook, but it’s not been toned down or softened. Instead it’s become something else; a breathless narration that feels utterly at home on the mean streets of Glasgow. With barely a colloquial spelling in sight, MacKay still succeeds in giving us the rhythm and feel of Glasgow’s streets.
The stripped down narration is startling. Not a single word is wasted. Character is defined in a few short words. The reader’s mind fills in the gaps. And all along you feel you’re reading something almost unique.
It helps that MacKay’s novel takes other chances, too. There are cops here, and we see some of the world from their view, but the cops are men at work, not unnecessarily complex and over involved creations who could never survive in the real world. And, besides, it’s MacKay’s complex and intriguing underworld that holds our attention. It’s the wheelings and dealings of would be gangsters, it’s the cold, clinical world of our hitman, Calum, a character who seems to have been born to the role that finally found him. A functioning psychopath, a man who lives for killing but doesn’t delight in it. He is the hitman equivalent of Richard Stark’s Parker, but younger and less formed. He is discovering his limits and his true nature. He is discovering what kind of killer he is.
MacKay’s sense of scale is refreshing. Like Leonard or even early Ellroy, he takes a street level view of criminal behaviour. His characters ambitions are limited and realised by the world around them. There are no psychotic delusions or violent calling cards. As our hitman, Calum, notes. “Why leave a signature?”. There is no answer, because it should be obvious. MacKay likes to let the reader do the work. And it pays off in spades. Without a word wasted, the reader needs to pay attention to every one.
The cast are merely people doing what they can to get by. There are innocents caught in the crossfire, people making bad decisions, people making good decisions that still go wrong. The cops don’t get caught up personally in the case. They just do their job.
And by the end everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Put simply, this is one of the most striking and stylish debuts that the Scottish crime scene has had in a long time. Forget comparisons to Rankin. MacKay is his own, unique thing. He’s a crime writer looking to make his own mark on the genre. And with The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, he’s nailed it.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 17/01/13