‘The new kid on the Glasgow block won’t let the side down.’
Read enough crime fiction set in Glasgow and it’s an easy enough scene to imagine. Early evening in a city centre pub, probably not too far from police HQ in Stewart Street. DI Alex Morrow is comparing notes with DS William Lorimer at one table, DI Colin Anderson and DS Freddie Costello are doing the same at another, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod and investigative journalist Rosie Gilmour are chatting about old cases at a third. The door opens and detective Harry McCoy walks in.
The others look up, because he’s a new kid on the block. They don’t know too much about him, what kind of back-story he’s got, what sort of cases he already has under his belt. All the rest have been around for at least five books in series by Denise Mina, Alex Gray, Caro Ramsay (the Anderson & Costello series), Lin Anderson and Anna Smith respectively. There are, of course, plenty more Glaswegian crime writers than this, but the point remains: of all Britain’s cities, Glasgow is the most thoroughly policed by serial fiction.
So when Alan Parks’s debut novel Bloody January comes to us from Canongate already badged as “a Harry McCoy novel”, it’s a rather obvious clue to his publisher’s expectations. We’ll be seeing, they are saying, a lot more of him. The quotes on the cover (“The natural successor to William McIlvanney” – John Niven) back that up. But in the crowded corner of Clydeside crime fiction, what’s left to say? And, while we’re at it, how come Glasgow has such a stranglehold on the genre?
One key difference with Bloody January is its setting: the January in question is that of 1973, a whole decade before Taggart hit the small screen, two decades before anyone heard of tartan noir, and four decades before crime fiction became so important that it had to have its own literary festivals. For a crime writer, a Seventies setting has two key advantages: the absence of mobile phones makes plotting easier, and they can also shock readers into realising how much has changed by writing dialogue pitted, Life on Mars-style, with prejudices that are now almost silenced.
But the Seventies appealed to Alan Parks for an altogether different reason. Born and reared in Elderslie, he left Scotland to work in London in the music industry. He was a creative director for record companies such as London Records (where he befriended novelist John Niven), but when the industry effectively collapsed, he moved back to Glasgow in 2015.
“I’d find myself going on walks around the city, often to places I hadn’t seen since I was ten, back in the Seventies. I think that’s an age when things go in deep, even though at the time you are completely self-absorbed and don’t register them. So I thought that would be a good time to set a novel in too.”
He also wanted it to cover as wide a range of society as possible, and maybe again part of that impulse stems from his childhood. “We always used to catch the bus back to Elderslie from just by the St Enoch’s Hotel, and we’d see all those poor people there, huddling by the hot air vents and drinking god knows what. And we’d be going to Fraser’s or somewhere like that and it would all be very jolly, but then you’d see all those people still there when we caught the bus back. People always think that Glasgow is a poor town, but there has always been a level of glamour too, a wealthy strata, and I though there’s be an interesting contrast looking at those two sides of it.”
It’s true: when Parks’s Detective Inspector Harry McCoy starts his investigations, they range dizzyingly from lowlife to high, from taking drugs with his prostitute girlfriend to finding out the nefarious deeds perpetrated by an aristocratic shipyard owner. Hold on a minute, you might think: drug-taking policemen in the Seventies? But that’s only part of McCoy’s crowded back-story. One of his closest friends, Stevie Cooper, is now the boss of one of the city’s gangs. They’ve been close since Cooper stuck up for him against the priests in the children’s home. Yet while McCoy often has to turn a blind eye to whatever Cooper is currently up to, he still has a moral compass of sorts. Unlike many of his colleagues, he’s not on the take.
That kind of compromised, yet still idealistic, cop has now become familiar enough to us: it’s Jimmy McNulty in the TV series The Wire, or – closer to home, Alex Morrow, with her gangster half-brother, in Denise Mina’s fiction. But how plausible was such a character in the Seventies?
“Maybe there was a bit of dramatic licence there,” Parks admits. “Because when you look at their photos, the Glasgow police force of 1973 wasn’t too different from the early Sixties or even the Fifties – all suits, ties and trilbies. London may have been changing at full tilt in the Swinging Sixties and Carnaby Street pumping out new fashions, but none of that seemed to spread up here.”
To give Bloody January the social sweep Parks wanted, he needed to show gang life from the inside. There’s a neatly bleak example of that when McCoy visits his gangster friend in his drugs den as an informant is being tortured next door. “How d’you stand it?” he asks a girl working there. “Stand what?” she replies. And if violence is as commonplace as that, so too is rule-breaking by the police. In the very first chapter, a prison warden at Barlinnie asks McCoy whether his colleagues fitted up one of the inmates. “Nope,” McNulty replies, “whole thing was straight for once.”
Yet this old order of ubiquitous violence and police corruption is slowly changing. That dialogue takes place just outside the Special Unit at Barlinnie, set up, we are told, “by hippies blabbering on about Art Therapy, Positive Custody and Breaking Barriers”. Before too long, McCoy will be chatting up a sociology postgraduate student, asking her about feminism. There’s a David Bowie gig at Green’s Playhouse. Our post-millennial world is taking its time, but it’s on the way.
The old one, though, is still in focus: indeed, short of a Tardis, says John Niven, this book is the best way of getting back to Seventies Glasgow. Niven is a biased witness – he and Parks are friends, and without his encouragement this novel probably wouldn’t exist – but that doesn’t stop him being right on this occasion. The Seventies are here in all their seediness: old copies of Parade on the pavements, TVs on tick from DER, smokers lighting up one Kensitas after another. Familiar places like Paddy’s Market are sharply described (“there was nothing it didn’t have and nothing you’d want to buy”), but because the city has been knocked about a bit, even McCoy still has to search out old landmarks like the Pinkston chimney to work out which way he is facing.
Change is coming. You can see that far clearer in this novel than any written at the time. But any future gathering of Glasgow’s fictional detectives can relax. The new kid on the block won’t let the side down.
Bloody January by Alan Parks is out now published by Canongate, priced £12.99.
‘Through the novel I say a few things about the world around me. Nobody escapes my books unscathed.’