Source: Review copy
Publication: 3 March 2021 from Pan MacMillan
My sincere thanks to Pan Macmillan for a review copy.
Glasgow, 1932. When the son-in-law of one of the city’s wealthiest shipbuilders is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut, it falls to Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn to lead the murder case – despite sharing a troubled history with the victim’s widow, Isla Lockhart.
From the flying fists and flashing blades of Glasgow’s gangland underworld, to the backstabbing upper echelons of government and big business, Dreghorn and his partner ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid will have to dig deep into Glasgow society to find out who wanted the man dead and why.
All the while, a sadistic murderer stalks the post-war city leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. As the case deepens, will Dreghorn find the killer – or lose his own life in the process?
In a strange act of serendipity, I recently re-read Laidlaw for the new Bloody Scotland Bookclub , having just finished the excellent Alan Park’s novel, The April Dead, the 4th in his Harry McCoy series which is a must read for me. Denise Mina’s The Long Drop remains an era defining crime novel for 1950’s Glasgow and Craig Russell’s Lennox series captures post war Glasgow perfectly. So the bar is set pretty high when it comes to historical crime fiction set in Glasgow and I wasn’t looking for interlopers.
But pretty quickly it became apparent that Robbie Morrison has achieved something very special with his 1930’s detective, Jimmy Dreghorn. 1930’s Glasgow is a grim place. The depression has set in. Unemployment is rife, the shipyards lie idle, razor gangs patrol the streets with a strict demarcation for which gangs own what territory. Corruption is rife, especially with the esteemed elected members of the Council, where being a Bailie just means you have more chance of pocketing a few bob from making the right decisions. No wonder discontent is rife in the streets and it is fuelled by religious bigotry and sectarianism. Mosely has just formed the British Union of Fascists and is making headway in England.
Corruption isn’t just confined to business either. The Police themselves are not immune and bent police officers contribute to the force being unable to handle the war on the streets. Percy Joseph Sillitoe, an Englishman has been appointed by Glasgow Corporation to bring some order into this chaos and sets up specially selected police teams, of which Dreghorn and McDaid are part. They are to be the public facing side of a reformed service that will embrace modern methods of crime detection. That won’t stop Dreghorn busting a few heads on his way to getting the information he needs though. Sometimes you have to fight violence with violence.
Jimmy Dreghorn is a bit of an anomaly. A Catholic in an almost wholly Protestant force. Dreghorn served in the First World War and it is an experience that hangs over him, as it does so many others, like a suffocating cloud of despair, ready to smother him at any time.
Dreghorn, or ‘shortarse’ as his partner ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid calls him used to be a boxer. McDaid is a Highlander and as a former Olympic wrestler, resembles a large mountain bear. He adds much needed good humour to the pair’s outings.
Morrison’s sense of time and place is pitch perfect. His language absolutely spot on and he captures the slang and cracking one liners perfectly, which sets the seal on what is an authentic and resonant portrait of a city and its people post WW1. His brush strokes are bold and vibrant but attention to detail is acute and the violence cuts through as sharply as the razors that wielded so brutally in the mean streets of the city.
When Charles Geddes, son-in-law of Sir Iain Lockhart – one of Glasgow’s wealthiest shipbuilders – is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut from ear to ear in a Glasgow ‘smile’, his widow Isla asks for Dreghorn to lead the investigation. He and Isla have history from Dreghorn’s time as one of Lockhart’s sponsored young boxers when he was younger and he also served under Lockhart’s son, Captain Rory Lockhart, at the Somme.
Morrison weaves a narrative that moves between the past and the present day as we follow young Dreghoen, bullied at school and taken under Lockhart’s wing to train as a boxer, getting to know his daughter Isla as he does so.
That background now plays into the Geddes case. Dreghorn knows that to get to the truth of who murdered Geddes and why, he will need to strike a deal with the devil, in this case, the leader of the ‘Brigton Billy Boys’ – Billy Grieveson. Grieveson is looking for his sister, Sarah who disappeared some time ago and Dreghorn agrees to look for her in return for information about who was after Geddes.
Two cases, a murder and a disappearance, are followed assiduously by Dreghorn, very much a loner in contrast to his partner McDaid who is a family man. As the story moves back and forth between exclusive businessmen’s clubs and the back streets of the city, Morrison blends fact and fiction to give us a dark, rich and intense sense of Glasgow and its brooding, simmering violence, sitting just under the grim poverty and despair. His characters are very well drawn and the story line itself breaks into dark and unpleasant territory not for the faint of heart.
Weaving in historical characters such as ex-footballer turned pathologist Willie Kivlichan, and Benny Parsonage from Glasgow Humane Society whose house on Glasgow Green was positioned to allow him to rescue the living and gather dead bodies from the Clyde, provides a realistic backdrop to what rapidly becomes a story about a vicious killer responsible for more than one death. It’s also a story about women in the 1930’s and the truly dreadful ways in which they were dealt with should they be unfortunate enough to land themselves in trouble. There’s room for more stories to be told about the women in this book from brothel keeper Kitty Fraser to the engaging and loyal WPC Ellen Duncan and I hope we see that in future books.
Verdict: There’s a sadness to Dreghorn that is almost melancholic, aided by the plotline which gets blacker the further the story develops. Morrison’s writing is sharp, evocative and rather beautiful, if somewhat bleak at points. I found myself immersed in this novel and unable to tear myself away. Morrison has depicted a wholly recognisable world that is evocative, intensely visceral and feels very real. I am impatient for the next book in the series. Readers, if you have not yet read this book, do so now, because when you’ve finished you will want to read the next one, I guarantee it! This is a MUST READ in my book.
Robbie Morrison was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, and grew up in the Renton, Coatbridge, Linwood and Houston. On both sides, his family connection to shipbuilding in Glasgow and the surrounding areas stretches back four generations and is a source of inspiration for the Jimmy Dreghorn series. He sold his first script to publishers DC Thomson in Dundee at the age of twenty-three. One of the most respected writers in the UK comics industry, Edge Of The Grave is his first novel.