Two friends, Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney, look for work and for escape from their lives spent growing up on Glasgow’s most desperate fringes. Soon they will become involved in one of the city’s darkest and most dangerous trades. But while one rises quickly up the ranks, the other will fall prey to the industry’s addictive lifestyle and ever-spiralling debts. Meanwhile, the three most powerful rivals in the business – Marty Jones, ruthless pimp; Potty Cruickshank, member of the old guard; and Billy Patterson, brutal newcomer – vie for prominence. And now Peterkinney, young and darkly ambitious, is beginning to make himself known. Before long, violence will spill out onto the streets, as those at the top make deadly attempts to out-manoeuvre one another for a bigger share of the spoils. Peterkinney and Glass will find themselves at the very centre of this war; and as the pressure builds, each will find their actions – and inactions – coming back to haunt them. But it is those they love who will suffer most . . .
Regular readers of my blog cannot have failed to notice my huge admiration of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Trilogy, comprising of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter , How A Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence . All three books centred on the travails of a young hit-man in the employ of the most powerful figures in gangland Glasgow, but experiencing a modicum of moral uncertainty at his chosen career path, and his plans to turn his back on this life. Defined by their spare, gritty and uncompromising style, all three books garnered critical acclaim or awards, and brought us a truly fresh, new voice in Scottish crime fiction. The Night The Rich Men Burned is Mackay’s first standalone project, although marked by the familiar character list, there are sporadic mentions/re-introductions of familiar figures the former trilogy. This novel put me in mind of a kind of twisted Bildungsroman, as it is heavily centred on the adverse fortunes of two young men, Oliver Peterkinney and Alex Glass. Both are paving their way in the seedy and violent world of Glasgow’s criminal fraternity- a hotbed of violence, criminal rivalries, and a bunch of inherently dislikeable men jostling for dominance in the lucrative world of debt-collection, drugs and strip clubs. Written in Mackay’s now trademark style, in clipped, pared down prose, all underscored with a compelling emotional distance to the characters and events he presents, The Night The Rich Men Burned will astound and delight you in equal measure…
In common with his previous books this is an incredibly character driven book, as all the inhabitants , and participants in the warring criminal factions, are separated by codes of allegiance to the nefarious crime lords within each faction. As they plot and scheme to assert their power in the lucrative world of criminal activities, there is a sense of a constantly changing power game. The main players in this, Marty Jones, an exceptionally nasty piece of work; established loan shark, Potty Cruikshank and scheming newcomer Billy Patterson, are all men with a casual attitude to violence and keen to exploit those they consider weak and needy. It is into this world, that Glass and Peterkinney take their first tentative steps, and which provides the thrust of the plot overall.What I find particularly interesting about the novel is how both Peterkinney and Glass, starting from the same point, find their lives take such different directions, from ostensibly having little, or no, difference between them in terms of their socio-economic beginnings. Glass senses an opportunity for them to gain financially in the employ of a local debt-collector, bedazzled by the prospect of a life of glamour, girls, drugs and violence, and drags Peterkinney into his seemingly foolproof plan. Initially Peterkinney seems less sure of the long term benefits of this course of action, but as the book progresses there is a marked change of fortune for them both. Despite his initial reluctance to Glass’ pipe-dreams, Peterkinney uses his smarts and grows in stature, moving further away from the narrow existence he formerly inhabits, (unemployed and sharing a small flat with his Grandad), whilst Glass spirals downwards into an abyss of debt and despair. With the subtle shifts in the timeline that Mackay employs, we as readers see this deviation of their respective fortunes and, subsequently, as the inherent weaknesses or underlying coldness of their individual characters are brought to bear on the ways their lives evolve, our sympathies are roundly manipulated with each new episode.
This is the real strength of Mackay’s writing, that he presents all his protagonists with such a studied and dispassionate air, that he requires of us to form our own allegiances to, and sympathies with the characters he presents. No one is particularly likeable, indeed with most of the characters exhibiting a strong prevalence to violence and financial gain at the expense of others, you would little expect to experience any real empathy with any of them. Cleverly, however, you do find your perception of certain characters shifting and changing, and that is a real and unexpected pleasure of this book, over and above the fairly linear style of plotting that the story reveals. With little or no focus on location per se, aside from the general feeling of a gritty inner city setting, with the inherent dangers and social decay that lies beneath, it is all the more admirable that such extreme focus on characterisation carries the weight of the book throughout with little distraction.
Completely unflinching in its depiction of violence and the immoral exploitation of the lower classes by these grasping loan sharks, The Night The Rich Men Burned, never shies away from the stark realities of life within the criminal fraternity. Oddly dispassionate, with a spare and staccato prose style, Mackay once again illustrates his original and refreshingly different take on the crime genre. Not a comfortable read, and one that will cleverly play with your perceptions of, and attitudes to, the characters within its pages which, I for one, find a much more rewarding reading experience. An excellent read.
Read more reviews of The Night The Rich Men Burned here:
(With thanks to Macmillan for the ARC)