Dick Donovan the Glasgow Detective
J E Preston Muddock, edited and introduced by Bruce Durie
MERCAT PRESS, £9.99 pp.192 ISBN: 1841830887
One almost wishes this short story collection by the “other” Conan Doyle was in fact a spoof devised and elaborated by Durie, “the foremost world authority on Dick Donovan”. But streaks of anti-Semi-tism would never be acceptable, even in a pastiche of a late nineteenth-century writer, and some of the plot inconsistencies would be equally cast out – in the first short story, ‘The Saltmarket Murder Case’, the “short, rather thick-set” murderer has previously disguised himself as a woman, only she was described as “tall” and “gaunt”. Clothes can disguise a lot, but not quite that much.
These aspects aside, Donovan, created by the spectacularly peripatetic Mr Muddock (India, Australia, America, New Guniea to name a few destinations visited by him), provides the reader with sparky, direct tales of criminal activity in Victorian Glasgow, much in the manner of Sherlock Holmes with whom, as Durie points out, he has often been compared and unjustly considered to post-date. It’s not the case, he argues – Dono-van came first. He doesn’t have Holmes’s love of forensic detail but he does have a prosaic, practical touch that notes detail and if some of the stories require a certain leap of faith, it simply adds to the fun.
pp.256 ISBN: 1845960327
Here’s a tale so tall you’ll have to stand on tiptoe to read it. Douglas Skelton assures the reader it’s true however. His hero is ‘Indian’ Peter Williamson, a real life David Balfour, only without an Alan Breck to rescue him. The poor son of a ploughman, the thirteen-year-old Peter was kidnapped off Aberdeen quayside in 1743 and sold into indentured servitude in the American colonies. Williamson adapted him self well enough to persuade his master to educate him and leave him his farm in his will. All was well until Williamson was captured by a tribe of inventively sadistic Native Americans. Williamson relishes describing their tortures: “One of the villains, with his seal knife, rip and open their bellies, took out their entrails, and burnt them before their eyes.” One suspects, rather like Indian Peter, Skelton is prepared to take liberties with his material. A description of Williamson’s enforced trip to America reads more like fiction than biography. “He could smell the fear. It rose like a cloud from the bodies of his young companions and flashed like a warning light in their eyes as they listened to the storm howl around them.”
pp.350 ISBN: 1845020626
Justly shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial prize, Saadi’s debut mixes an energetic stream-of-consciousness with a gentler nod to post-colonialism in this intelligent, ambitious tale of Glasgow DJ Zaf, as he ponders what it means to be an Asian Glaswegian at the beginning of the twenty-first century, while details of his father’s origins float in and out of his thoughts. As the stream-of-consciousness style demands, flotsam and jetsam of all kinds are included, occasionally to the point of tedium, as Zaf segues from the first Asians arriving in Scotland (“long dark days when most Asians, here in Scotland, had worked as pedlars, wee men on boats, hawkin their trinkets and pieces of cloth”) to the sadness of his gay friend Harry (“the mess of all those extinct relationships seemed burned into his face”) to past girlfriend, the junkie Zilla, and present girlfriend, nurse Babs.
It could be argued that Saadi’s voice was just waiting to happen, given certain publishing trends, but that would do a disservice to the quality of his debut. There is a clear nod to Kelman’s disenchanted antiheroes in Zaf himself as well as in Saadi’s prose, but one suspects that it is more homage to the master than it is unacknowledged influence.
Walking With Murder – On The Kidnapped Trail
pp.186 ISBN 184158409
First there was Christopher Rush’s donkey ride in France, then Pamela Stevenson’s trip to the South Sea Islands. Now Ian Nimmo becomes the third person within a year to write an account of following in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps. What next? A pub crawl with Mr Hyde? A Stevenson aficionado, Nimmo first traced the path of Kidnapped’s fleeing heroes in 1960 when he was around the same age as David Balfour. The author contrasts memories of his first Highland jaunt with another taken more recently and a historical reconstruction of Balfour and Alan Breck’s route in the year Kidnapped is set in, 1751, creating an erratic time scheme. His dedication to channelling the spirit of Kidnapped is such that Nimmo accidentally strands himself overnight on the dreich island of Erraid just as Balfour did. Nimmo you see is an advocate of tramping the North, “with the wind in your hair, the tangle in your nose, [and] a thousand sounds from the hill and loch below.” Heaven forefend you’d confuse him with one of those nasty tourists and their coaches. “If David Balfour tried to tramp across Mull today, the chances are he would be mown down by a tour bus within a half hour.”
pp. 204 ISBN: 1904598579
This noir crime thriller (for ‘noir’ read ‘macho’ and occasionally ‘misogynistic’) is fast-paced enough for those who like their prose unadorned and full of inverted commas. Robin Greaves is a bank robber who has just discovered his wife, Carol (who also helps him on his bank jobs) is sleeping with his partner in crime, Eddie. He breaks the nose of the unidentified private eye who provides him with the information; later we see him shoot a woman during a bank raid. The woman he shoots is, ironically, the mother of the perennially white T-shirted Pearce (“Winter in Scot-land was far too cold to walk around bare-chested. That’s why Pearce wore a T-shirt”), who has been employing some strong-arm tactics on customers of Greaves’s as a way of repaying a loan. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a small country with a reputation for urban violence should spawn so many crime writers but with Guthrie’s addition to an already full-to-bursting canon of crime, there is a danger of serious overload. Which means, can anything new be said about the criminal fraternity in Scotland? On the evidence of this novel, the answer is, precious little.
Crofts and Crofting: Past, Present and Future
MERCAT PRESS, £8.99
pp.160 ISBN: 1841830712
This is a pleasant, undemanding little read that offers up a potted history of crofting in Scotland with the occasional surprising detail thrown in for good measure (how many people know that sphagnum moss, when dried in the sun, is highly absorbent with antiseptic properties, and was not only used to dress wounds during the First World War but was also made into the first disposable babies’ nappies? Now, there’s an environmental solution to recycling problems). Stewart lists customs and habits, giving a personal touch to the history too (the practice of ‘bundling’ sounds like a prelapsarian moment of fun / the night before a wedding ceremony, the bride and groom would share a bed, fully-clothed, to engage in conversation about their plans for the future). There’s an oral quality to this historical account, a sense of tales handed down of practices no longer in use and ways of life no longer lived. Stewart ends on a positive note with hope for the future of crofting, with the implementation of the Land Reform Act, but as with all rural ways, things must move with the times and there is an elegiac quality to her optimism.
An Abundance of Witches: The Great Scottish Witch Hunt
by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart
pp.256 ISBN: 0752433296
Reading this account of an intense period of witch-hunting between 1658-1662, one could be forgiven for thinking that all of Scotland was caught up in petty squabbles over who said what to whom and why …for four whole years. If more women were persecuted as witches than men, it would seem, from Maxwell-Stuart’s meticulous and painstaking trawl through kirk records, that it was because more women were busy name-calling and acting spitefully towards each other. What is highly valuable about this book, however, is not what it teaches us about a period in history, but that it lets us see, in glorious detail, exactly how limited that teaching can be. There is a tendency in popular history to convince us that the people of the past are just like us, really! Maxwell-Stu-art demonstrates just how ludicrous and conceited that assumption is. This is a chronicle of an age we cannot possibly under stand, for we simply do not possess its world view; most of us today do not accept ‘magic’ as a daily fact of life. Forget David Starkey; read Maxwell-Stuart instead.
Triptych – Three Tales
Like Herdman’s last novel The Sinister Cabaret, the three tales in Triptych are characterised by a flippant, surreal, occasionally menacing tone. ‘Plaintiff’ takes a cue from Lewis Carroll, though it’s less Alice In Wonderland than Alice In Hades. The narrator is taking his dog Plaintiff for a walk when it runs off down a rabbit hole. A green pixie offers the narrator a pill to shrink to a level where he too can enter the hole, where he enters a Bosch-like hell called Unplease, which sounds and looks a little too close for comfort to Lanark’s Unthank. There’s a full complement of cute dialogue too. “‘In there, for instance, they’re torturing a postmodernist.’ ‘Is that a good or a bad thing?’ ‘That depends entirely on your point of view.’” The narrator finally exits this hell in Burntisland, so no light at the end of the tunnel there. Herdman’s remaining tales concern a legendary owl whose appearance warns of danger, and a theological dispute in a church that leads to pandemonium. The tales have a half-finished feel, and indeed they are apparently but trailers for a more sustained work.
by H. Gustav Klaus
pp.111 ISBN 0746309767
In 1984, James Kelman was enough of a curiosity to be only deserving of a jokey throwaway comment by the then chairman of Booker judges: “There is even a novel written entirely in what appears to be Glaswegian. Lacking a dictionary, I soon gave up.” A decade later he won the Booker, which shows you how successfully and swiftly Kel-man was able to create the context within which his work could be understood, although his triumph characteristically caused a well publicised rift between the Booker judges. Klaus’ overview is slim but comprehensive, including even his plays and his sincere but unwieldy essays (typical title: ‘A Brief Note On The War Being Waged By The State Against The Victims Of Asbestos’). Klaus is strong on how Kelman reconciled realism and modernism with the demotic at its coarsest, or “thi lang-/wij a thi ghtr” as Tom Leonard put it. Klaus even valiantly defends the ferociously unreadable Translated Accounts. “With this uncompromisingly experimental novel Kelman has come a step closer to his declared aim of stripping the narrative of any remnants of elitist subjectivity.” Unfortunately Kelman also stripped the book of anything recognisably pleasurable, plot and character being, as Klaus might say, damnably elitist.