Malcolm Mackay and his Glasgow Trilogy have made a chump of me and must be an embarrassment to publisher Mulholland Books.
I had never heard of Malcolm Mackay – not too surprising because he is a native of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of the Northern Highlands of Scotland – and his three debut mysteries have to be the best-kept secret in publishing.
Notwithstanding, Mackay is one of the craftiest authors of crime fiction today, or maybe ever. With his uncluttered, surgical prose and shrewdly suggestive characterizations, he’s breathtaking. He has never been taught to write, living as he has on a windswept island near the top of the globe, but he writes circles around the rainmakers.
His trilogy of books, delivered together to his British publisher in 2013 and published all at once by Mulholland two months ago, are, without question, the three finest, most interesting crime novels I have read this year, or perhaps ever, and certainly are in my top 10 lifetime picks.
The first book in Mackay’s career, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, sets the stage for a glimpse into an upwardly-mobile Glasgow crime syndicate that, for sufficiently good reasons, regularly kills upstart competition. It introduces us to our main character and admirably conscientious gunman Calum MacLean, whom we meet on his first job standing in for veteran hitman Frank MacLeod. MacLeod, now a little long of tooth, is having a hip replaced and can’t answer the call for the next couple of months.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Lewis Winter is the object of Calum’s first assignment. Winter is getting way too big for his brogues and is flaunting his ambition to the point of humiliating upperclassmen. His quietus is, of course, necessary (we’re convinced of that), and we are privileged to observe Calum’s virtuosic preparation and sanguine artistry. We all should be as good at what we do as Calum MacLean is – he’s obsessed with preparation and monk-like in the singularity with which he lives every aspect of his life. He’s young, but he’s damn good, maybe the best.
The next book in the trilogy is How a Gunman Says Goodbye, followed by The Sudden Arrival of Violence. The titles tell you all you need to know, and to get all the spectacular nuance and rich flavor Mackay has to offer, these books should be read in order. It may be a mistake, however, to string them together. Most publishers demand that a series of novels with ongoing characters and plots each stand alone for obvious promotional reasons, with notable exceptions such as Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
But there’s nothing obvious about Malcolm Mackay, and while he has blindsided all the luminous Nordic crime writers by taking away a number of prestigious awards, he lives at the edge of where the earth drops off and may not have gotten the message about being normal.
These are three terrific books. Read them in any order – it really doesn’t matter with quality like this – but don’t pass them up.
Jeff@jeffMannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.