Alan Parks – The April Dead
Published by Canongate Books, hardback £14.99. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher as I chaired a panel at Bloody Scotland 2021 that included the author. Many thanks to Jamie Norman for facilitating this.
First, the official blurb: In a grimy flat in Glasgow, a homemade bomb explodes, leaving few remains to identify its maker. Detective Harry McCoy knows in his gut that there’ll be more to follow. The hunt for a missing sailor from the local US naval base leads him to the secretive group behind the bomb, and their disturbing, dominating leader. On top of that, McCoy thinks he’s doing an old friend a favour when he passes on a warning, but instead he’s pulled into a vicious gang feud. And in the meantime, there’s word another bigger explosion is coming Glasgow’s way – so if the city is to survive, it’ll take everything McCoy’s got…
Despite the award nominations and the many positive reviews the first three novels in the Harry McCoy series have racked up, I hadn’t opened the cover of an Alan Parks novel until I was invited to chair a panel at Bloody Scotland 2021 which he was part of. My mistake – sorry Alan! I shall be catching up with the rest of the series, that’s for sure.
The April Dead opens in April 1974 in what, according to McCoy, is “the back arse of Glasgow”, where a bomb has gone off in a rented flat – is this the IRA moving in? The body in the flat won’t be telling them much – half smeared on the walls, half burnt to a crisp. McCoy and his colleague Wattie pick through the flat, McCoy’s heaving stomach matching that of the reader. Colleague Hughie Faulds, a former Belfast cop now back in Glasgow, declares the device was homemade and exploded as it was being made. Another pointer to the IRA and other paramilitary groups – will McCoy be able to foist this off on Special Branch?
While in a club with Wattie and his brothers, McCoy is tapped on the shoulder by an American: You’re a cop, please help me, my son is missing. McCoy brushes him off, but Andrew Stewart is determined, tracking McCoy down the next day as he sets off for a trip to Aberdeen. Stewart’s son, Donald, has gone missing from his US Navy posting at the Holy Loch; McCoy reluctantly agrees to help.
Meanwhile, it turns out the trip north is to Peterhead prison to collect Stevie Cooper, and warn him away from returning to Glasgow for a week, while the psycho brother of the guy who Cooper beat up and landed in jail for his troubles stands trial and is jailed. But trying to get Stevie to keep the peace goes about as well as it always did when he and McCoy were kids together.
Back in Glasgow, Special Branch punt the bomb case back to the cops – nothing of interest here, apparently. Then there’s a second explosion – is this just a protest, or the start of something bigger? And then a link between the flat bomb and Stewart’s son is found, which means a full investigation will go ahead into his disappearance, but that doesn’t mean it will turn out well.
Then a body is found in a back court – on the one hand, it’s a psycho gangster few people will miss. On the other, it sparks a tussle among the city’s gangs which ripples out into McCoy’s world too.
A third bomb – bigger in scale, and with a message phoned in from a new group, Sons Of The 51, claiming responsibility: “With our help, Scotland will rise again.” It’s a nod to the wilder fringes of Scottish nationalism of the period, but the sentiment still has an echo in corners of the current campaign seeking independence – and the idea of a small group under the sway of a charismatic leader is one as old as humanity; there’s plenty a historical novel can say about contemporary issues.
There’s trouble for McCoy with this new group. Trouble from Stevie. Trouble from Special Branch. Trouble linked to the British Army in Belfast and in its cadet ranks in Glasgow. None of this is doing McCoy’s newly-diagnosed peptic ulcer any good. The funny feeling in his stomach that something bad is going to happen isn’t helping either… and of course its powers of divination prove to be accurate.
The city comes to life in a few brush strokes, and the smaller details evoking the period are lovely – the Anaglypta wallpaper in Wattie’s father’s living room; Wee Duggie, Wattie’s son with girlfriend Mary, sporting hand-knit outfits. And of course everyone smokes all the time, everywhere. (My one small criticism: It might be accurate that the policing world of the 1970s is very blokey, but finding a way to get some women characters in as more than cameos would be appreciated by this reader.) There’s also some lovely dashes of dark humour.
There’s a hint of Laidlaw and a dram of Rebus in McCoy, but while Parks nods to those who have gone before in Tartan Noir police procedurals, he has carved out his own niche, and made McCoy his own man – complex personal history, ulcer medication and all.
McCoy and Stevie have a personal history that clashes with the cop/criminal clash, and it means McCoy often walks in grey areas. When it comes down to the wire, he always wants to do what is right, which is very much a grey area too. He is comfortable with the kind of justice that lies close to vengeance – the kind that even 70s Glasgow might struggle with a little, but that this noir-tinged novel needs to balance all that has been revealed in the previous pages.
The April Dead is well-paced, the setting lovingly realised, with relatable characters and an utterly cracking plot. It’s an original take on the police procedural, and another fine slice of Tartan Noir which without question deserved its shortlisting for the 2021 McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book Of The Year.
Alan Parks has worked in the music industry for more than 20 years. His debut novel Bloody January was shortlisted for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, February’s Son was nominated for an Edgar Award and The April Dead was shortlisted for The McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year 2021. He lives and works in Glasgow. The April Dead is the fourth Harry McCoy thriller.