Alan Parks – May God Forgive (Blog Tour)
Published by Canongate Books, hardback £14.99, also available in ebook and audiobook. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.
First, the official blurb: Glasgow is a city in mourning. An arson attack on a Royston hairdresser’s has left five women and children dead, and a community reeling. People, more used to turning a blind eye to criminality, erupt now with rage. When three youths are charged with the crime, an angry mob gathers outside the courthouse, the prisoners are snatched from a police van and disappear. Days later the body of one is found with a note attached to his mutilated body – “One down, two to go”. Detective Harry McCoy comes from these streets; his feral childhood battling to survive on them still haunts him years on. But it also gives him an insight into the soul of Royston and the people who control it. Time is ticking, and Harry must confront his own past and figures that haunt him still to prevent another body being found on its mean streets.
You can barely swing a cat without hitting a police procedural set in Edinburgh. Yet Glasgow – bigger, brasher, bolshier – is rather reticent in comparison. But take a step back in time and you’re spoiled for choice, with the city in the 1970s getting more fictional attention at the moment – Ian Rankin’s “act of ventriloquism” brought a new Laidlaw novel last year, Liam McIlvanney’s The Heretic, follow-up to the award-winning The Quaker, arrived earlier this year, and now Alan Parks is back with the fifth Harry McCoy novel. I was late to the party, starting with The April Dead, and I urge you not to make the same mistake, whether you start at the beginning or jump in here (which you can, all the background you need is on the page).
We open in May 1974, McCoy faced with an angry crowd outside Glasgow Sheriff Court. HANG THEM! is the chant, the fury barely contained by a very thin blue line. McCoy – newly back on duty after sick leave – and his colleagues are relieved when the prison van gets through to deposit its occupants. But he has only time to swallow a mouthful of Pepto-Bismol to quiet his ulcer before all hell breaks loose: on its way out, the van is rammed and the three handcuffed youths bundled into a car that speeds off.
Three women and two children caught in an arson attack on a hairdresser’s salon and the city, civil and criminal, is united in wanting those responsible to face the most brutal justice. Yet no-one seems too bothered about why the three young men facing murder charges did this. Other than McCoy, of course, and his boss, Murray, who gives his detective permission to poke around and talk to “all the low-level chancers you call your pals” and find some answers.
While he’s contemplating this task, McCoy gets another case: an apparent suicide. Ally, a stallholder at Paddy’s Market, was so scared of going home to his flat that he hid out in a dodgy hostel for single men, but it seems whoever was hunting him caught up. McCoy meets Ally’s sister and finds out there was more to him than met the eye – including his address, far posher than expected. Unravelling how he could afford it made me think briefly of Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room. And it makes McCoy flash back painfully to his own youth, which we see several glimpses of throughout the novel. His upbringing makes me admire him for how far he’s come despite – or perhaps because of – the start he got in life. It helps explain why he understands how people get into awful situations, and why he can slip between the criminal and the cop worlds, though fits neither comfortably.
He’s also detailed to help younger colleague Wattie, who is investigating after the body of a teenage girl is found in a cemetery. A strip of photos from her handbag offers a clue that takes McCoy to his childhood friend-turned-gangster Stevie Cooper. Trisha isn’t given much space or much of a voice, but the picture of someone fighting a losing battle against what society thinks of her sparks empathy – and later anger when we see the bigger picture.
The body of one of the three accused turns up, dumped in the street outside the burned-out remains of the salon. He’s been tortured, and there’s a message with the remains: “One down, two to go.” So that wasn’t a rescue McCoy witnessed. Is this vigilantes? Or is something else going on, maybe a fresh gang turf war?
Between the shocks, Parks carefully keeps the tension going while McCoy deliberates over the three cases and finds threads that link them – all the while showing us 1974 Glasgow in all its grime and glory. The weather is also unrelenting, and reminded me of a year I lived in the city as a student: So. Damn. Wet. I don’t know how McCoy hasn’t developed trench foot. It would go nicely with his stomach ulcer, which provides some dark humour for the reader – though not for McCoy. (I can’t see him lasting long before he needs another month of sick leave, surviving as he is on booze, cigarettes, tea and the odd pint of milk and packet of Rich Tea biscuits.)
The edges of the picture start coming together, but the central image is resolutely blank: who ordered the three boys to set the fire at the salon? A few more pieces and it all becomes clear. It’s about how far someone will go to get what they believe will change their life, and to hell with whoever is in the way.
There’s victory in knowing, but it’s hollow when there’s no evidence, as Murray points out in no uncertain terms, and thus there can be no arrests, no trials. It’s a bucket of cold water after the visceral, charged scenes where McCoy chases down the information. But there’s more to come – and I was left wondering where McCoy goes from here.
There’s a raw edge to May God Forgive that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it gives the novel a complex texture and greater heft – it’s no surprise each of the novels so far has been nominated for major awards in the UK and further afield, with Bobby March Will Live Forever recently winning a US Edgar Award. Plot, characters, themes, style: all boxes are ticked for me. This is a superb, compelling read in a series that is going from strength to strength. Five books in and Harry McCoy has earned Parks a seat at the table reserved for the finest writers in Scotland – hell, anywhere – without a whisper of dissent from the bouncers.
Alan Parks has spent most of his working life dealing with the production of images for musical artists, as creative director at London Records in the mid 1990s then at Warner Music. From cover artwork to videos to photo sessions, he created ground-breaking, impactful campaigns for a wide range of artists including All Saints, New Order, The Streets, Gnarls Barclay and Cee Lo Green. He was also managing director of 679 Recordings, a joint venture with Warner Music. For the past few years he has worked as an independent visual and marketing consultant. Alan was born in Scotland and attended the University of Glasgow where he was awarded a MA in moral philosophy. He still lives and works in the city as well as spending time in London.