Review: Cast A Cold Eye

Robbie Morrison – Cast A Cold Eye

Published by Macmillan, hardback £16.99, also available in ebook and audio book. I received a copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Philippa McEwan at Pan Macmillan for sending the book and to Roger Cox for the invitation to review it for Scotland on Sunday.

First, the official blurb: Glasgow, 1933. Murder is nothing new in the Depression-era city, especially to war veterans Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his partner ‘Bonnie” Archie McDaid. But the dead man found in a narrowboat on the Forth and Clyde Canal, executed with a single shot to the back of the head, is no ordinary killing. Violence usually erupts in the heat of the moment – the razor gangs that stalk the streets settle scores with knives and fists. Firearms suggest something more sinister, especially when the killer strikes again. Meanwhile, other forces are stirring within the city. A suspected IRA cell is at large, embedded within the criminal gangs and attracting the ruthless attention of Special Branch agents from London. With political and sectarian tensions rising, and the body count mounting, Dreghorn and McDaid pursue an investigation into the dark heart of humanity – where one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, and noble ideals are swept away by bloody vengeance.

Robbie Morrison, a stellar name in comics writing, first turned his eye to historical crime fiction with 1932-set Edge Of The Grave, which promptly waltzed off with 2021’s Bloody Scotland Debut Prize, as well as grabbing a clutch of other award nominations. In Cast A Cold Eye, it’s now 1933, the Great Depression is biting, the razor gangs slashing and along with all the other troubles the cops are trying to keep a lid on, there is a rising threat from the IRA.

After a seriously unsettling prologue – mercifully brief for the reader; no mercy for those involved – we are in the company of Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and WPC Ellen Duncan, seeking a robbery suspect. Assisted by the bulk of Sergeant Archie McDaid, their quarry is apprehended with a flourish by the canal. It’s a smart introduction to our two main protagonists and their junior colleague, capturing relationships and attitudes in a few pages, as well as giving us an introduction to their Glasgow.

As the three are cleaning up after apprehending their suspect, a woman on a nearby barge voices concern for a fellow boatman. Dreghorn and McDaid find their stomachs are suddenly as unsteady as their feet on the bobbing barge: Charlie Smith is in his tiny cabin, shot dead. Executed. 

Dreghorn and McDaid are part of Glasgow’s “Tartan Untouchables”, Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe’s creation, to investigate major crimes across the city, regardless of divisional boundaries. The team don’t all play well together – Dreghorn being a Catholic in a force almost entirely Protestant doesn’t help – but their push to find answers is immense.

A link between Smith and a worrying theft case is uncovered. Meanwhile, an Irish connection is cemented when Dreghorn and McDaid cast an eye over a meeting of the city’s Catholic gang leaders in the Saracen Head bar, where a few guests are at the table. This has caught the eye of Special Branch, and they are keen for information. Reluctantly, they offer the reasons for their interest, giving a potted history of Partition and the aftermath, a section which sacrifices some brevity in favour of ensuring a reader with zero knowledge is educated.

There is more death and devastation wrought in the city, some of it uncomfortably close to home for our pair, but finally a link to the Black and Tans – temporary recruits to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence, some of them ex-British Army soldiers – reveals a powerful potential motive: vengeance. 

The pace begins to pick up as Dreghorn and McDaid cut through the fog and slot the pieces together, with a final, inevitable, showdown filled with pain both physical and psychological.

The final confession-cum-back story section, while also on the long side, is a good contrast to the hot-headed rage. It’s a melancholic, almost elegiac scene, with the final details painted in of people struggling through a time that was filled with hard choices and fierce loyalties, and it distils some of the book’s themes: How deep are some bonds? How long can the desire to avenge be carried? Can you ever escape the past? “Blood for blood, sadness and loss, generation after generation,” as one character says.

Dreghorn and McDaid are great characters and together are more than the sum of their parts. McDaid is frequently a source of humour – witness his bagpipe breathing exercises, or his physicality with those trying to evade capture – and their banter is a joy. McDaid’s family life, chaotic but loving, grounds him and allows him to be a support and foil to Dreghorn as he fights his PTSD-esque nightmares about the Great War. Supporting characters are also given life and depth throughout.

There’s a whole lot of pages here but they turn easily and satisfy as they do. Morrison has moved from the brevity of comics to the expansive novel form with grace and confidence, painting each scene as clearly as a panel on the page and pacing scenes sharply from start through build-up to impact to aftermath. The research mostly fades into the background rather than shouting for your attention, though the story is peppered with real people – Maggie McIver, creator of the Barras Market; Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint, hangmen; WE Fairbairn of the Singapore police force. He has also done a good job of adding female characters who are rich and complex without them feeling out of place in a series of what were in reality very male spaces. 

If you like your reading about the Dear Green Place to be rather more No Mean City, and you’ve ticked off William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, Liam McIlvanney’s DI McCormack novels and Alan Parks’ Harry McCoy series, then why not pop back a few decades further? You won’t be disappointed; in Cast A Cold Eye Morrison hasn’t so much written a novel as built a time machine: step in and be transported.

Robbie Morrison was born in Helensburgh, Scotland, and grew up in the Renton, Coatbridge, Linwood and Houston. On both sides, his family connection to shipbuilding in Glasgow and the surrounding areas stretches back four generations and is a source of inspiration for the Jimmy Dreghorn series. One of the most respected writers in the UK comics industry, he sold his first script to publishers DC Thomson in Dundee at the age of 23. Edge Of The Grave, the first Jimmy Dreghorn novel, won the Bloody Scotland Debut Crime Novel of the Year in 2021, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger, and the Fingerprint Awards Debut Book of the Year, and longlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @robbiegmorrison

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Scotland On Sunday on 16 April and on the website, as I was commissioned by the paper’s books editor to write a review, for which I was paid. Being paid does not change how I write a review, nor did the person who commissioned it have any influence on what I wrote.

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