I guess we are well versed in the detective/crime genre in Scotland – Rebus, Taggart, even going back to Willie McIlvanney's Laidlaw of the 1970s – which is why I picked up this book by Bryan McLaughlin with a faintly heavy heart.
Been here, I thought. I've read all this before.
My cynicism was soon dissolved. This captivating story, written by a former Glasgow cop who mixed with the criminal world's best and worst, fairly hurtles along at a pulsating rate and teems with hair-raising tales on the trail of sleuths. But this cop-crime memoir is not just a comic-strip of goodies and baddies. The author brings layers of pathos and empathy to his recollections, which make him a very readable witness to the badlands of Glasgow and beyond of the past 40 years.
McLaughlin did just about everything in his career of fighting crime: from shooing delinquent youths out of backcourts to chasing would-be assailants across Glasgow streets (in one case even flinging his handcuffs at a guy in a breathless chase in which McLaughlin was fast getting out of puff), to pursuing the most violent, murderous worst, such as the "axe-murderers" who broke out of the Carstairs Mental Hospital in 1976.
McLaughlin recounts these and a hundred other incidents in a voice that contains grit, wry humour and sometimes no little sympathy for men (for it was mainly men) who fell into lives of crime due to the various scars or blights of their own upbringing.
The author also has an eye for random tragedy – episodes in which a casual police check he carried out led to a chain of events that resulted in a small-time crook's unnecessary death. Two such incidents are worth recalling here because they capture some of the flavour of this book.
With deep regret, McLaughlin recalls looking up a small-time fraudster who was cashing in fake cheques. Turning up at his house, the detective was told his subject was "down the pub", so down McLaughlin sauntered, as a Glasgow cop does, to the local watering-hole.
After being tipped off that he was being sought out, the fraudster made a dash for it. Having jumped in his car, he then mistakenly believed he was being pursued by a police car that happened to pull up behind him (and knew nothing about him), put his foot to the floor in panic and moments later wrapped his vehicle around a lamp-post, instantly killing himself.
"A routine enquiry became a tragedy," McLaughlin writes of the incident. "The cop-car coincidence meant the guy got a death sentence for trying to elude my investigation into a fairly minor crime."
Another moving tale typical of this book involves McLaughlin visiting a Glasgow high-rise to check out the drugs stash of a young man who lived with his dad. The father, McLaughlin found, was a quiet, decent man who deplored his son's ways, but nonetheless believed him to have got clean of drugs.
The detective failed to find the stash in the house – the son had hidden it in his car – and reluctantly bade the father good night. Weeks later he took a phone call from the father. "I owe you an apology," he said. "My son has just died of an overdose." McLaughlin, a tad harsh on himself, again expresses dismay that his own failure to find the stash cost a young man his life and caused great pain to another older, respectable man.
A number of things struck me while being captivated by this book. First, there is a kind of unspoken heroism and courage in what Glasgow detectives such as McLaughlin do. Second, this book affirms again how Glasgow throbs with colourful no-gooders beneath the surface: a cast of characters ranging from shop thieves and scoundrels right up to the guys who would rip you up with a carving knife. It is quite a scene.
This book's additional qualities are its humour and pathos. McLaughlin feels slight pity for a number of the crooks he puts away – especially the fraudsters, whose work at least spared any blood going on the carpets. The harder men he just wanted nailed.
The message here is semi-Biblical: there are bad men, and they need to be caught. But very few of them are beyond redemption.
Crimestopper: Fighting Crime On Scotland's Streets
Black and White, £11.99