At first glance, The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter seems to be treading familiar ground.
For a start, it's a crime novel, the genre of choice for many aspiring new writers from Scotland. Added to which, although Malcolm Mackay is a native of the wintry isle of Lewis, it is set in Glasgow, a location so trodden by fictional sleuths and criminals it's a wonder the pavements aren't worn to dust. However, from the outset Mackay's debut makes it clear he has ambitions for this work that don't fit the mould.
The first of a trilogy, The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter would seem to take its inspiration less from Scottish noir antecedents, and more from American TV series such as Dexter, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, in which the criminal, repellent as his acts are, remains the focus of our interest, the crime he's involved in depicted as if it were as mundane as working in a call centre.
This, then, is the story of Calum, a man approaching 30 who likes to read and prefers his own company to a crowd. He lives in Glasgow: "small flat, small car, small savings, but always enough". Quiet and cautious, he stays aloof from the world, except when he has a job to do. That job is contract killing and despite his mousiness – or maybe because of it – he has a gift for murder.
The story opens with him agreeing to eliminate the small-time drug dealer of the title who has been encroaching on the patch of rising gangland player, Peter Jamieson. His usual despatcher is laid up with a hip operation, and Jamieson would like Calum to join his outfit full-time. Calum, meanwhile, prefers to be a lone operator, a hired gun, at liberty to say yea or nay as he likes. As the tale unfolds, that seemingly casual tension, between staying freelance and inevitably being sucked into an organisation, takes on almost as much significance as the murderous plot itself.
Writing in clipped, plain, passionless prose, Mackay works hard – possibly too hard – to evoke a sense of banality and strip this novel of anything that smacks of glamour, excitement or, most importantly, moralising. The message is spelled out frequently throughout: Calum sees his line of work as a job like any other. Those who go into it looking for thrills, Mackay tells us, are doomed. In the words of a detective who, surveying Calum's handiwork, recognises the mark of a true professional: "Most of the idiots who try to set themselves up as killers are just dreamers. Small brains, big ambition. They see these things in the movies and they think it's all so easy. They go in all guns blazing. They shout their mouths off. They want credit when they get it right. They want to be celebrities. They get caught. The depressing truth is that the gunmen who get caught are the shitty ones."
Told initially from Calum's view, Mackay gradually offers additional perspectives, using a rotation of second and third-person narrative among various characters which, switching voices as he sometimes does from paragraph to paragraph, can be disconcerting. Yet although there is a sameness about the tone of each character, perhaps inevitable given the staccato spareness of the prose, Mackay nevertheless introduces a strong and believable cast of criminals, liars, bystanders and police, of both the upright and corrupt varieties (although, to quibble, few Scottish women would wear "underpants").
The victim, Lewis Winter, is by far the most compassionately described, the reader encouraged to feel pity for him, although less for his inevitable fate than for the circumstances of his sorry life. Indeed, Calum himself is not above a flicker of emotion, the closest he comes to justifying his work. About to pull the trigger, he reflects: "Sometimes you get the feeling you're doing them a favour ..."
In this impressively controlled and confident debut, all but two of Mackay's characters ring true. Despite his central role, Calum remains entirely unknowable and wholly unsympathetic, a man who cannot truly be called a psychopath, yet is clearly pathologically askew in some regard. An equally glaring and more curious absence, however, is that of the city of Glasgow. It may, of course, be Mackay's intention to flatten his location into a place that could be any city, anywhere. If that's so, he has achieved his aim. There's no glimmer of Glasgow in the conversation of his cast, the feel of the streets and clubs they frequent, or in the way they think. In his hands, Glasgow's gangland players are so steely and functional, it makes the Mafia look like histrionic luvvies. But maybe that's how they are.
Written more in the tone of a manual or instruction booklet than a conventional thriller, which gives this tale its original flavour, The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter is unexpectedly compelling. Mackay knows how to pace a story related in a matter-of-fact manner that, in less assured hands, would become suffocatingly slow. Measuring out its excitement more like a morphine drip than a hit, the author insidiously builds up to a powerful conclusion.
Whether he's describing Calum's last meal before the job and that of his prey (bacon sandwich for one, bacon roll for the other), or evoking the deceptively polite manners of his sinister employers, Mackay never deviates from the stony, heartless, dangerously restrained style he has set himself. It's an audacious and risky tactic, but he pulls off his first hit with the same strong nerve and cool head his hero brings to his work.