Close Quarters

Angus McAllister

Matador, £8.99

Review Alastair Mabbott

TENEMENT living is such a common experience in Scotland that it’s a wonder there aren’t more books like Close Quarters, a mildly satirical murder mystery based in a tenement stair in the west end of Glasgow.

In August 2000, in Flat 2/1 of 13 Oldberry Road, Walter Bain, the block’s self-appointed one-man residents' committee, is found dead, a bloodstained poker by his side. CCTV footage shows that, unless the killer is the factor, seen leaving the building unsteadily in the middle of the night, Bain can only have been murdered by one of his long-suffering neighbours. Or perhaps by several of them in collusion? As this novel reveals, practically everyone who has lived there has, at one time or another, sworn to kill Walter Bain.

To show us how Bain antagonised all his neighbours, McAllister goes all the way back to lawyer Gus MacKinnon’s arrival on the top floor in 1981 and then works his way forward. MacKinnon is separated, his career is imploding and he is drifting into a directionless middle age with only alcohol and classical music providing any solace.

When he moves to Oldberry Road, he doesn’t count on meeting his nemesis. Obsessed with noise, wheelie bins, regular cleaning of the stair and keeping the front gate closed, Walter Bain bombards his neighbours with misspelt warning notes and summons them to endless meetings about cleaning rotas and security doors. Though he has no children himself, Bain insists on keeping a stair fit for families, and monitors the residents’ behaviour, and that of their visitors, as closely as he dares.

Every official body in Glasgow, and countless tradesmen and lawyers, have been on the receiving end of his phone calls and letters – wars of attrition which usually end with Bain getting his way. He’s a classic creation. Imperious, selfish, a master of passive-aggression, he has a hint of Rillington Place killer John Christie about him. That, and the fact that we know from the start that he comes to a sticky end, casts a sinister shadow on the otherwise light tone. All these irritating minor incidents and curt exchanges are in fact prefiguring a violent death.

Spanning two decades, it’s a story that lets us see into the lives of some of the residents as the west end becomes more gentrified around them, like the mousy old lady who hates and fears Bain in equal measure, and the comic book dealer who just wants to get to know his daughter better but incurs a Bain-instigated police raid instead.

McAllister has been both a solicitor and a university professor, and he draws on his experience for convincing background details to the working lives of Gus MacKinnon and George Anderson, an academic who joins a college with a proud Marxist tradition and has to get the hang of its internal politics. But it’s his experience of tenements, and his affection for them despite all the drawbacks, that really animates Close Quarters. There will be few city-dwellers who don’t recognise something of their own lives here.