FROM 1931 to 1934, the mammoth shape of Hull Number 534, the unnamed Cunard ocean-liner that was to have been the salvation of the River Clyde, loomed unfinished in the stocks over the John Brown Engineering Works in Clydebank. Construction was suspended on 10 December 1931, plunging thousands into unemployment and poverty in the weeks before Christmas.

Looking over Dumbarton Road from the tenements opposite, the rust-red hull of the unfinished ship must have resembled the skeleton of some extinct behemoth, and workers – from the riveters and caulkers of the black squads to the engineers, fitters and foremen – must have feared that extinction too would be the ultimate fate of their industry.

Glasgow in the 1930s was, as the infamous saying goes, 'no mean city'. Shipbuilding and heavy engineering, industries that made it the second city of the Empire, had fallen into steep decline after the Great War, only to be further ravaged by the Great Depression, causing mass unemployment. In those days, "Great" was often an adjective to be avoided.

Glasgow was the most congested and overcrowded metropolis in Britain, largely due to an influx of immigrants – including Irish, Italians, Russian Jews, Lithuanians – that led to the Gorbals district being nicknamed the League of Nations. Factory and tenement chimneys belched out smoke from coal-burning fires, creating smogs that choked the lungs and blackened the streets, concealing the original sandstone hues under a film of grit and grime.

The majority of the population was housed in four-storey tenements – entire families crammed into one or two rooms with little dignity or sanitation. Alcohol abuse, division, sectarianism and violence were rife. People survived through camaraderie, community spirit, and that sense of humour that was, and is to this day, particularly Glaswegian.

The wireless was the internet of the day, bringing the world directly into the family home through news broadcasts, concerts, dramas and entertainment shows such as Band Waggon, starring Arthur Askey, and Scottish Children's Hour on the BBC, presented by "Auntie" Kathleen Garscadden, who gave many Scots entertainers their first opportunities, including Stanley Baxter.

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Tenements in 1930s Glasgow

Bathhouses and steamies served both practical and social purposes, sources of gossip and advice. Libraries, dance halls and especially "the pictures" offered an escape from the grind of daily life.

Glasgow was a cinema city, with 110 picture houses, more per head of population than any other city in the world, and all packed to the gunnels nightly. The Paramount in Renfield Street opened in 1934 and became the Odeon in 1939, where – 35 years later – my dad took me to my first big screen film: Disney's Island At The Top Of The World. My childhood sense of being magically transported to another world would have been shared by 1930s' audiences, who had a special fondness for westerns and gangster films.

Crime wasn't only to be found in the recently arrived "talkies" of the silver screen. Corruption and "graft"– the abuse of official power – were common in the supposedly respectable upper hierarchy of the city. From newspaper headlines – GLASGOW'S REIGN OF TERROR, GANGSTER CITY'S WEEK-END TERROR – you would think that crime was out of control, the streets terrorised by razor-gangs who, as well as battling for territorial and sectarian supremacy, indulged in armed robbery, housebreaking and protection racketeering. The notoriety of many of these gangs has resulted in their names entering urban mythology – the Billy Boys, the Norman Conks, the Beehive Boys, and many more.

Glasgow earned the "no mean city" appellation from the 1935 novel of the same name by Gorbals resident Alexander McArthur, and English journalist H. Kingsley-Long. No Mean City chronicles the rise and fall of Johnnie Stark, the Razor King of the Gorbals. Their novel has become synonymous with the image of Glasgow as a city of "hard men" – perhaps due as much to the hostile reaction from some of the Scottish press and outraged politicians keen to whitewash the city's reputation, as to its literary qualities.

The memorable title is from a quote by Paul the Apostle, in which he describes himself as "a Jew from Tarsus… a citizen of no mean city". Judging the book overall as "crude and melodramatic", Scotland's first national poet Edwin Morgan nevertheless maintained that some passages "have real historical interest", certainly true in my opinion.

Its notoriety has, however, overshadowed other works of the period, such as Greenock-born George Blake's The Shipbuilders, published in the same year. Blake's novel is a powerful, evocative, even elegiac portrait of 1930's Glasgow, wider-ranging, more nuanced and less sensational. The Shipbuilders focuses on the devasting impact the closure of the once proud Pagan's Shipyard has on the Clyde community and on two men in particular: Leslie Pagan, son of the yard's owner, and Danny Shields, a riveter. It explores the class differences between the two, but also the bond they share – Shields having served as Pagan's batman in the "war to end war".

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The Paramount cinema opened in Renfield Street in 1934

Glasgow is a city in the aftermath: of warfare on a scale previously undreamt of, and with the rise of fascism threatening worse to come; of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which had claimed even more victims than the war; of the Wall Street Crash and financial collapse, brought about by greed and unregulated capitalism; and of the slow erosion of the British Empire.

While the 1930s were undeniably harder times than today – no National Health Service for starters – there are still parallels: the rise of divisive and extremist politics across the globe; the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the global repercussions it will surely have; and Brexit, with its issues of national and international identity.

It was hard not to reflect on these parallels while writing Edge Of The Grave – the first in a new series of 1930s Glasgow crime novels. The title derives from The Papers of Tony Veitch by the late William McIlvanney, a writer capable of achieving greater insight in a single sentence than most of us could in an entire novel: "It was as if Glasgow couldn't shut the wryness of its mouth even at the edge of the grave."

My fascination with the 1930s stems primarily from two sources. First, my family history (handily compiled by my father), with connections to shipbuilding that stretch back four generations on both sides. Secondly, my love for the hard-boiled crime fiction of that period, from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler, and the gangster films of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, whose sharp-suited, fast-talking protagonists also influenced the street gangs of the time.

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I wanted to write a story that captured the power and drama of those times – crime, politics, wealth, poverty, the spirit of the people and the spirit of the city and how they make each other what they are – but also hopefully have resonance to our world now. Reading up on the period, I found my perfect inspiration for such a series: Cloak Without Dagger, the autobiography of Percy Sillitoe, Glasgow's Chief Constable from 1931 to1942.

In 1931, in an effort to clean up the city, the Corporation of Glasgow controversially appointed Englishman Sillitoe as the new Chief Constable. He recruited the biggest, toughest officers in Scotland, often from the Highlands and Islands, for his restructured force; the second largest in Britain after the London Met. He ordered the construction of police boxes throughout the city, one of which – now a listed building – can still be seen in Buchanan Street.

"Sillitoe's tartan", the now familiar black-and-white chequered braiding that helps to identify police officers was another of his ideas, subsequently adopted nationwide.

Sillitoe, later appointed director of MI5, also formed what was essentially the UK's first modern flying squad; plainclothes detectives patrolling the streets in high-speed radio-cars. The message to criminals was blunt: The biggest gang in this city is the Glasgow Police Force.

This squad was nicknamed "the Untouchables" by the press, after the elite unit put together in 1920s Chicago by FBI agent Eliot Ness to target the gangster Al Capone. For my novel, I've embellished this to "the Tartan Untouchables", a quip from my partner, Marvel Comics trained editor Deborah Tate, who helped immensely behind-the-scenes with the book. Having parents born in that same decade – her mother in Bathgate, her father in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne – she grew up fascinated with this era and had her own affection for Glasgow, long before we met.

Edge Of The Grave focuses on Detective Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his sergeant "Bonnie" Archie McDaid, both veterans of the Great War. Dreghorn's background is partly inspired by my paternal grandfather, a boilermaker/caulker who worked in black squads in various Clyde shipyards and boxed for a time under the patronage of Sir Iain Colquhoun, whose family home of Rossdhu, Luss, is now the Loch Lomond Golf Club. McDaid is based upon a real policeman of the period; a larger-than-life Olympic medal-winning wrestler, Police Boxing Champion and bagpipe-player. Their investigations take them from the flying fists and slashing blades of the Glasgow underworld to the backstabbing upper echelons of government and big business.

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Percy Sillitoe, Glasgow’s Chief Constable from 1931 to1942

In the course of the series, they encounter other real-life figures: Mary Barbour, a hero of the 1915 rent strikes and a pioneering councillor, bailie and magistrate; Willie Kivlichan, police doctor and one of the few footballers to play for Rangers and Celtic; Benny Parsonage, Chief Officer of the Glasgow Humane Society, who patrolled the River Clyde from 1918 to 1979, recovering bodies and saving thousands of people from drowning. The supporting cast also includes some fictional characters who are nevertheless influenced by real people: police constable Ellen Duncan, determined to tear down barriers and become Glasgow's first female detective; Isla Lockhart, daughter of a prominent suffragette and heir to a shipbuilding dynasty; and the charismatic but deadly razor gang leader Billy Hunter.

After over two years in limbo, work resumed on Hull 534 in April 1934. The ship was named the Queen Mary, was launched on 26 September 1934 by, appropriately, Queen Mary, and went on to become one of the most famous ocean liners of all time.

Over the years, the terror of the gangs did slowly fade, partly because of Sillitoe's zero tolerance approach to crime, but also through the more peaceable efforts of figures like Reverend Sydney Warnes in Bridgeton, Reverend J Cameron Peddie in the Gorbals, and Govan police court missionary Robert Black. These community leaders pioneered non-sectarian activities such as boxing, football and athletics tournaments to divert young men from the lure of the gangs. By 1936, employment prospects were also improving. Ironically, much of this industrial upsurge was due to the relentless approach of the Second World War and the programme of rearmament. Many former gang members even served with distinction in the conflict.

In my early notes for Edge Of The Grave, I describe Jimmy Dreghorn as a man of "contrasts and contradictions: cynical and pragmatic, yet passionate and romantic; good-humoured and possessed of a lust for life, yet brooding and taciturn when faced with injustice; tough, yet tender and caring; politically aware, yet distrustful and disdainful of those who hold power; and always punching above his weight."

It strikes me now that it's also not a bad description of Glasgow itself – now or in the 1930s.

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Edge Of The Grave is published by Macmillan, £14.99

Born in Helensburgh into a family steeped in the shipbuilding industry, Robbie Morrison has long been one of Britain's most reliable comic book writers. He has worked for 2000AD, DC and Marvel over the years, on Judge Dredd, Batman and Spider-Man among many others. Edge of the Grave is his first novel.