From Across the Pond With Douglas Skelton
By Chris Simms
Press Photo Credit: Provided by Author
I’m delighted to bring readers of Suspense Magazine a feature from the Crime Readers’ Association. In it, an author from over here writes about crime fiction from a UK perspective.
Glasgow—the hard city with a fierce heart
One of the questions I’m often asked about my crime fiction is, why Glasgow? It’s such a well-used backdrop for the genre, surely you could write about somewhere else?
Of course I could—but I’m a Glaswegian, it’s where I know and, anyway, it’s just a backdrop. The stories I tell could really be set anywhere.
William McIlvanney, of course, kicked it all off. Although there had been crime novels set in the city prior to that, “No Mean City” is the most notorious example and perhaps closest to what I’m doing.
Crime journalist Bill Knox produced a series of police procedurals from the late 1950s and, in the 70s, collaborated with scriptwriter Edward Boyd on the novelisation of the superb BBC-TV series, The View from Daniel Pike.
Hugh C. Rae, another former journo, also churned out a series of popular and readable thrillers—tartan noirs—before anyone even thought of the phrase. His first, “Skinner,” was a fictionalised look at Peter Manuel, a Scottish serial killer of the 1950s.
They both used their knowledge of the city’s criminal world to give their fiction an edge.
I like to think I’m doing the same.
I’m also a former journalist but the bulk of the inspiration for my writing comes from the years I was a precognition agent for Glasgow solicitors.
In Scotland, until comparatively recently, the prosecution was under no obligation to provide the defence with statements from either civilian or police witnesses. What they did provide was a list of witnesses they may or may not call to trial, so defence teams had to hire people to take what was called a precognition from those listed.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And it was. But it got worse—for those witnesses didn’t need to talk to the likes of me. If they did, they weren’t obliged to tell the truth. They could tell me anything then go into court and say something completely different and there was not a thing the defence could do about it.
So I walked the mean streets of Glasgow, taking statements, pounding on doors, gathering evidence, because the men I worked for demanded more than merely following the footsteps of the prosecution, they had me finding witnesses for the defence.
I loved the job because it introduced me to all kinds of people—police officers, criminals, straight arrows, doctors, lawyers, pathologists. It taught me that not everything is clear cut, not everything is black and white—there are shades of grey. (Perhaps not 50 because that’s a different genre altogether.)
I called on houses in the better parts of the city and the poorest. I once walked into a living room in a tenement flat so damp the family was sleeping in the living room on mattresses. The only thing keeping the walls together was what was left of the wallpaper.
In another house, a hallway was spotted with dog dirt and I was greeted by the culprit, a huge German Shepherd which could have eaten my arm off. Throughout the interview it sat right in front of me and stared. That’s all it did. Stared. But it was enough. I still feel I was lucky to get out with all my appendages intact.
In yet another, I wondered why there were no interior doors. I soon learned why when I was shown into the living room where a three-seater settee was almost completely filled by a man so large he could’ve taken Pluto’s place as a planet. It wasn’t him I was there to talk to but he sat silently throughout the interview and barely moved. To be honest, I wasn’t sure he could.
I was once asked to find a witness who was not on the prosecution list but who knew something about a serious assault. All I was given was his first name, that he drank in pubs around the city’s east end and that he had a beard and a limp. It led me to bars where the conversation stopped when I walked in. If they’d had a piano player he’d’ve halted mid-tinkle and swivelled round to look at me.
I found him, but only because I spoke to a guy I knew with a dodgy past and he knew a fella who knew a fella who could ask another fella. Sometimes that was how it worked.
In one murder case with gangland connections I had cause to revisit a witness for some follow-up questions. He told me that just after my previous visit a couple of ‘the boys’ had been in, wanting to know what I’d asked. Turned out they were following me and speaking to other witnesses I’d interviewed.
That had me looking over my shoulder, let me tell you.
Most people were friendly, a few were downright hostile, which was understandable given I was there for someone who may well have done them harm. However, it was not my job to defend the accused. I was there merely to find out what happened—or at least what might have happened.
It taught me a lot and I hope it rubs off on my fiction. I have good guys and bad guys but even they have layers. My anti-hero, Davie McCall, has his code but he’s still a hard man, a crook. Even my police characters have shadows on their souls. Jimmy Knight, who in the course of the three books has gone from a Detective Constable to Detective Inspector, is arguably the biggest villain in the series. ■
Douglas Skelton began crime writing with true crime but moved into fiction with “Blood City” in 2013. Set in his home town of Glasgow, the series deals with a hard man with a heart, Davie McCall, and the changes in the city’s underworld from 1980 to the new millennium. Discover more at www.douglasskelton.com.
Chris Simms is the editor of Case Files, the Crime Readers’ Association’s online magazine. Subscribe to it for free at www.thecra.co.uk. Along with nominations for the Crime Writer’s Association Daggers (for his novels and short stories) and the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year award, Chris was selected by Waterstone’s as one of their ‘25 Authors For The Future’. He continues to feverishly scribble away in a small hut behind his house. Discover more at www.chrissimms.info.