I’m rounding off this week’s McIlvanney Prize blog tour in the run up to Bloody Scotland, which begins today and runs over the weekend in a hybrid format. (You can buy a digital pass or tickets to individual events by clicking on the links.)
The Scottish International Crime Writing Festival runs the McIlvanney Prize, awarded to the best Scottish Crime book of the year, and the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Debut of the Year, with the winners announced later today.
Robbie Morrison’s debut novel, Edge of the Grave, which I’ve reviewed below, is shortlisted for both prizes.
Glasgow, 1932. When the son-in-law of one of the city’s wealthiest shipbuilders is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut, it falls to Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn to lead the murder case – despite sharing a troubled history with the victim’s widow, Isla Lockhart.
From the flying fists and flashing blades of Glasgow’s gangland underworld, to the backstabbing upper echelons of government and big business, Dreghorn and his partner ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid will have to dig deep into Glasgow society to find out who wanted the man dead and why.
All the while, a sadistic murderer stalks the post-war city leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. As the case deepens, will Dreghorn find the killer – or lose his own life in the process?
Edge of the Grave opens with a truly chilling scene where it seems as if Death is stalking victims before positively savouring their demise. It remains unclear until much later in the book what exactly is happening in this scene but from the outset it haunts you and delivers a real body blow when you discover how it relates to the story.
Robbie Morrison next takes us on a walking tour through the streets of 1932 Glasgow and, thanks to his descriptive writing and the conversational style he adopts as our guide, it’s not only a wonderful read but a genius way to introduce the reader to the cutthroat world of his novel. We encounter a disorienting array of different factions, see how they live cheek by jowl, and how rapidly loyalties, religions and gang affiliations can shift as quickly as in crossing a street.
All that remains is for Robbie Morrison to introduce us to his main characters and where better to do that than at the distressing scene of a brutal murder? They are plainclothes officers in the anti-gang Special Crime department, after all, used to patrolling the city’s most notorious districts. Seeing them at work and watching how Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid respond to what they find at the scene and deal with potential witnesses indicates what great potential this pairing not only has in Edge of the Grave but for what is hopefully to become a series.
They’re both hard men, not shy of using their fists when reason fails. They’re also from different backgrounds and of very different proportions. McDaid hails from the Highlands and Islands and is much taller and bulkier than his senior officer, who’s a Glaswegian. Both form part of a squad called many things, including the Tartan Untouchables in a nod to the original Chicago unit, inhabiting a world akin to that of a Scottish Peaky Blinders. Given Archie McDaid’s affinity for the bagpipes, I’d be inclined to dub them the Pipey Blinders.
A second crime will take the duo into the orbit of a very different Glasgow, where the wealthier classes live, work and play, and this provides a more balanced view of the city than had we only stayed in its mean streets and not moved between the two. Life may appear more polished and civilised among the higher echelons of society but it’s not. The weapons are different and not carried on their person but they’re every bit as damaging and vicious. Something which really struck me here is an analogy one of the characters uses to describe how a person’s view of the shipyards along the Clyde is a reflection of the way they see the city. It’s so very telling and incredibly apt.
I admired Dreghorn and McDaid for wanting to investigate both murders, rather than abandoning the one committed in a tenement building in favour of the more high profile case, and there are other times throughout the novel when I thought they dealt with people and situations fairly. Or attempted to do so, at any rate. I mean, we all have our limits and I felt they were more than reasonable. I like, too, that we see them when they fall short and succumb to all too human emotions when memories and ghosts from the past resurface.
Robbie Morrison’s characters rove around Glasgow at a breakneck pace, following leads and unsuccessfully dodging pans of scalding soup, feeling blades pressed against their throats and with fists flying at them from all directions. I found myself concerned that they wouldn’t make it to the end in one piece, let alone alive. They take such a battering that I don’t want to think about what state they’ll be in after any proposed series draws to a close.
Edge of the Grave is rip-roaring historical crime fiction and a riveting read. It’s also a roving, expansive story of a city and its people at a time when Glasgow’s power was waning and razor gangs were carving it up. I enjoyed every grisly, razor-sharp minute of Robbie Morrison’s debut, although I find it hard to believe it is one it’s so well done, and I wish him all the best of luck for today’s Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Debut of the Year and McIlvanney Prize ceremony. He gets my vote for this sensational debut novel. Here’s to more Dreghorn and McDaid!
Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison is published by Pan Books an imprint of Pan Macmillan. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. (Waterstones may even have the nifty black-sprayed edges in stock.) You can follow Robbie Morrison on Twitter.
My thanks to Fiona Brownlee for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. Be sure to check out the other tour stops.