Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Scottish crime fiction runs the proverbial gamut from darkest noir to fun, light ‘romps.’ And Scottish authors focus on a wide variety of themes and eras in their work. So it’s hard to make a lot of general remarks about crime novels based in Scotland. That said, here’s a ‘snapshot’ of one place in Scotland, during one era. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, the first of his Douglas Brodie novels. This series takes place immediately after the end of World War II.
Former Glasgow police officer Douglas Brodie has returned from war with his share of what we now call PTSD. He’s got a small place in London, and is trying to break into journalism. Then he gets a long-distance call from Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, an old friend from Glasgow. Donovan has been arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. There are suspicions, too, that he’s responsible for the disappearance of four other young boys.
Brodie doesn’t see what he can do to help. What’s more, he’s not at all convinced that Donovan is innocent. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that implicates him. The boy’s things were found in his home, for one thing. For another, he knew the child (Rory was the son of Donovan’s former love interest Fiona MacAuslan). Finally, evidence shows that Rory had heroin in his system, and Donovan has the habit. Still, Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with the murder, or with the disappearance of the other boys. In any case, Brodie isn’t inclined to help Donovan; at one time, he and Fiona were lovers, until Donovan came into the picture. Brodie still smarts from that.
Still, a reluctant Brodie agrees to at least ask a few questions. And that decision puts him in touch with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She is hoping very much to find some new evidence that might spare her client, but there are several strikes against her. The evidence police have found is compelling. And although she’s smart and capable, she’s a little inexperienced for such a complicated and high-profile case. It doesn’t help matters that she’s a woman in what’s very much a man’s world.
Campbell’s determination to do her utmost for her client convinces Brodie to stay around for a bit and see what he can do. Almost immediately, the two run into obstacles. The police involved in the investigation are unwilling to consider that they might have the wrong man. And they’re certainly not interested in having anyone meddle in their business. When Brodie tries to talk to other people who might have information, he finds a similar unwillingness to co-operate. And the more he and Campbell dig into the case, the more proverbial doors are shut in their faces. It’s now clear that Donovan was framed by someone powerful enough to manipulate a lot of people behind the scenes. Brodie and Campbell work together to try to find out who really killed Rory Hutchinson before Shug Donovan is executed. As they do so, they form a relationship; but readers who dislike romance woven into their novels will be pleased to know that this isn’t a stereotypical ‘boy meets girl through a case of murder’ sort of story.
This novel takes place in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and Ferris places the reader there in many ways. In geography, in daily life, and in local culture, this story is distinctively Scottish. Readers who know that part of Scotland will no doubt find many of the towns and street names familiar. There are also places where the Glasgow dialect is used. Readers who prefer standard English needn’t worry about understanding that dialogue though; Ferris makes the meaning quite clear.
World War II and its aftermath are also important elements in this novel. Just because the war is over doesn’t mean everything is well again. There’s still rationing, and although you can get things for a price, life is not easy. The war has also left its scars in another way. Brodie suffers from what we now know as PTSD. He doesn’t drown himself overmuch in alcohol; nor is he obviously self-destructive. Readers who are tired of demon-haunted detectives will appreciate that. But he does have the occasional flashback, and the war has hardened him. Donovan, too, has terrible scars. A wartime incident left him horribly burned and injured; even after a number of operations, he still keeps the brim of his hat down to spare himself others’ stares. He also has a heroin habit that keeps the pain from his injuries temporarily at bay. His status as a war hero doesn’t change the fact that he is now shattered.
This isn’t really what you would call a political novel. Still, there are social and political issues woven into the plot. The treatment of returning soldiers is one of them. There isn’t a lot of awareness of the damage war can do to those who fight it, so there’s little support for former combatants. Although there is respect for what they did, they are expected to simply get back to the business of living. There’s also an interesting hint of some of the religious differences in the area. For instance, Donovan is Roman Catholic; Brodie was raised Protestant. That difference has been the source of plenty of playful insults between them. The Irish fight for independence is also mentioned in the novel. The IRA and other groups don’t confine themselves to Ireland; that conflict has also made its way into the West of Scotland. It’s not spoiling the story to say that this isn’t a novel about gun-running or political sabotage. But feelings about Northern Ireland run high and play a role in the novel.
Another element in the story is the way that corruption can find its way into all sorts of different places. Many characters who could help Brodie and Campbell choose not to do so, and there are several characters who are not what they seem. So part of the task is to discover who can be trusted, and who’s been tainted.
As it turns out, there is a lot of taint. This isn’t an upbeat novel with an optimistic end. There is a great deal of sadness, and no-one is left unscathed. Although Brodie and Campbell do find out the truth about the mystery, this makes nothing all right again. And yet, there are moments of wit in the story. At one point, for instance, Brodie has finally managed to convince an officious officer to let him in to visit Donovan in prison:
‘‘Half an hour only, Mr. Brodie. And of course – ahem – we will require you to be searched beforehand. If you don’t mind. Can’t be too careful, you know…’ He trailed to an end and I left him to gnaw at his desk or whatever he did to control his inner rages. Practise his elocution, perhaps.’
Those moments of wry wit show part of how Brodie copes with some of the things that happen in the novel.
The Hanging Shed is a uniquely West of Scotland post-war story that features a complex, damaged character who makes the best of what comes his way. It’s a very sad mystery, but with the possibility that life can still go on. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hanging Shed? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 27 April/Tuesday 28 April – Black Water Rising – Attica Locke
Monday 4 May/Tuesday 5 May – The Bat – Jo Nesbø (The people have spoken! This one was tied with The Redbreast for most votes. A coin toss settled the matter).
Monday 11 May/Tuesday 12 May – Dancing to ‘Almendra’ – Mayra Montero