In The Spotlight: Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed

>In The Spotlight: Ross Macdonald's The Far Side of the DollarHello, All,

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


Filed under Gordon Ferris, The Hanging Shed

28 responses to “In The Spotlight: Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed

  1. This looks very good – and since I’m of Scottish heritage I am most interested. My father suffered from un-diagnosed .PTSD all of his life from the war so that is interesting to me as well. Thanks again Margot for searching out these excellent books!

    • I’m sorry to hear your father had to cope with un-diagnosed PTSD, Jan; the diagnosed kind is hard enough! And this novel does give I think a solid picture of what it’s like to live with ‘war ghosts’ and still function. Ferris does an excellent job too of evoking that time period in the West of Scotland. The novel is not easy to read in some ways – it’s a harsh subject to be honest. But I think it’s a good ‘un and I hope you’ll enjoy it if you get to it.

  2. Great spotlight, Margot. As you know, this is one of my favourite series of recent years, and as a Glaswegian I can testify to the authenticity of both language and locations. I’m too young to remember this period first hand but Ferris is writing of my father’s generation and I recognised my dad and his friends very much in his characters – as you say, men who went through so many horrors and yet were expected (and mostly managed) to come back and just get on with it. And who on the whole very rarely talked about their experiences. Over the course of the series, I felt Ferris gave them a voice.

    • Thanks for the kind words, FictionFan. It really seemed like an authentic portrait, and it’s very good to hear that it is. I agree with you, too, that Ferris gives the men of that generation a voice. In my opinion, Geoffrey McGeachin does the same for the men of Australia who went through the war and came back. They too went through a lot, and just did their best to get on with it when they got home. I recommend McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin series for that reason among many others.
      But back to Glasgow and this series…one of the other things I think it shows is that little nuances of daily life. Ferris picks up on them without contrivance. That, to me, takes talent.

  3. I’ve heard good things about this before, although it sounded quite dark and gloomy. Still thinking about it- thanks for helpful review.

    • I ‘ll admit, Moira, this isn’t a happy, light series. There are some rich, good moments; it’s not all bleak. But there is darkness. Still, I do think it’s quality, and such a strong sense of place, time and culture.

  4. Thank you Margot, a new author with a distinctive slant – that is certainly a very attractive proposition.

  5. You certainly have your finger on the pulse!

  6. Col

    It’s on the stacks – cheers for the reminder!

  7. I love Gordon Ferris’s books but have only read one of them so far. I love the atmosphere that he creates in his prose.

  8. Great overview, Margot. I read this book recently (but haven’t reviewed it yet). I agree with you and Sarah about the atmosphere he creates. Not a fun book at all but very good all the same.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I think you put that very well: Not a fun book at all but very good all the same. I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t a light, happy romp in the least bit. But it’s got a compelling sense of atmosphere and the story is well told. I like the main characters too. I look forward to reading your thoughts about it.

  9. I have a copy of this at FictionFan’s recommendation but haven’t manage to prise it out of its position on the TBR – I really must following your excellent post which reminds me why I want to read it.

  10. Kathy D.

    I read another book in this series, Pilgrim Soul. I liked it a lot and there was humor in that one which was needed as it was about tracking down Nazi war criminals in 1946-47.
    There were elderly Jewish characters in that book whom I liked, and it led me to google only to find out that there is a dialect called Scottish Yiddish. I would love to hear this; the very thought boggles the mind.
    Interesting that Ferris brings up religious differences in the book, which are often political differences, too.
    My father’s grandmother came from the Republic of Ireland and was Catholic. Her spouse was English and Protestant. My father told me that every day of their 50-year marriage they would argue about their religions.
    Although this is a sad book, I will try to read it. I like Ferris’ ideas and Brodie as a protagonist.

    • Kathy – I’m not surprised there’s such a thing as Scottish Yiddish. Yiddish has spread all over, and it’a language that Jews of any country can use to communicate. And it is interesting that religion and politics are so woven together in some places. It’s not just a matter of differences in belief systems that can divide people of different faiths. It’s also what it means economically and politically. Little wonder people argue about it.
      I do hope you’ll enjoy this one if you get the chance to read it. I think it’s a good ‘un, and Brodie is a nicely drawn protagonist.

  11. Kathy D.

    It’s on that daunting to be read mountain (sigh).
    I found from reading Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan books that the religious and political differences in Ireland spread over to Scotland.

    • I know all about how daunting that ‘to-be-read’ pile can be, Kathy. I hope you’ll enjoy this when you get to it. And you’re right about the Paddy Meehan books; I’d forgotten that they mention the religious/political conflicts in Ireland, and how they are felt in Scotland. Thanks for the reminder.

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