Friday, July 31, 2015

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay

If I wasn't too lazy to label my blog posts, I'd put this one under "Buying a book by its cover", although more accurately, I bought it on the basis of another book's cover, namely its sequel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, which was sitting out on a display table at the aforementioned Kramer Books in Washington D.C. when I visited there back in May. A great title and a great cover sold me on that, but I decided I had better begin at the beginning.

"It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller, regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust; tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant.It happens. Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it."

And thus begins our story and our introduction to Calum Maclean, Glasgow hitman. And, not incidentally, to the narrative voice of this story. It is through this very flat, very hard voice that we are induced to, if not sympathize, then identify with a hired killer. Very early on in the story he is contracted to kill someone, in deadpan tones just like this, and we don't turn away in horror, we follow where he goes. We have a stake in his success, even though we don't in any way condone his actions.

Part of this lies in the severe logic of the enterprise. There's an "if this, then that" sequence the story elaborates, and although you often see this played out in stories set in the criminal world--shows like The Wire, books like George Pelecanos' Drama City, what makes this a little different than most is that it doesn't engage you on an emotional level. The gunman of the story doesn't call upon our sympathy. We never learn why he became a gunman, and though Calum may be beginning to reach a point where he's starting to miss what he's given up for the job--a girlfriend, a stable life--he isn't there yet. The drive in the novel comes not from emotional attachment but from seeing just how it will all play out.

The character, in fact, that Calum reminds me of most is not from the turf wars of urban crime, but from more rarefied climes: Barry Eisler's international assassin, John Rain. The first person narrative of Eisler's narrative takes us a bit further into Rain's personality than we ever get into Calum's. But Calum doesn't want any of that--his main aim is to have his fellow Glaswegians not even notice he's around. We are not meant to make him our hero--not even our antihero.

I'm misleading you if I'm giving you the impression that the story is all about Calum, though. The omniscient narrator of the tale gets into everybody 's head: the police, the girlfriend of the targeted man--even the head of poor, hapless Lewis Winter.

1 comment:

  1. I'm Sharing this with my Glaswegian friend Julia. Sounds like a good read.