1/1/21

Bobby March Forever a Gritty Look at Glasgow in 1973

 

Bobby March Will Live Forever (2020)

By Alan Parks

Canongate, 320 pages.

★★★★

 


 

 

Have you read all of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels? Looking for something grittier until she writes another? Scottish author Alan Parks might be your cuppa. His is a hardboiled take on crime that’s more Raymond Chandler than Penny–especially if your Glasgow patter is up to snuff.

 

In many ways, Parks’ detective, Harry McCoy, is the anti-Gamache. He has a drinking problem, is morose, has shady friends, acts on impulse rather than reason, is rough-tongued, and hasn’t had a girlfriend since Angela moved out two years ago. Like Gamache, though, he cares little about self-aggrandizement, remains incorruptible amidst cops on the take, and must wend his way around politicians who care more about appearances than truth.

 

Bobby March Will Live Forever is the third installment of Parks’ Harry McCoy novels. It wouldn’t hurt to start with book one, though you can jump right into this one if you’d rather. It is set in 1973 (with flashes back to 1969-70), a time in which Glasgow is awash in drugs, casual violence, hippies, and hippie poseurs. If you’ve been to Glasgow in the past 30 years, you won’t recognize McCoy’s city: slums, dangerous alleyways, shebeens (unlicensed bars), hookers, and men with faces ruined by knife-wielders sending a message from crime bosses. That is, when they’re not corpses instead.

 

If you think you’re having a tough few weeks, try Harry’s on for size. Alice Kelly, a 13-year-old girl, has gone missing. It’s the sort of thing Harry normally investigates but a rival, Bernie Raeburn, has been promoted and takes charge. Raeburn got his advance by being, as they say in Scotland, an arse-licker, and a corrupt one at that. Raeburn’s loathing for Harry is made manifest by handing him low-level assignments. McCoy knows Raeburn is incompetent, but he holds his tongue lest he hand Raeburn an excuse to fire him.

 

The city is in the midst of a heart wave, that leaves Glaswegians sweating and reeling and the press and politicians are screaming for the polis (police) to find Alice. Alas, Harry has lesser fish to fry. He finds rock musician Bobby March dead with a syringe in his arm– a seemingly routine death for a once-promising guitarist whose fame bus left without him –and Harry is supposed to find a missing bag that Bobby’s father would like to have returned. He’s also given robbery files to investigate, which is not his métier and, as if he didn’t have enough to do, his former boss Hector Murray, asks him to look for his 15-year-old niece Laura. It’s off the record, as her father is the Deputy Head of the Glasgow Council and has parliamentary ambitions.

 

Harry is a good detective because he has tons of underworld contacts, not the least of which is Stevie Cooper, a boyhood friend from the same downscale neighborhood. Stevie can now afford the trappings of bourgeois life –courtesy of drug dealing– but he keeps a full stable of thugs close at hand, including one who doubles as his gardener! Stevie owes Harry a few favors, as Harry helped him kick heroin.

 

McCoy, with some help from younger colleague Douglas Watson (“Wattie’), must somehow make sense of all the madness going on around them. Before the dust settles, McCoy has brushes with a Bobby March fanboy, Angela, dope dealers, Wattie’s pushy girlfriend/reporter, a photographer who wants to document Glaswegian poverty, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the unwashed and the unhinged, and Raeburn. McCoy will also get the shite kicked out of him a few times.

 

Alan Parks’ style has been described as “tartan noir,” a descriptor that’s both catchy and appropriate. Bobby March Will Live Forever is gritty, violent, and morally ambiguous. It may be too much so for those with mild dispositions, and it will certainly be so for those who like Agatha Christie-like resolutions where everything is tied with a neat bow at the end. Harry McCoy novels are more in the mold of deciding which battles you can win and which ones you probably can’t. Verisimilitude or surrender to nihilism? You decide.

 

Rob Weir

 

Wiktionary has a useful list of Scottish phrases and slang: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Glossary_of_Scottish_slang_and_jargon