January will see the release of an interesting sounding first novel by the promising Scottish author Malcolm Mackay. While many writers dream of escaping to a remote location to develop their prose, what’s interesting about Malcolm Mackay is that he was born in the far-flung town of Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and still lives there. The perfect sort of solitude for a writer, perhaps. His debut novel, The Necessary Death Of Lewis Winter, has been picked up by Mantle, and is the dark tale of Glasgow-based hitman Calum Maclean, his employers, and one of his victims. We invited him to join us on Crime Fiction Lover to talk about his first book, and writing in general.
Do you have any literary influences, or writers you admire?
I’ve probably been most influenced by classic American crime – Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett and the like. I love the ability they had to make essentially bad people so fascinating and sometimes endearing. Nick Corey from Thompson’s Pop 1280 remains one of the most charmingly psychotic characters you’ll ever read.
Was I meant to feel quite so much sympathy for Lewis Winter in the novel?
Pity, perhaps. Winter’s one of those people to whom life will never be kind, whether he deserves it or not. He doesn’t deserve it; he’s a dealer after all. But he’s doomed to be used by others, too weak to control his own life but too bloody-minded to walk away from the life he has. He’s worth a little pity.
Would Calum ever take a moral decision about a job?
Such a tough one to answer. I suppose the short answer has to be no. He’s a killer, and he’s set up every aspect of his life to fit that job. He questions what’s best for him, he has qualms about who he works for, but he’s good at what he does and has little trouble separating himself from the immorality of it. Calum’s doubts are professional or personal, but not moral.
On a couple of occasions Calum is able to do his job easily because Glasgow is ‘a small city’. This might surprise English readers brought up on a diet of Taggart…
I guess a city of more than a million people is never really small, although if it had Taggart’s murder rate there would be far fewer people in there. It’s more a sense that this is a city where no one’s too far away. A city in which the criminal industry is populated by people who can’t help tripping over each other and a secret is a hard thing to keep. If you take a million people, then identify only those who live and work in the criminal industry, you have quite a small core of people. Hopefully.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is set in Glasgow but doesn’t rely on the city, or the country, as a prop. Did you consciously avoid the street guide style of scene-setting?
Definitely, I didn’t want to write a map with a story attached. It can be great when a writer really knows their location, but I find as a reader it can sometimes be alienating. Location is background, and should mostly stay there. A good location can’t save a bad story; a good story can be set anywhere.
I breathed a sigh of relief that you didn’t use phonetic Scots dialect. Did you ever consider doing so?
Never did, never would. Maybe it can work, but there’s a thin line between asking for that little bit more effort from a reader and turning the reader’s experience into a chore. I wanted to write something with pace, and that won’t happen if you’re stopping to work out what the hell every piece of dialogue means.
Do you think the term Tartan Noir is a useful one?
I don’t see any great harm in it. The term will fade away when publishers have a better one to help them shift books. If, in the meantime, it helps shine a light on the excellent crime fiction coming out of Scotland, then great.
You have created some intriguing characters in this first book. Do any of them feature in the next two novels?
The second and third books are sequels, telling Calum’s story. The second, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, focuses on the relationship between Calum, his boss, and another hitman named Frank MacLeod. Frank’s a much older character, much more established in the criminal world. It’s a book about the footsteps Calum’s following, and his increasing discomfort with where they’re going.
Watch for our review of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter in mid-January, or pre-order your copy below.