Think of a British crime series featuring a memorable copper, and chances are the setting will immediately spring to mind, whether it is Rebus pounding the mean streets of Edinburgh, Inspector Morse investigating murder amid the dreaming spires of Oxford, or Brighton- based DS Roy Grace.
The début novel from Alan Parks introduces Detective Harry McCoy and aims to do the same for Glasgow. Bloody January (Canongate, December) is set over 20 days in January 1973 and opens with McCoy, a 30-year-old detective who has made impressive progress through the ranks, paying a visit to the notorious Barlinnie prison. He has been summoned by Howie Nairn, a psychotic prisoner who claims to have advance knowledge of a crime yet to be committed. The following day, Nairn says, a waitress named Lorna will be killed - but he gives no further details. McCoy is sceptical of the tip-off but, sure enough, a young woman by that name is shot in broad daylight in Glasgow’s central bus station by a teenage boy who then turns the gun on himself.
Underworld to high society
From the start Bloody January is less a whodunit than a “whydunit” as the jaded McCoy, accompanied by wet-behind-the-ears new recruit Wattie, begins a murder investigation that will take him from the city’s criminal underworld to the highest echelons of society. Lorna, it turns out, was not just a waitress. Her extra-curricular activities brought her into unsavoury contact with the great and the good, including Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops - but who would want her dead, and why?
As the novel unfolds it is revealed that McCoy has slightly more of a connection with the criminal underworld than one might expect of the average police officer. As a boy, McCoy was taken into care where he met Stevie Cooper, back then his first friend and protector, now a career criminal and a violent loan shark. Cooper may be useful to McCoy, but he is also a very dangerous man.
But amid the police and the villains it’s the city of Glasgow that takes centre stage in the novel. Circumstances dictate that Parks travels down from his home in Glasgow for an interview with The Bookseller in London, which is something of a shame as the natural venue for the interview would surely be one of the many dark and gloomy pubs where Harry McCoy sinks a pint or two in the novel.
Parks, a burly, genial man with a strong Glaswegian accent and a booming laugh, explains he has long been fascinated by the city. He grew up in the town of Paisley, seven miles to the west of Glasgow, but his parents were originally from the city - “My mum still lived in a Glasgow of the mind I think, she refused to buy anything in Paisley” - and all his extended family lived there. In 1973, when Bloody January is set, he was 10 years old. “I think at that age, before you become an adolescent and completely self-absorbed, you take a lot in. You are just a wee kid so you get dragged around everywhere by your mum and dad. You are at the edges of the adult world and I think you remember a lot of that time, it seems very vivid to me anyway.”
He recalls a city that was “black, literally black, really dirty with huge areas that had just been cleared” as people were moved out into the suburbs and the new towns when the so-called slums, the Gorbals tenement flats, in the centre of the city were cleared. “Nobody believes me that there were rich people in Glasgow then, ha ha! But when I was wee, there were...you’d see them driving around town in huge cars. So there was money in Glasgow, a lot of money, but there were also a lot of people who had no money whatsoever. And those two [types of people] only come together when something goes a bit amiss.”
In Bloody January Parks was most interested in exploring the “the difference between the rich and the poor and how they only come into contact really through sex or crime. It’s about McCoy’s effort to make sure that the people in power don’t get away with everything they think they can. He tries to equalise things, as fruitless as it may be to fight against the people in charge.”
The novel is also very visual with a strong sense of pace, something which is possibly attributable to Parks’ previous career in the music industry. After graduating from Glasgow University with a degree in Moral Philosophy, he got a job with ‘80s pop band Lloyd Cole and the Commotions which meant a move to London in the mid-1980s. As a creative manager first for London Records and then Warner Music, he commissioned cover artwork, videos and photo sessions for bands including seminal Manchester band New Order, hip-hop and UK garage collective The Streets and all-girl ‘90s group All Saints. “I sat in music video edit suites, for 20 bloody years, ha ha!” he says. “But it gave me the sense of when you had to edit, sometimes it was against the beat. [It gave me a sense that] this [scene] has to stop here.”
Time to write
After 20 years living full-time in London he bought a flat in Glasgow and started spending the weekends there, walking around the city of his youth. The four and half hour train journey back to London on Sundays gave him time to start writing. “I once had grand imaginings that I was going to write a book about the social history of Glasgow which obviously went horribly wrong and ended up as a detective novel. But, in a way, it’s kind of the same thing; I wanted to write about Glasgow and what it was like.”
Parks also has a burgeoning career in screenwriting which began when an old friend, his first landlady when he moved down to London and now a film producer, started sending him scripts to read. She sent one through which he thought was so awful that “without knowing that you weren’t supposed to do that, I rewrote it and sent it back. Ha ha!” She was impressed by his writing though, so he then embarked on an eight-part TV series which has just sold to the production company Ecosse Films.
As for the novel-writing, Bloody January is the first in planned 12-book series which will span the whole of the 1970s, a time of great social upheaval in the city. As he says, “James Ellroy books are really as much about Los Angeles as they are about anything else and the William McIlvanney Laidlaw books are really about Glasgow. It’s a book about Glasgow where crime happens.
“People always think Glasgow is all hard men and downtrodden women. And it really isn’t.” I ask Parks if he would like his readers to take away a different impression of the city? “In my mind it was always a very exciting place, full of very exciting people doing very odd things and I’d like people to know that.”
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