Book review: The Night the Rich Men Burned by Malcolm Mackay
Maybe now would be a good time to jettison the well-worn adage ‘tough as old boots’ and replace it with a new one… ‘tough as a Malcolm Mackay novel.’
The Night the Rich Men Burned is the fourth novel from Tartan Noir’s relative newcomer and like a stick of gangland rock, there is ‘villainy’ written through every page of his remarkably authentic and brutal crime thrillers.
After the highly-acclaimed Glasgow Trilogy, some feared that there were no back street stones left unturned in the impressive Mr Mackay’s violent, signature underworld, but his new standalone novel offers the same uncompromising slice of the big city’s twilight zone.
In fact, there are a couple of familiar faces in the dark shadows of this terrifying story about ruthless debt dealers who prey on the poor and vulnerable, and take no prisoners as they jostle with rival gangs to line their pockets with the cash of hapless victims.
Money is everything when you have nothing and no-one knows that better than pals Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney who both left school underqualified and stumbled into a job market that had no room for them and no interest in them. A year later they are still looking for work and for an escape from their lives on Glasgow’s most desperate fringes.
If they can’t find a job, how come big, gormless Ewan Drummond has a got himself a motor and a fistful of cash? Debt collecting – the shady version – is dangerous, they learn, but it’s also lucrative and how else are you going to make good money these days?
Soon Glass and Peterkinney are working for mercenary pimp Marty Jones and up to their eyes in one of the city’s darkest and most dangerous trades. But while canny lad Peterkinney rises quickly through the hierarchy of criminal middle management, Glass becomes yet another victim of the industry’s addictive lifestyle and ever-spiralling debts.
As the three most powerful rivals in the business battle for supremacy in a cut-throat world, Peterkinney, young and darkly ambitious, starts to make himself known and Glass becomes increasingly marginalised and bitter.
When violence spills out onto the streets and the old guard fight dirty to outmanoeuvre each other for a bigger share of the spoils, Peterkinney and Glass find themselves at the centre of a deadly war.
And as the pressure builds, past events will come back to haunt them and those they love will suffer most …
The Night the Rich Men Burned is not just a tale of time and place but a salutary portrait of people living on the margins of ordinary life, those born with little hope and low expectation who either walk a punishing straight line or take the crooked turn to fast money and rampant thuggery.
Mackay has an astonishing grip on the criminal psyche, providing a brief but enlightening character study of his grisly cast of cons before the story even begins.
And be warned… these bad guys are unrelentingly brutal, the few good guys are pitifully powerless, the tension is knife-edged and the uncompromising violence is as painful as a punch in the solar plexus.
This is the dark side of Glasgow that lurked behind the smiles of the Commonwealth Games… Mackay ensures we don’t forget it’s there.
(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)