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I haven't come across e-books before as I prefer the real thing, but this book was in the new books in my local library and it was among the recommended reads. I picked it up, intrigued by it's cover that with it's black and white picture stood out as looking different. It wasn't until I started to read it that I saw the inside cover was two pages worth of mini-reviews by newspapers, magazines and other writers, Val McDermid in particular. A few mentioned it's transition from e-book to paperback and how well it had done as an e-book, with electronic sales in excess of 50,000 copies.
The author, Gordon Ferris is a newcomer to me but he's already written some highly successful novels and The Hanging Shed is the first in a series about a character called Douglas Brodie. Personally I can't wait to see if it is half as good as this one, which has to be one of the best crime thrillers I've read in a long time, especially since the writer is Scottish himself. I hadn't come across the term 'Scottish Noir' before, but after reading this I can say it's certainly earned that name with its seedy side of Scottish life in the post war years. But I'm getting ahead of myself in my usual enthusiasm.
London 1946: Douglas Brodie, ex-soldier, ex- policeman and now a freelance journalist is just trying to get back some of the life he had before the war with it's attendant demons still plaguing his waking and sleeping life. It takes just one phone call to bring back memories of his childhood friend Hugh Donavon; a man he thought had perished in his plane over the flames of Dresden, some time earlier in the war.
But this is no social call reminding him of his childhood or the fact that Hugh had stolen his girlfriend, Fiona. Hugh is in the worst kind of trouble, awaiting a sentence of hanging in just four weeks time for the murder of a child, he asks Brodie (as he prefers to be called) to visit him at HM prison near Glasgow.
Brodie would rather forget his old friend, there is still the bad blood between them, but he's an honorable man and after all, the prison is in Glasgow and near to Kilmarnock and his own mother who hasn't seen him in a long while. Before long he's on a train to Scotland from his temporary home in London and while traveling fag in one hand, a dram of whiskey in the other, he recalls old times, some good, some not so good. Enough certainly for the reader to get to know what kind of man he is and the story behind the boyhood friendship that overcome all differences, even faith, with Donovan a Catholic and Brodie a 'Proddy' (Protestant or Presbyterian).
Meeting his old friend in the shadow of the 'Hanging Shed' takes some doing, but there are worse shocks in store for Brodie when he sees the ravaged face and broken spirit of his friend. Could a man burnt almost beyond recognition have murdered a wee lad? Somehow Brodie doubts it and so does Hugh's advocate, Sam Campbell, but there isn't long to mount an appeal and the mountain of evidence will take some conquering.
Setting the Background.
Gordon Ferris sets his book in the seedy and run-down post-war Glasgow, a place of poverty and broken-down buildings, the shipyards stand empty along the Clyde and the women outnumber the broken men who survived the war only to return home to a life of no work and little hope. The atmosphere is one of sadness and dark longings, a haven for criminals and drug runners, the choice of drugs heroin, a better painkiller for the wounded in body and soul than any expensive painkillers.
This is the time before the NHS when the poor could barely afford a doctor so drink and drugs were cheaper and led to just as much crime as any modern equivalent. The black market still did a roaring trade and the pubs sold cheap drink, the men standing at the bar with their feet in beer and sometimes urine-soaked straw. Urchins ran ragged, bare-foot in the street hoping for a penny errand or a bite of bread. Mothers and wives ran a losing battle with dirt and disease; hunger leading to prostitution and sometimes death. Ration books were still around until the early fifties if there was anything to buy.
Ferris writes a bleak background with a terrible truth to it, a place where criminals run much of the legitimate as well as illegitimate businesses, hands on knives or guns. He sets his characters in a time when life was cheap but even then there was no place as dark and unholy as the Gorbals, a destitute part of Glasgow that even I have heard of. No wonder then that his hero, Brodie, has to be hard, a man tortured by his own problems the memories of battles still affecting him so he's handy still with guns, knives but most of all fists. This is the type of story where the characters are either losers or survivors.
I've touched some on Brodie, but there is much more to like about him despite his poor background and his army service. He managed to gain a university degree before the war, no mean feat then for a working class boy. From there he served as a police officer before being drafted into the army so he knows his way around the Police force as well as around the villains. There's much to like about him and a lot to say about his methods of gaining information. This is a man who fights with the weapons he has to hand and if the bad guys fight dirty then so does he.
Hugh Donovan is the friend who made mistakes but isn't likely to be a killer, especially of children or 'weans' as they are named in the slang of the time. That's another part of the narrative, which works so well, the attention to detail in the local dialects. Not that I'd know different, but it certainly sounds right to me. You can't help but feel sorry for the man but did he bring any of this on himself or is he a convenient scapegoat?
Sam Campbell is the female advocate (lawyer), who fights for his freedom. She's older than both men, in her early forties, a daughter of a judge, dead now, but a good man, she is a tough lady who can handle herself well and needs to with most of the police force on the take. There's much again to like about this feisty lady who holds her own with the men and the whiskey! Brodie is attracted to her, but will this endanger the case when the villains are headed by a gang of brothers who make the Kray twins look like choirboys? I've read about some gangs in my time but these are really nasty characters with some bad habits uncommon to even hardened villains.
Despite that the narrative, told in the first person, is full of authority and holds the reader spellbound for a good part of the book. Ferris is a natural storyteller, a rare thing for a crime writer with so few books behind him. The writing flows easily and there isn't any point where you feel you can stop reading, making this a book that needs to be read in one sitting. I felt the writing had so much truth in its depiction of post-war Britain that I decided to look up the author online and discovered a man who came from a similar background to me (though mine was Welsh).
A lot of the book's background belongs in the memory of the author who grew up as I did with ration books, no inside toilet, poor lighting, coal fires and bathing in front of the fire in a zinc bath. Like the author my background pushed me to do better, although I will never be a serious writer. Still, it helped me to understand the background for his characters, a backdrop that resounds with truth and a touch of drama.
This is a fine book with a lot going for it. No wonder it did so well online. I was memorized by the story and though I flinched from the violence I saw the need for it. The opening chapter of the book is a description of the Hanging Shed of the title; we still had capital punishment at that time. So violence begets the same? Unfortunately yes, but at least the writer is on the right side of the fence, it makes you wonder about rough justice, but that's another story.
My book is a library copy; you can buy this in paperback now and probably in kindle version as well. Amazon price £5.59, used from 1.38.
Book details: 382 pages.
Thanks for reading.