Book review: The Sudden Arrival of Violence by Malcolm Mackay

Inside the quiet mind of a contract killer

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The Independent Culture

It’s a virtually unanimous verdict. Few new novelists have enjoyed such comprehensive acclaim in the critical fraternity as the young Scottish crime writer Malcolm Mackay.

His books, the first of which was 2013’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, suggest a Scottish equivalent of the hardboiled James M Cain; a writer who doesn’t waste a word and who nourishes a certain poetic sensibility – as evinced by the titles of the other two books in his trilogy, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and now this acerbic final volume, The Sudden Arrival of Violence.

Every debut in the crime fiction field is inevitably (and wearingly) trumpeted by its publisher, though many such books fall by the wayside. But this is a writer who justified the publisher’s hyperbole and has had critics attempting to come up with new adjectives to praise him. The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter places the reader uneasily in the mind of a hitman. Using the familiar trappings of the crime novel, the book was still utterly original. What makes all three novels in the now-completed trilogy particularly impressive is the terrifyingly laidback, authentic toughness – surprising, coming from an unassuming 30-year-old author from Stornoway (where he still lives) in the Outer Hebrides.

Mackay has conjured and brilliantly sustained throughout his three novels an astringent vision of the Scottish underworld. Crucially, he has not forgotten the importance of pithy characterisation. In The Sudden Arrival of Violence, the author draws a variety of strands together, but not in a too schematic fashion. Calum MacLean is a hitman working for two criminal bosses. He is always watching, alert for the weaknesses that will give him an advantage. But as Calum begins to arrange his retirement, a gang war breaks out between one of his bosses and a bitter rival, and inevitably the gunman is drawn into the bloodiest of showdowns.

I hadn’t the slightest doubt that Mackay – whose youth belies a crime novelist of worldly authority – would pull off this concluding volume with the kind of understated panache that distinguished its predecessors … and so it has proved.

Perhaps the book’s signal achievement is keeping us fascinated by the reptilian protagonist. But then cinema viewers in the 1930s would have had precisely this attitude towards James Cagney in such films as Public Enemy. Cannily, Mackay realises that when it comes to our fascination with ruthless antiheroes, it’s definitely a case of plus "ça change".


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