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The Wee Gunmen of Glasgow: On Crime as Industry in Malcolm Mackay’s Tartan Noir

MANIPULATIVE LEADERS. Poor working conditions. A crappy work-life balance. Benefits? Don’t make me laugh. Apart from the illegality and violence, being a criminal isn’t very different from any other career.

Like most other jobs, crime doesn’t pay that well unless you’re the boss or indispensable to the boss. And you know the rule of thumb there: no one is indispensable. At least that’s the way Malcolm Mackay tells it in six interrelated noir novels, published at a gallop over four years by Mulholland Books in the United States and concluding in May with For Those Who Know the Ending.

“I don’t know if a career in crime is necessarily worse than any other, but it is more complicated,” Mackay explained to me in an email exchange.

Every issue that you face in a normal job exists there, too, but with the added complication of some good people wanting to put you in prison and other bad people wanting to take a hammer to your ankles. One thing I did want to get across is that working in the criminal industry doesn’t come with some incredibly glamorous lifestyle to compensate for the difficulties. It’s a grind filled with people looking to exploit you at every turn, and who will help and protect you only so long as it benefits them to do so.

Mackay has been telling it this way since the first clipped sentence of his first novel, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter: “It starts with a telephone call.” In this case, it’s a call that many gig workers have received at one time or other — a client has a full-time position to fill and is wondering whether the freelancer might be ready for a steady paycheck. It’s three more terse chapters before Mackay makes it clear that this freelancer, Calum MacLean, is a gunman, and the caller, John Young, is the chief operating officer of a fast-growing crime organization headed by Peter Jamieson.

“This might sound counterintuitive and a bit daft, but I wanted the opening of Lewis Winter to seem really ordinary,” Mackay told me.

I wanted Calum to seem as though he could have been any young man and to have the phone call that sets up the interview seem like any employer looking to hire a person. It establishes, I hope, that Calum is an unremarkable person, even if he does unthinkable things, and that the industry he works within can operate in unremarkable ways. I wanted to show the gap between law-abiding people and criminals like him is perhaps not as great as we assume.

Mackay hails from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. But unlike Peter May, who made dramatic use of the sparsely populated, 130-mile-long archipelago in The Lewis Trilogy, Mackay chose to set the six Jamieson noirs in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, an eight-hour trek by ferry and car from his hometown.

“Perhaps it is an unconscious desire to escape my ordinary life here on Lewis and live in a world I don’t belong to, but one that is still entirely my own,” Mackay wrote in The Telegraph a few months before he won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award for the second book in the series, How a Gunman Says Goodbye. “I had an idea for a novel set in the dark space inhabited by urban underworld gangs. Glasgow felt like the right kind of place.”

In contrast to most tartan noirs, however, place plays a minimal role in Mackay’s books. The actual setting is what the 36-year-old author repeatedly characterizes as “the industry” — that is, the crime industry.

The crime industry is also the most pronounced motif in the novels. Each revolves around the Jamieson organization’s leaders, the employees and freelancers who serve at their pleasure, their suppliers, and their competitors. Straight Glaswegians barely exist in these books. And the cops, who often get the starring roles in crime novels, are relegated to bit roles, providing the crooks with information and, knowingly or unknowingly, helping them to stymie their competitors.

The first three Jamieson novels, which are known as The Glasgow Trilogy, are shot through with the remarkably unremarkable workings of the crime industry. Young and Jamieson are constantly dealing with the same kinds of competitive challenges, strategic choices, and personnel issues that executives face in every other field.

In Lewis Winter, John Young waits three days before his second call to Calum MacLean, the freelance gunman he is trying to recruit. “It’s also like dating — you mustn’t seem too desperate,” writes Mackay. “If you give the impression of hurry, then people will demand more in return.”

Meanwhile, employees are seeking to impress their bosses or replace them, or just do their jobs and go home at the end of the day. “A lot of people are attracted to working for Jamieson,” writes Mackay in Gunman.

It’s a well-run organization. An organization that rewards talent. People like that. They trust you more than they would a family business. Nobody wants to work for a firm where you have to be a family member to have a real chance of climbing the ladder.

Each book is devoted to a different aspect of work. “With Lewis Winter, it was the freedom of freelance work that comes with uncertainty and fewer protections versus the security of working full-time that comes with being tied to a job and employer you might not like,” says Mackay. 

How a Gunman Says Goodbye is about retirement, which turns out to be a fraught issue when the retiree is a hit man who not only doesn’t have a life outside the job but also knows that a gold watch and a pension probably aren’t in the cards. In the last installment of the initial trilogy, The Sudden Arrival of Violence, the issue is how to leave a job once you’ve realized the price you’ll end up paying if you keep it.

The last three Jamieson novels are less of a set piece, which is unsurprising considering the publishing demands that Mackay probably faced when his first book appeared on the shortlists for several crime novel prizes and UK reviewers heralded him as a rising star in the noir firmament. But in these books, too, the Jamieson organization remains the principal setting, and the businesslike nature of the crime industry the central motif.

In The Night the Rich Men Burned, Mackay tells a tale of two young friends — one smart and ambitious and the other, well, enthusiastic — breaking into the industry together. In Every Night I Dream of Hell, mentoring is the subject as an experienced veteran teaches work habits, good and bad, to a high-potential employee, who isn’t entirely comfortable with where his potential is taking him. And now, in For Those Who Know the Ending, the focal point, says Mackay, “is the outsider’s tale, the immigrant coming across and finding all his hard-earned skills being disrespected because they were earned elsewhere and having to start at the bottom of the heap again.”

Mackay wants us to recognize that the profit motive connects the industry of crime to every other industry. “Ultimately a business, legitimate or not, depends on its ability to make money. In the criminal world it may be more urgent, employees more disposable in the pursuit of fast money, but that extends to clean business as well,” he says. “For all the ‘do no evil’ slogans and friendly atmosphere companies try to portray, the truth is that if you can’t generate revenue to pay staff and costs, then you just don’t have a business.”

Time and again in the books, profit drives management decisions. “Marty Jones is a lot of things,” Mackay writes in The Sudden Arrival of Violence. “He’s a pimp, for one thing. A loan-shark, too. Has his fingers in all sorts of pies, as it happens. Has a knack for making good money, fast. It’s the one thing that keeps him popular.” It is also why Marty gets a reprimand instead of broken bones when he is discovered doing a bit of business on the side without cutting in the Jamieson organization.

But Mackay isn’t trying to normalize the criminal underworld. Although many of the characters in the Jamieson novels have the same desires and hopes and regrets as we do, they all have various forms of what the American Psychiatric Association defines as “antisocial personality disorders.” The business language they use and the professionalism with which they approach their jobs are just a sanitizing wrapper.

“There’s a degree of playing dress up with these characters, always trying to present themselves as something they’re not. In part that’s to hide the truth from others, a necessary defense, but it’s also lying to themselves,” says Mackay.

Very few people want to think of themselves as the bad guy. The belief that you can separate yourself from your work, not be stained by it, or that so long as it’s contained within a criminal bubble, then it’s not so bad, are the sort of lies people tell to convince themselves that they’re essentially neutral cogs in a machine controlled by someone else. They are cogs, but they have the ability to break the machine and choose not to. They’re the bad guys.

Nate Colgan, a gunman and the central character in the only book in the series written in first person, Every Night I Dream of Hell, knows this. For all his regrets about not spending enough time with his daughter and what she might think when she inevitably discovers what he does for the Jamieson organization, his job rarely gives him pause.

“There I was, standing in that abandoned workshop with some kid I was willing to torture to help an employer,” Mackay has Colgan tell us, after explaining that he became a criminal because he didn’t like his job prospects in the straight world. “Not once did the thought run through my mind that it really wasn’t any better than the life I’d turned my back on. Certainly didn’t occur to me that it was far worse.”

Indeed. By the time I got to the end of the six Jamieson novels, I felt much like I did when I finished watching the sixth and final season of The Sopranos. I was exhausted by the business of crime and disgusted by the people working within it. Mackay may have felt the same way: his seventh novel, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide, is the first in a new series of books. It was released in April in the United Kingdom, and it stars a private detective in an alt-history Scotland — an independent sovereign nation that never entered into a political union with England.

“After six in a row set in the Glasgow underworld, I fancied a change, the chance to have an actually decent person as protagonist. I hope I’m not done with the Jamieson organization,” he wrote me. “There are a couple more ideas I’d like to explore, but I don’t have any plans to write them soon. So, it’ll be a very long breather or the end.”

Either way, Mackay’s Jamieson novels, and especially the opening trilogy, are a signal achievement. In portraying crime as an industry and populating it with characters who resemble entrepreneurs and executives and employees, he encourages us to question where we are drawing the lines in our own careers and in the companies for which we work.

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Theodore Kinni is a business writer who has authored, ghostwritten, and edited 20 books.

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Banner image by Giuseppe Milo.

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