‘Living like a villain is fun. Being treated like one is not.‘
Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is a novel that stands out, and not just because of the title. Nor the storyline, which is the first part of a trilogy centred on the Glasgow underworld. No, it is the book’s style which is distinct – not so much because it is clipped, and hard-edged (which it is), or that it contains very little descriptive narrative (also true), but because so much of the writing concerns what takes place inside the characters’ heads. What interests Mackay is what motivates these people. What drives a man to work as a hired killer? Why does a low-level drug dealer risk everything for a woman who doesn’t love him? How does a corrupt police officer justify his actions, not only to others but also himself? In trying to answer some of these questions, Mackay delivers a very original piece of Tartan Noir.
There’s a danger that these voices could merge, and Mackay does well to distinguish between them, giving them their own identity. Detective Michael Fisher’s sentences are short and aggressive, his opinions out in the open for the reader to see, and written in an almost ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Contrast this with Calum MacLean, the hired gunman; his motives are more opaque and his approach to his work quiet and methodical. ‘It’s easy to kill a man,‘ he says at one point. ‘It’s hard to kill a man well’ – although, should we wish to try, he gives us plenty of useful advice.
On occasion, Mackay switches viewpoints rapidly, to keep the narrative moving. Several intriguing conversations take place between Fisher and Zara Cope, Winter’s girlfriend. Both are aware of what the other wants from them, and therefore do their utmost to disguise their true feelings and knowledge – whilst at the same time making these feelings known to the reader. This back and forth makes the story zip along, to the point where it’s sometimes unclear whose viewpoint you’re looking from – is it hers, or his? This is slightly disorientating, but not unpleasant or confusing. Rather, allowing the reader to see both sides almost simultaneously draws us much closer to the action, and again reminds us of the various motivations that criss-cross the novel in a spider’s web of self-interest.
Taking all of this into account, the title becomes even more apt. Why is Winter’s death necessary, and who for? Just who is pulling the strings? Not all of these questions are answered, and in writing in this way it’s clear that Mackay is thinking about the next two books in the trilogy. Whilst Lewis Winter does end with some kind of resolution, there are many more uncertainties and loose ends remaining. It will be interesting to see just how these are tied up (or not) in the equally immaculately titled How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and in next year’s final part of the trilogy The Sudden Arrival of Violence.