Article published on January 25, 2016.
Patrolling the waterfront, going undercover, risking life and limb – all part of a day’s work for Mike. His mission? To find the best crime fiction just for you.
I’m a man of eclectic tastes, although like my namesake Mr Corleone, I keep being pulled back into crime.
An unrepentant philosophy and sociology student, I’m interested more in what’s going on beneath the surface of a book. To me, trying to unmask the killer will always be a distant second to wrestling with the bigger questions; what makes this place tick? What’s the culture of this city? How do the characters minds work? For that reason, I admire writers like Denise Mina, William McIlvanney and Peter May – though my interests stretch far beyond Caledonia.
Among the most enduring books for me are Horace Silver’s Judas Pig, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, and Stephen King’s The Stand.
Judas Pig is a fictionalised autobiography of a retired London gangster, now living in hiding. When released, Silver expected the book to provoke a bloodbath in London gangland as truths about certain events were revealed. I never discovered whether this came to pass, but I can tell you it changed my perception of gangsters forever. There are many enjoyable but absurd books written which would have us believe that the Krays and the Richardsons used to smash each other’s heads in with coshes then retire to the boozer for a few choruses of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown.’ Nonsense. ‘Judas Pig’ is strikingly and authentically violent; harrowing and disturbing, but on occasion is also blackly funny. It’s an account of a damaged man disappearing down a drain of greed and cruelty and anaesthetising himself against it all with drugs. It’s aware of Cockney folklore around gangsterism and couldn’t be more scornful. ‘Did you think that was real?’ It seems to ask.
William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw is a far more compassionate book. The hero is a cop, Jack Laidlaw, who reads Camus and Kierkegaard and believes that solving crimes using forensics and evidence is like picking a daisy using a crane. He’s a rugged intellectual, a cop philosopher and a kind of Glaswegian Christ, championing the victim and the common man in general. McIlvanney looked at the detective genre and thought more could be achieved, so did it. In the hands of another writer, this would all be dazzlingly pretentious; with McIlvanney at the wheel, it’s earthy wisdom, a voice of the streets that sounds just as fresh after forty years.
And then there’sThe Stand. At his best, King is peerless, and ‘The Stand is his best work. It creates a universe so rich and credible that I genuinely did have dreams about it for months after turning the final page. The book is broken down across three sections; in the first, the apocalypse is wreaked by accident after a superbug escapes from a military base; in the second, the few remaining survivors traverse the vast North American landscape, gathering in two opposing camps; in the third, a climactic battle ensues between good and evil. The characters are rich and complex a la Jack Torrance; the description of the end of the world is utterly credible, in part because it’s such an indictment of human civilisation; the battle between good and evil is pure King, with a strangely Christian core to it despite all that has come before. An American classic to rival anything that loftier writers have produced.
Perhaps my tastes match your own, or perhaps we disagree in complementary ways. In either case, I hope I can help navigate this wonderful literary world we live in.
See also Mike Stafford: My Life in Books
Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon – verdicts coming in: 4