Russel's second McNee book, The Lost Sister, hits shelves in the U.S. today. I was going to sit and write about why you should be picking up his books about a grumpy scottish detective, but then I realised I'd already done it. So I took a look back and realised that I couldn't say it any better than I did at the time. George Lucas tried to tell me to edit the whole thing and add in some comedy CGI. I tweaked a few things here and there, but this is pretty much intact.
Next week i'll be making it a trilogy of reviews, with a look at California by Ray Banks.
“I could kill him. It would be easy.”
Those are the opening lines from THE GOOD SON, the first McNee book. As opening lines go, I’d say It's pretty much up there. Grabs you straight by the throat and asks you, through gritted teeth, 'you got a problem?'
Something I noticed early on about Russel is that he has a touch of the Lawrence Block and John Mcfet about him; his pages are so easy to read that you stop noticing that you’re doing it. You know what I mean; some books you’re checking your watch every other paragraph, or scratching your bum, or thinking of that kettle you just boiled. But with writers like these, you don’t notice the things going on around you. Reading one line is an unspoken commitment that you’re going to read the first ten chapters. Then, well, why stop there?
The other thing is that he doesn’t get caught up in what he’s writing. There’s no self conscious awkwardness of trying to bend his hometown or its people to fit into genre conventions. There’s no knowing pause as it becomes clear that this is a PI story set in Scotland, no first date fumbling on the doorstep.
He. Just. Gets.On.With.It.
And it’s suprising how many authors don’t do that. Many like to pause, to dawdle, or to let the reader know that they’re aware of the trappings and flaws of whatever style of story they’re writing. No, just sit and get on with telling the story.
The first book centres around our protagonist, J Mcnee. He’s a moody and isolated Dundonian PI. He has anger issues and a good way with wit. He has some of the key ingredients of being a PI; he manages to say just enough to get himself smacked around or shot at, but not so much that we get to figure him out. At the same time, he’s not just a standard driven detective type. Many of his flaws are more to do with the modern British male than any genre cliché; yes he’s alienated and rebellious, but a lot of it seems to draw from a simple social awkwardness. He’s not the tortured soul of Hamlet or Bruce Wayne, and he’s not the drunken philosopher of Marlowe or Scudder. Much more than that, he seems to simply be a modern man who’s not always sure of how to behave around others.
Even his nickname in the book helps to conjure up a play on the ideas of masculinity and manners. He is called Steed after the character played by Patrick Macnee in The Avengers. The image that evokes for most is of a deliberately overdone gentlemen, the hat, the umbrella, the manners and the heart of steel. There was an earlier version of Steed, in the shows first season; a shadowy figure, untrusted and lonely. Where was I going with this…..
Anyway, back to McNee.
There is still an element of tragedy that drives McNee, and it’s at the core of what works with this book. It’s a story about grief. Be it McNee trying to come to terms with loss, or a farmer trying to deal with his brothers apparent suicide. The book shows that grief is a far more complicated and damaging thing than any level of violence.
Russel’s second book, THE LOST SISTER, was released in the UK last year. It's opening feels almost low-key compared to the first;
“He doesn’t waste a moment. Lets go of the axe….”
The first book starts with a gun, and the impending gunshot. An instant explosive kick start to a story. The second starts with violence, but one of a more personal, brutal, and confident manner. This is a writer stepping it up and taking full control of his characters and world. I’ve mentioned before how impressed I was with the handling of violence in this second book, the control that Russel demonstrated in knowing what not to show, and in knowing that he could make it work. There is some truly brutal stuff in the novel, but Russel chooses to focus on the aftermath of violence rather than the instant impact. It's a choice that gives the violence more weight, and makes you feel it more even if you don't see it happen.
The second book sort of does what it says on the cover in many ways. There is a sister. She is lost. But that’s just scratching the surface. It looks at thorny issues of love, trust and domestic violence. And it took me by surprise a number of times, I love it when a book genuinely doesn’t go the way you think it will. There are twists and turns to the relationships, and nobody ends the story in remotely the same emotional state that they started it. Somehow, it felt like The Empire Strikes Back, with its revelations and emotional betrayals. I can’t wait to see where the characters go from here.