Malcolm Mackay, award-winning Scottish crime writer and author of the Glasgow Trilogy, discusses the significance of place in crime fiction.
A man stands in an upstairs bedroom, gun in hand. A body is lying on the bed, the victim with wide unblinking eyes and a trickle of blood down the side of their face. The man turns, slipping the gun into his coat, and leaves the room. Down the stairs and quickly out the back door, into a dark night, nothing visible in the blackness around him. The scene ends.
So what does it matter which city or town he walked into when he walked out of the house? If all of the action was confined to a few rooms of a house, why not place the story in generic city #432 and be done with it? The answer to the value of a setting doesn't lie in the place itself, but in its people. Who was the killer and his victim, and how did they end up becoming who we saw in the first paragraph? Odds are where they came from and where they live have played a role in shaping not only them, but the events of their lives.
The Glasgow of my crime novels has always sat in the background, a minor character but a meaningful presence. This is not a Glasgow of street names and landmarks, a detailed map spun through a novel, but a place of subtle influences on its occupants. The characters that have fascinated me most are typically working class, drawn or pushed into a violent industry and seeking to survive or thrive on the wits instilled by their upbringing and experience. They’re determined, bold, self-deprecating and sly, shaped by their city.
When I wrote the first book in the series my intention was to have characters occupying a world apart from the rest of us, people in organised crime who separated themselves not just from other people but from Glasgow itself. The thing about a vibrant city with a strong culture and identity is that it won’t stay as far back as you want it to, no matter the tale you’re telling. The nature of the criminal world I was writing about was defined by the people and the people were representatives of their culture. Even if you’re not attempting to put the location front and centre, you can’t run away from your setting.
If, on the other hand, you choose to make your setting key to the story it becomes not just a character but a plot point, shaping events and limiting options, dictating what’s plausible and how characters react. A setting is not just the bricks and mortar but the culture that determines how characters choose to behave. That is a setting that requires description, explanation, but not via longwinded examinations of places and their history. Instead a setting is most fluently described through the people that occupy it, how they came to be who they are and the role the place played in making them.
The man with the gun is pulling the trigger because of all the choices made in his life to that point. The choices he had available to him were confined to his surroundings, the people and culture that occupied his small part of the world. The victim too, found his way to that ending by way of a path through the world that helped to make him. One character’s violence and another’s death changes the lives of those who knew them and the spirit of the city they occupied. The city makes the people, and the people make the city.
Malcolm Mackay's latest gripping portrait of gangland Glasgow, For Those Who Know the Ending, is out now.
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