Fresh Blood

Name: Douglas Skelton

Title of Book: Blood City

'In this hugely impressive fiction debut, the author simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. '

Davie McCall is not your average henchman. Abused and tormented by his father for fifteen years, there is a darkness in him searching for a way out and under the wing of Glasgow’s Godfather, Joe ‘The Tailor’ Klein, he flourishes.

Joe the Tailor may be a killer, but there are some lines he won’t cross, and Davie does well under his strict moral code. He doesn’t like drugs. He won’t condone foul language. He abhors violence against women. When the Tailor refuses to be part of Glasgow’s new drug trade, the hits start rolling.

It’s every man for himself as the entire criminal underworld turns on itself, and Davie is well and truly caught up in the action. But then a young woman enters his life. A beautiful young reporter makes him question if he can ever leave his life of crime behind.

If you are a fan of true crime, the name Douglas Skelton may well be recognisable to you, as he is the author of 11 non-fiction works. And he has used the wealth of his experience of the criminal mind to produce a compelling and hugely entertaining read in the aptly named ‘Blood City’.

It’s clear from reading the book that Skelton has a real affection for, and a deep knowledge of the crime fiction genre. In particular those books from the other side of the Atlantic, as his Glasgow-based novel has a strong American feel to it. L.A. by way of Govan, if you like.

With any novel, you want to ‘meet’ a character you can hang your heart on and Skelton spoils us here by assembling a collection of them, any one of whom is strong enough to carry a novel. This story, in the main, is told through the eyes of the young Davie McCall, a character who had me so on side that at several times throughout I wanted to tell him to forget all about his father – and his adopted father, Joe the Tailor - and give the poor lad a hug. (My reward for which, would no doubt have been a glasgow kiss.) And that’s good writing, people.

In this hugely impressive fiction debut, the author simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. Everything I look for in a book is represented here. Jump in and you’ll quickly be caught up in the atmosphere. Effortless prose, Glasgow banter and the wearing down of shoe leather as you charge through the streets of Douglas Skelton’s vision of the mean city, are what you will find between the covers of this magnificent book. I can’t recommend ‘Blood City’ highly enough.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) After a number of non-fiction works, you have now turned your hand to fiction. Why the switch and how has your approach to writing changed?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction - my first writing memory is lying on the floor of a flat in Springburn in Glasgow writing a mystery called ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ about the death of a TV personality. I must’ve been seven or eight. And in my factual stuff I always laid a layer of storytelling on the top. I approached the non-fiction as if it WAS fiction, trying to get the facts correct, of course, but still being aware that I had a story to tell. I still do a certain amount of research for the fiction - not as exhaustive, mind you. So the actual approach to the writing has not changed, it’s still how best to tell the story, how to make it come to life.
2) Do you feel that having looked into the criminal mind with your true crime writing that this has helped your fiction?
I think it has. I’ve met with crooks and cops and lawyers. I’ve interviewed victims of crime. I’ve seen addicts aching for a fix and watched them fall asleep while I was talking to them, having previously jagged up. I’ve seen the heartbreak it can cause. But I also know that, in most cases, even the hardest of crooks had some trace of humanity, and that’s something I try to bring out. They loved their wives or their kids or their pets. They might be the bad guy but I try to give them something that makes them more human.
3) In ‘Blood City’ you have a number of fascinating characters to switch viewpoints with, how did you manage to juggle this so effectively?
Well, it wasn’t easy but from the start I wanted to do an ensemble piece. Davie McCall is the central character but he is the hardest to write because everything is internal with him and I like dialogue. I wanted a rich array of characters surrounding him, characters who were - hopefully - strong and interesting who the reader wanted to know more about, even if they didn’t particularly like them. The thing was, once I’d decided on their backgrounds and their function in Davie’s world, many of them - writer’s cliché alert! - wrote themselves.
4) The book is set in the eighties, what made you choose that time period?
The background to the story is the growth of the drug trade in Glasgow - and that took place during the early 1980s. I’ve set it in 1980, slightly earlier than the real explosion of heroin, simply because I wanted to. My God, the power writers wield!
5) Fathers and sons is a strong theme in your book - as a father, I wanted to give young Davie a hug - was this theme a deliberate choice or something that developed as the book went on?
Well, Davie might not thank you for a hug, but it’s good that’s the way you’re thinking because it’s important that there is sympathy for him. Crime in many cities was and remains a family-based enterprise, so that was the starting point. But I also wanted to give Davie something meaty in his past to deal with. I didn’t want it to be sexual abuse, but a father who became quick with his fists and who murdered his mother was something I felt gave Davie an extra dimension. He’s haunted by the demons of his father and the notion that those demons might also live within him. Davie lives in a crooked world but part of him doesn’t really want to.

As Liam Neeson said in ‘Taken’, he has a ‘particular set of skills’ but he fears just how far they could take him, thanks to his father. But the real father figure for him is Joe Klein and although Joe uses Davie’s particular set of skills to his advantage he also teaches him a little something about the morality of violence, if you will. So yes, it was deliberate - this contrast between the fear and hatred he holds for his biological father and the respect and reverence he has for the surrogate. And the real terror that there is more of his father in him than he can cope with.
6) The story doesn’t solely concentrate on the case in hand, but also highlights the dynamics between certain characters. In your opinion is character as important as plot?
Plot is important in books like this but you need the people to drive it, to engage the reader, to make them care, to keep them turning the page. And if you can add as many textures as you can into a character, then that’s good. With the exception of Audrey, the girl who could be Davie’s salvation, I’ve tried to give each character shades of light and dark.
7) You base your book in Glasgow. Why Glasgow and do you feel a sense of place is important to any book?
Well, I’m from Glasgow, even though my family moved around when I was younger. I got back when I flew the nest and even though I don’t live there now I still regard it as home. And there is the old adage about writing what you know, and I know a wee bit about it. I do believe a sense of place is important. My storyline could, frankly, be set anywhere - London, Manchester, Liverpool, New York. But I wanted to make the setting part of the story, I wanted it to feel real. I know very little about those other places, so Glasgow it was. I know about the people there, the rhythms of their speech. Does it make a difference to the storyline itself? Perhaps not. Does it make it more believable? You bet. Look at James Lee Burke. You can practically smell the swamps on his pages. I love that.
8) What is the method to your writing? Are you very strict with yourself when you are embarking on a book and during the writing process?
I have a full-time job so really I write when I can, mostly weekends. Also holidays, when I take the laptop with me and batter out as many words as I can. It might be my background in newspapers but I write very fast, when I get going. Some of it can be utter tripe but everything should be fixable. And if it’s not, there’s always the delete button. My aim is to get a full draft down with very little revision. And I try to get that done as fast as I can, to get the spine of the story in place. After that it’s a building exercise - sometimes a demolition. Like all rules, though, it can be broken. I’ve been working on the second book in the series, ‘Crow Bait’, and very early on in the process I realised that I was heading in the wrong direction with regard to a particular storyline. Basically, it was getting in the way of the plot. So all the elements to that subplot were hauled out - 20,000 words worth - and stored away. I then carried on with the first draft as if they’d never happened. But they’re stored away and will form the basis of book three. Obviously, there’s a lot of thinking involved, before and during the actual writing - thinking about characters, scribbling down snippets of dialogue, working out story reversals to see if there’s a way I can surprise the reader - and sometimes myself. As Peter Sellers said in ‘Two Way Stretch’ (I think) - ‘There’re things going on in my head that would make Maigret drop his pipe’.
9) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read? Is your main focus to write the book you’d love to read?
I do want to write books I’d want to read, otherwise my own interest would wane halfway through. If it took that long. I like fast-moving storylines with good dialogue and characters that come right off the page. For that they need humour, at least for me. I don’t care how dark a storyline it is, it still needs humour. John Connolly is great at this, as is Dennis Lehane. I like atmosphere, I like the aforementioned sense of place. I love to have a book that I look forward to getting back to. Pace, surprises, believable dialogue, characters who walk around the room. Don’t ask for much, do I?
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Tough, TOUGH question. I’m a huge Ed McBain fan, I started reading his 87th Precinct novels when I was a teenager, so if I can select a body of work as one choice I’d go with that. His dialogue was wonderful, his creation of the city was masterful - you believe this fictional place actually exists - and his books didn’t outstay their welcome. And he really kick-started the whole police procedural style. Without him there would have been no ‘Hill Street Blues’, no ‘NYPD Blue’ or even ‘Law and Order’ in all its dozens of incarnations.

Dennis Lehane’s work is also outstanding. I could choose ‘Mystic River’, which was an incredible piece of writing, but instead I’ll go for ‘A Drink Before the War’. It was the first book of his I read, it was the first in the Kensey/Gennaro series and it had everything I wanted - clear characters, sharp dialogue that was sometimes laugh out loud funny, a compelling storyline and a well-drawn backdrop, in this case Boston.

Third would be Bill Knox’s adaptation of Edward Boyd’s classy scripts for a TV show called ‘The View From Daniel Pike’. It aired in the 1970s and starred Roddy MacMillan as a tough-talking, smart-mouthed Glasgow private eye. The series made me realise that there was something dramatic about my city and that crime stories did not need to be set in London or New York.