According to the university’s website these days: “In moral philosophy you will consider questions such as the objectivity of morality and the application of ethics to the study of difficult practical problems.” Sure, Bloody January has all the gritty bells and whistles expected of noir, but at the same time its main character, Detective Harry McCoy of the Glasgow Police Force, grapples with the contradictions of morality on a multitude of levels.
Despite being a classic noir antihero, McCoy is not a predictable guy. His complexity grows alongside the crime he’s charged with solving. It’s 1973, and McCoy is summoned to Barlinnie Prison, where one of the convicts informs him that a girl named Lorna is going to be killed tomorrow. McCoy follows the few vague clues he’s given, but he doesn’t make it to Lorna in time. Given that he sees the shooter, before the kid turns the gun on himself, solving the murder should be straightforward. But the warning at the prison doesn’t sit right with McCoy. Peeling back the layers, McCoy is led to hookers, hustlers, loan sharks, and one of the city’s most prominent and powerful families. Along the way, Parks keeps the prose fluid with some knockout descriptions. My favorite: A woman who has “a face like she was chewing a wasp.”
I talked to Alan Parks about Bloody January, as well as Aleister Crowley, Chinatown, and whodunits via email.
KIM FAY: Noir makes certain demands on a writer. In Bloody January, you maintain many of the genre’s conventions. For example: McCoy’s tormented childhood and his being saddled with an annoying, newbie partner. At other times, the book goes its own way. Were there any tropes you deliberately chose to avoid, or any you wanted to explore in new ways? Were there any you felt a novel like this absolutely could not do without?
ALAN PARKS: The only thing I consciously wanted to avoid was the novel having an arch, bon mot–laced kind of dialogue. I didn’t want to use the kind of overwrought descriptive phrases and metaphors that noir can be a bit fond of. I wanted the dialogue to be realistic and to include humor, to try and reflect the way people really speak to each other.
The book is pretty standard in some ways. Troubled detective, newbie partner, corrupt town. Those are the kind of conventions I like and wanted to include. Once the book is rooted in those you can move off and explore other areas. They are a kind of reassurance as much as anything else, a way of recognizing what the book is.
I also didn’t really want to write a whodunit as such. I always find those books a bit confusing. Either it’s obvious who did it from the beginning or the last few pages are a tortured and convoluted explanation of who the murderer is that often leaves you none the wiser. Or maybe that’s just me.
At the beginning of Bloody January, McCoy arrives at the scene of a murder, just in time to witness the killer shooting himself in the head. As the young man lays dying, McCoy holds his hand, needing “to feel he was some comfort to the boy.” Despite McCoy’s coarse exterior and painfully broken interior, this is not an unusual response for him. His relationships with colleagues, women, and even his enemies are complicated by degrees of empathy. Empathy is not a trait commonly found in noir. What do you feel it can add to the genre?
I think empathy is a vital component. The detective character has to have it, and the reader has to have it for him. Without empathy, or a notion of some sort of depth from the main character, it just becomes increasingly difficult to care what’s going on with him. It was also part of the hope to make the book seem more realistic. Most people do act with empathy in situations similar to the ones McCoy finds himself in. Why should he be any different just because he is a cop?
McCoy’s personal philosophy seems to be based on situational ethics. He walks a fine balance between intentional and unintentional harm. I am thinking of one character whom he accidentally throws to the wolves, and then purposefully injures in the hope of saving him. What appealed to you about creating a character who acts in context rather than from a place of moral certainty?
That is an interesting one. I could say that as a product of a moral philosophy university course taught in the early ’80s, it is programmed in me to see context as a huge factor in moral decisions. Maybe I am just a child of my time. But I would imagine in the realpolitik of a job that involves making decisions about the rightness or wrongness of people’s behavior, the decisions made have to be somewhat contextual.
McCoy believes in what he does, he tries to do what he thinks is the right thing, it’s important to him. His background has taught him the institutions that are supposed to be “right” — the church, the institutions of child care — very often are not. He has no real reason to believe in a given set of moral certainties. Why would he after the childhood he has lived?
At one point in Bloody January, McCoy punches a man: “It was a little victory in a situation where he was never going to get the big one.” This statement captures the book’s refusal to stick with black and white: bad guy caught, bad guy punished, The End. Instead, there are layers of justice. How would McCoy define justice, and does he even believe justice is possible?
I think he would define justice as what he can get. He knows the world is an unequal and unfair place. He is realistic enough to know he will never change that, but he believes small victories are possible and worthwhile. That may not be ideal, but it is enough to keep him going. These small victories are as valuable to his own sense of worth as they are to the people they may help.
As they say at the end of the best film ever made about the moral dimensions of crime, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
In an article in Scotland’s Sunday Herald, you said that when you returned to Glasgow from living in London about five years ago, you took night classes on the city’s 20th-century history. You also visited parts of the city you hadn’t been to since you were a child, only to discover that much of what you had known was gone. You wanted to write about the lost city, but instead of a history book, you wrote Bloody January. Given the accessibility of fiction, and especially genre fiction, what role do you feel novels can play in preserving history, and how much of a role do you want this series to play?
I think novels and films and TV programs are great at showing a kind of social history, not so great at illuminating huge historical shifts. I would love the series of books to be a chronicle of the changes in Glasgow throughout the ’70s. The small things as well as the big things. The clothes, the way people spoke, the things they bought, what the city looked like. A hope would be that they would eventually read them as a kind of guide to life in Glasgow at the time.
When the actor who reads the audiobook asked me how he thought McCoy should speak, I suggested he watched Just Another Saturday, a TV play about a day in a young guy’s life in Glasgow made in 1975. It was written by Peter McDougall, a dramatist who I think has the best ear of anyone for the way Glaswegian people speak. The program is a kind of dialect time capsule. While I don’t think these books will ever be as accurate as that, that is definitely the benchmark.
Philip Kerr’s March Violets trilogy is also a great example of how crime novels can give you a vivid and evocative insight into a particular time, in this case late-’30s Berlin. The crime story is embedded in the social history of the period. Little details in the book, like people being so poor they gather tiny bits of coal that have fallen off lorries, illuminate their social situation much more clearly than a strict historical account of their circumstances would. It’s that kind of historical insight that I think novels do best.
Bloody January feels like a local story, with one exception. One of the “bad guys” is a follower of the teachings of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. When this is discovered, parallels are drawn between what is happening in Glasgow and the Manson murders in the United States. Why did you choose to bring in comparisons to such a well-known “outside” event like this? Was it used as part of the framework to hold the time period in place, or did you have something less obvious in mind?
The reference is in there for a couple of reasons. As you said it helps cement the time period. Everyone knows when and what the Manson murders were.
Aleister Crowley, like Manson, also seems very redolent of the ’60s dream going haywire. The benevolent interest in the I Ching, runes, astrology, and alternative philosophies somehow — popular culture-wise anyway — ended up with Altamont and Manson and Anton LaVey and a lot of damaged people.
Aleister Crowley’s famous dictum, “Do as thou wilt as the whole of the law,” became a kind of a get-out clause for people like one of the book’s heavies, Jamie Gibbs. If he believed that, how could anything he wanted to do be wrong? Jamie isn’t interested in philosophy; he’s interested in drugs and fucking teenagers. To him, Aleister Crowley et al are just weapons in his arsenal of seduction. The dream of an alternative lifestyle ends up as a seduction technique for a middle-aged sleazeball. Just like the dream of Hells Angels as some kind of avatar of freedom ended up with the beating to death of Meredith Hunter.
Let’s discuss heroin. McCoy regularly sleeps with a prostitute, and when he is told that she’s hooked on heroin, he says, “She’s not intae that. Besides, you can’t get the bloody stuff in Glasgow.” Because McCoy is not naïve, this means Glasgow is on the verge of something new when it comes to drugs. By the end of the book, the city’s heroin deaths are described as “a plague.” Bloody January feels balanced on a moment between before and after. Is that after going to play a significant part in the series? And what else is up next for McCoy?
It does play a part in the new book. McCoy’s best friend, Stevie Cooper, manages to get a strong and stable heroin connection via Hong Kong. It’s part of his bid to expand his empire. If he is the sole supplier of large quantities of heroin to Glasgow, he is pretty much made.
This reflects what happened in reality. Primary income for people like Cooper started to shift from money lending and protection rackets to the supply of drugs. The drug trade was vastly more profitable, especially in socially deprived places like Glasgow. This too is part of the social change in Glasgow through the ’70s. Junkies went from being rich bohemians to 17-year-old working-class kids. From the novelist Alexander Trocchi to the cult film Trainspotting.
McCoy has a lot to deal with in the next book. A particularly nasty underworld enforcer goes rogue and starts to kill for his own twisted reasons. A terrifying part of McCoy and Cooper’s past comes back to haunt them. And McCoy tries to come to terms with what happened to him at the end of Bloody January and starts to question whether he should even be a detective any longer.
At one point in Bloody January you write, “Driving through the north of Glasgow, a place [McCoy had] known since he was a boy, was like driving through a different city now. All the landmarks were gone, couldn’t find his way anymore.” This description feels very much like a metaphor for McCoy. Did you deliberately set out to create a setting that paralleled your main character, and what function do you feel the wrecking balls and half-demolished tenements play in shaping McCoy?
Glasgow in the ’70s was in many ways a very strange place. The city that had existed before was effectively being destroyed. Vast swathes were demolished, manufacturing jobs disappeared, factories crumbled, people were moved out to vast housing estates in the suburbs. It looked like a city during a war. Meanwhile the German performance artist Joseph Beuys was staging events in the city, Ziggy Stardust was playing, the council was buying Dalí paintings, nationalists were setting off bombs, Billy Connolly was changing comedy forever. The city was in flux.
That, to some extent, reflects what is happening with McCoy. He is a man with one foot in the future and one in the past. He’s a policeman who takes drugs. A moral man whose best friend is a murdering gang boss. Like the city itself he is caught between two worlds, changing, trying to keep his balance in the shifting sands.
Kim Fay is the author of The Map of Lost Memories.