Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Book Review | The Hanging Shed by Gordon Ferris

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Glasgow, 1946.

The last time Douglas Brodie came home he was a proud young man in a paratrooper's uniform. Now, the war is over but victory’s wine has soured and Brodie’s back to try and save his childhood friend Shug Donovan from the gallows.

Everyone thought Donovan was dead, shot down in his bomber in the flames of Dresden. Perhaps it would have been kinder if he had been. He returned from the war burned, mutilated and unrecognisable. He haunts the gloomy streets of Glasgow scoring heroin to deaden the pain. When a local boy is found raped and murdered, the local monster is the only suspect.

A mountain of evidence says he's guilty but something doesn't sit right with ex-policeman Brodie , and if Shug is innocent, the real killer is still out there. Working with advocate Samantha Campbell, he trawls the mean streets of the Gorbals and the vast hills of western Scotland, confronting corrupt coppers, troublesome priests and Glasgow's deadliest razor gang in a race against time for Shug's life.

As Brodie delves deeper, the murder tally of innocents starts to climb, so when Sam disappears amongst the danger Brodie reverts to his wartime role as a trained killer. Now it's them or him...


For a Scotsman - had you guessed already? - I have, in truth, some pretty conflicted feelings about my wee country. Some days I'll defend it to the hilt, and few things get me up in arms like the offhand assertion, more common than you might think, that Scotland is somehow in England. But then, I live here, and though the vistas have a certain rugged beauty to them, and there are communities yet I'd feel proud to be a part of, and the whiskey is really rather fine, day by day I'm faced with the unvarnished truth of the Highlands and Islands I call home -- and it isn't pretty.

Nor indeed is the Scotland of The Hanging Shed, the first book of a mooted series of noirish crime thrillers starring disillusioned ex-policeman Douglas Brodie. In fact not a great deal seems to have changed in the sixty-some years between the then of author Gordon Ferris' Godforsaken post-war setting and now, for The Hanging Shed hinges on a violent knife crime against a child - the rape and murder of one Rory Hutchinson - and takes in along the road to ruin religious bigotry, principled abuse and institutional poverty.

Same old, same old, then.

Brodie too takes it all in his stride. Though he's been away without leave for a few years - what with World War II and all - he grew up amongst such, and coming back to Glasgow he finds the city fits like an old glove; it's where he belongs if he belongs anywhere. But Brodie's belated homecoming is not for his own sake, or his mother's: his childhood friend and nemesis in adulthood Shug Donovan has been convicted of the rape and murder of one Rory Hutchinson, sentenced so forth to be hung by the neck until dead.

Brodie doesn't have much sympathy for Shug's plight - hasn't had since he stole away with Brodie's long-lamented first love - but Shug insists he's innocent. "I'm no' that kind of guy. You ken me," (p.32) he pleads, and though the evidence - such as it is - points to him and him alone, a junkie now, self-medicating away the pain of the terrible burns he came away from the war with, the pieces simply don't fit. Everything is too neat, too tidy... and Glasgow, I assure you, is many things, but tidy it is not. Not even now.

The Hanging Shed is an unrelentingly grim novel, without humour or much in the way of relief beyond the blank pages between chapters - and perhaps a little lightness would have helped to leaven its downward spiral of a narrative. But Brodie, a dour-faced down-and-out "making [just] enough money to afford food, fags and Scotch, not necessarily in that order" (p.3) - a man after my own heart! - Brodie isn't the sort to laugh easily. Few folks are hereabouts, and as such he sits well against the city. Frankly, much as I might have appreciated a belly laugh here or there, I was very impressed by Ferris' unflinchingly authentic portrayal of place and a time and a people I'm sure the impulse must be to pretty up some. The Hanging Shed is Scottish crime fiction from a displaced Scottish author and by the heathen Gods, it shows.

Ferris writes at times with an abruptness which put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer's crisp prose in Finch, another blessed Corvus book. Particularly in the early-going he has such a decisive voice it can come across as thuggish - suitably so - and though the finely honed blade he wields becomes rather more blunt as The Hanging Shed goes on, by then the gripping plot has kicked in in earnest, lickety-split like, and if a few of the characters seem only half-formed as yet, bear in mind we're talking about the first book of a series here: very likely Ferris is holding back so that's there somewhere for Brodie and Co. to go come The Hanging Shed's successor.

And come it may, because though The Hanging Shed is bitter enough to burn, and so insistently miserable as to give this one Scotsman the warm-and-fuzzies, thinking of home, at its best it's quite, quite terrific. God's honest truth.


The Hanging Shed
by Gordon Ferris

UK Publication: March 2011, Corvus / Atlantic

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository
Or for your Kindle for just £1 here

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  1. Glad you enjoyed it. I bought and read it based on your previous blurb and found it magnificent.

  2. Can't say I agree with your assessment of the novel as 'unrelentingly grim'. I found it optismistic in that some measure of justice may be done if one is willing to do it. Still, I spend more time in Edinburgh than that other place!

  3. Oh, Edinburgh is like a fairy flower garden next to Glasgow, where I've myself been bottle twice and stabbed once. Whereas in the cultural capital I've been to the Fringe, laughed and drank and chanced a few days and nights away quite the thing.

    But the book. :) It's nice you can read it as a optimistic thing, corrigan1 - and perhaps I was overstating the case some to say The Hanging Shed is "unrelentingly grim" - but it is, as I recall, a very grim thing very often. Really just wanted folks to be forewarned.

    You're right, though. There is justice; though it comes at such cost...