The April Dead is the latest Detective Harry McCoy book by Alan Parks. Set in 1970s Glasgow, the books are wonderfully dark. Crime noir; brutally realistic and brilliantly delivered. The April Dead is from the same mould, a riveting story and the type of book you just can’t put down, which is always a good sign.

I don’t read a lot of crime novels. I’ve always enjoyed the ones I have read, Ian Rankin and a couple of Denise Mina books spring to mind. But generally it isn’t a genre I pay much attention to. There’s no reason for that, as I say, I’ve enjoyed what I have read and I enjoyed Alan Parks’ latest offering. I suppose there are only so many books you can read in the time that you have. That made reviewing The April Dead an intriguing proposition and it could be argued that I’m not really in a position to comment on crime novels given I don’t read them regularly. That said, I appreciate good writing, read a fair bit generally and would argue that I’m more than able to comment on an individual book. So that’s what I’ve tried to do here.

One thing I do know is that to a large extent, detective novels succeed or fail based on the plot. If the plot is rubbish, the writing has to be outstanding for a detective novel to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I won’t write about the plot here other than to say it is excellent and the story rumbles along at a fair old lick, twists and turns aplenty. The characters are all well developed, interesting and true. Small touches like Detective Harry McCoy being squeamish gives them a complexity that makes them come to life. Those little touches are crucial to the novel in many respects. Classic 70s crime TV like the Sweeney works on many levels but because of the visual aspect and the story being compressed to an hour’s worth of television time that backstory isn’t as important. However, Parks uses these little character quirks throughout. All the characters have a depth that makes them human, which in turn makes their trials and tribulations feel more genuine and convincing. It elevates them off of the page.

It isn’t the only way that Parks very subtly gives a character or a scene a life and power of its own. He has an eye for detail which can make you feel as if you’re sat in the room watching a conversation play out. You can often smell the cigarette smoke, taste the old bitter ale, or picture the light dancing on the loch. What strikes me as particularly skilful in this respect is how effortlessly Parks appears to sketch these details out for the reader. Whereas a writer like Flaubert might take ten pages to set a scene, Parks does it at times in only one or two sentences, often followed by a mundane action carried out by one of the protagonists (lighting a cigarette for example). With less than hundred words he paints a full picture, setting the scene perfectly or at the very least giving the reader enough to let their imagination do the rest. This stands out as important to me because in a book as fast paced as this one you don’t want to get bogged down in endless descriptions and let the momentum falter. Like all noir (whether written word or on the screen), the scene, the urban environment and the atmosphere and ambience are a huge part of what makes it so interesting.

The April Dead is proper Glasgow noir, so much so that in many ways Glasgow and some of the surrounding areas are a central character. 1970s Glasgow feels alive, warts and all. At every stage of the book the city’s geography is playing an unspoken but important role. The city streets, the pubs, the hospitals, the heavy industry, the waterways and lochs – Parks makes them as central to the story as Detective Harry McCoy, Wattie, big Stevie Cooper or Chief Inspector Murray. Even if you’ve never been to Glasgow, or like me you’ve never been to Glasgow in the 1970s, you’ll feel like you have by the time you finish the book. You’ll have an uncanny sense that you’ve walked some of those streets, drank in some of those wonderful pubs with wooden booths and tiled floors. You’ll come away with a sense of the place and its history. In a sense it is one of the biggest compliments I could pay this book but there is one more that I think is perhaps even more important.

The April Dead is a brave book and in a very captivating way Alan Parks is a brave writer. Whilst there are no spoilers in terms of the actual plot contained in the next paragraph, there are comments on some of the themes and subjects of the book.

This book is published at a time when it feels like statues of slave owners and politicians like Winston Churchill are worth more than actual human lives. In some corners of the media, social media and society as a whole, any question of British history is met with outrage. To question British conduct throughout the age of empire and even at times to question the current British government is to be seen as unpatriotic and even considered treasonous by some. Parks hasn’t shied away from British history in this book and hasn’t been afraid to shine a light on some of the murkier aspects of the British Army and its conduct over the last 70 years. As part of my degree I studied ‘The Troubles’. Collusion, extrajudicial killings and torture at the hands of British forces, with a greenlight from the British intelligence and political establishment, aren’t something new or surprising to me. Yet it isn’t an aspect of Britain’s history that is widely known and acknowledged. Neither are the concentration camps in Kenya or the torture of political prisoners and independence fighters in Aden and Malaya. For a writer to highlight these atrocities at a time of demented right wing patriotic fever is a type of bravery and is something that should be acknowledged and applauded.

Overall The April Dead is a fantastic, gritty book. Gripping, authentic, well-written and thought-provoking – I can’t promise that I’ll become an avid reader of detective novels from now on but I’ll certainly be seeking out the previous Harry McCoy novels.

The April Dead by Alan Parks is out 25th March 2021.