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In THE APRIL DEAD, Alan Parks continues his month by month flip through the calendar in 1970's Glasgow. (This follows BLOODY JANUARY, FEBRUARY'S SON, and BOBBY MARCH WILL LIVE FOREVER.) The year is 1974 and the action is contained within the middle two weeks of April. There is quite a lot going on for so condensed a time period.
Harry McCoy, whose series this is, is a thirty-two-year-old detective with the Glasgow police, a "polis" in local speech. In many ways he is ideally suited for his job. He survived a difficult childhood, one that found him in one or another misnamed Children's Home where he suffered considerable abuse. But there he also found allies among other boys with similar experiences and formed bonds that lasted after all of them had escaped into the grown-up world. He seems to have been the only one of the lot who went in for law and order. Others led rather less conventional lives. Some were boys who returned to their Roma families and continued their itinerant lives as "showpeople," staffing the booths of travelling fairs. Others gravitated toward the gang families from which they had been parted. But they are all loyal to one another and Harry has valuable contacts as long as he honours the bonds of their friendship. It is a tricky balance and maintaining it may be one cause of Harry's stomach ulcer. The booze doesn't help either.
McCoy is sent in to investigate a bomb blast in a flat. It appears accidental, the victim making a mistake while constructing a bomb according to a recipe from something like The Anarchist's Cookbook. Immediately he wonders if the terror bombings of the IRA may be about to spread to Scotland. Regardless of what the victim was up to, McCoy has once again to deal with his embarrassing weakness–he cannot cope with the sight of blood, a definite handicap in his line of work.
In the pub later, an American who turns out to be a retired US Naval captain asks McCoy to help him find his son, a sailor who's been missing for a few days. Both the navy and the police assume he's simply doing what sailors on shore leave often do and will turn up in a day or so, but his father thinks otherwise. For reasons that are not altogether clear, McCoy agrees. The following day, the pair drive north to collect Stevie Cooper, one of McCoy's boyhood pals, who is being released from prison.
So by the second day, all of the major plot points are in place. Cooper must re-establish his position in Glasgow's crime scene or he will not live very long and he will manoeuver McCoy into helping him, an association that doesn't do McCoy a lot of good with some of his superiors on the force. When he passes on a message to a friend on the force, he becomes a target for assassination. McCoy's inquiry into the young sailor's disappearance will lead him into areas of domestic terrorism that frighten even him and put his life in danger. The bomb that exploded prematurely was only the first. Others follow and a final catastrophic event is threatened. The tension generated in the concluding chapters makes it difficult to put the book down for very long.
Since this book is set almost fifty years ago, it is almost an historical, even if some of the issues it raises are depressingly current. Parks is excellent at creating a sense of period without resorting to the irritating fact-dropping that destroys the illusion of time travel in less accomplished hands. Minor characters are developed sufficiently so that we have a sense of being in a fully populated world. The dialogue is convincing on the whole though the American needs a little work. This may lead to some uncomfortable reading - Parks is not reluctant to have McCoy indulge in the rampant homophobia of the time to extract cooperation from a suspect.
All the same, the real strength of the book is McCoy himself. He is an exemplary noir hero, private, not given to exposing his feelings or his doubts. A man with conflicting loyalties but a firm sense of what is right, he is a perfect guide through the complex, dark, and fascinating world that once was Glasgow and perhaps to a degree still is. A brief final chapter provides a hook into the next installment and I am looking forward to May.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2021
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