I’m familiar with the work of Douglas Skelton from his relentless pursuit of the facts concerning Scottish crime — he’s written definitive books on murderous women in Scottish history, Scotland’s crimes of passion and the ever-fascinating world of Glasgow’s criminal past.
Crow Bait, like Douglas Skelton's other fiction reflects this knowledge, but of course it’s not a given that just because you know a lot about something, that you can write a great novel about it also. But he doesn’t do half badly, and he should definitely be considered as one of Scotland's foremost crime writers.
Crow Bait is a follow up to the novel Blood City and reintroduces a character called Davie McCall, who has been in jail for ten years. The descriptions of life in jail are probably among the best written in the novel, and indicate if anything does the pedigree of Douglas Skelton’s research.
Even though Crow Bait is a follow up, it is possible to read it without having read the previous book, although you may find the beginning rather difficult as it assumes that you know the characters, and perhaps more problematically, it assumes that you know the era — which is 1990.
Throughout the novel, people quite often tell Davie that things have changed, and that Glasgow's not the same, and so forth, and like Davie, the reader must accept this from time to time, without any sketches or set-pieces to back it up.
The point is supposed to be that during the time Davie McCall has been in jail, crime in Glasgow has moved on from ice cream and extortion to the heroin trade. The junkies in the book are brilliantly drawn, as are their locales — and the story moves in fits and starts — although the book is best when the plot’s at rest, and we’re merely looking around, taking in the atmosphere.
Crow Bait ias a novel which opts to use the author’s inside knowledge of Glasgow crime and criminals to great effect. To this end, we spend a deal of time inside the minds of the gangsters, which is great, and whether they're trying to run with pockets full of cash from a jackpot on the puggy, or suffering the screaming hab-dabs of withdrawl, there is always plenty going on to maintain the sort of fascination that is key to this kind of writing.
There are a couple of set pieces, such as a shoot-out in a forest, but these aren’t Crow Bait’s strengths.
Instead, Crow Bait is a book of character. The incidental characters are in many ways more fascinating than the leads, and in keeping with a tale that is part of a larger cycle there are plenty individuals to track throughout — cops, criminals, victims and reporters — the general cast of any modern crime book, but here all well-drawn and memorable.
I never lost track of this cast, which is a good sign, and if anybody could pull off the great Scottish Dickensian-scale crime saga — it is certainly going to be Douglas Skelton.
You’ll find in Douglas Skelton a true expertise that is absent in many other writers. The story is there, but it doesn’t come across as the main chance. What’s best about what Douglas Skelton does is his ability to grab both the facts and fantasy of Scottish crime and jam them between the covers of a book.