Published: 05/09/2014 18:32 - Updated: 05/09/2014 16:56

Inhabiting the underworld - from a distance

Malcolm Mackay
Malcolm Mackay

THERE is one question Malcolm Mackay admits he is asked quite a lot: how does a soft spoken young man from the island of Lewis come to write gritty thrillers set in the brutal Glasgow underworld?

Yet it seems that it is precisely because he lives in relatively crime free Stornoway that Mackay allows his imagination to dwell on tales of the gangsters and hired killers who populate his much acclaimed Glasgow Trilogy which began with the multiple award nominated The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter.

"One of the reasons I wound up writing these books is that I do come from somewhere completely different," he said.

"It’s more attractive to go and do something that’s completely outwith the normal surroundings. It’s a bit of a challenge."

He may never have lived in Glasgow and only visited a handful of times, but for Mackay, that does not hamper the writing which has already, four books into his career, seen him win and be nominated for almost half a dozen awards.

Unfamiliarity with his setting is only a hindrance if writing a detailed examination of the city itself. Mackay is more interested in writing a detailed examination of his characters and how they came to do what they do.

"I wanted to write a character who moved around the city in his own little bubble so it could be almost any city," he explained.

"I don’t think you should be held hostage by facts. Ultimately, I will twist the facts to fit the story. I’m not going to twist the story to fit the facts.

"I wanted to know what would make a character become isolated from everyone else and that led me in the direction of hitmen and organised crime.

"Nobody starts out that way. Something leads you there and makes you comfortable with doing these terrible things. That was the interesting thing for me.

"One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is that it explores the reasons why people do these horrible things that the rest of us would never contemplate. There is something about the darkest corners that is fascinating and makes you want to shine a light on them and see what’s there."

Mackay’s most recent novel, The Night The Rich Men Burned, is his first standalone book, but one clearly occupying the same territory as his Glasgow trilogy as unemployed chancers Alex Glass and Oliver Peterkinney get caught up in the world of organised crime and are pushed apart by "the industry".

"It was an idea that I had while writing the trilogy. It’s a different part of the world, but still the same world," Mackay said.

"The plan for the next two or three books is that they would be standalones and see what happens after that. I don’t feel constrained and desperate to break out. I’m comfortable where I am and the ideas that I have fit within crime fiction."

While Lewis-born Mackay has found success with his Glasgow set thrillers, Glasgow-born Peter May had been going in the opposite direction and found international success with a trilogy of crime novels set on Lewis.

However, do not expect Mackay to start looking closer to home for inspiration any time soon,

"I don’t feel a need to write anything set locally," he said.

"Writing books that are different from what is ordinary to me makes it a more enjoyable experience, just to be separated from your own surroundings while you are writing."

• Malcolm Mackay appears at Nairn Community Centre at 2pm on Saturday 6th September as part of the Nairn Book & Art Festival’s Wine & Crime day. Also appearing will be Glasgow writer Alex Gray at 3pm and Ann Cleeves, author of the Shetland mystery series now filmed by BBC Scotland, at 4pm.

Mackay’s latest book, The Night The Rich Men Burned, is out now from Mantle books,

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