“You ken that bloke over by yon hen?”
“Wa? Yin? Thon wee yin, that’s im? Shite yin don’t keek like much.
“Oh ay but tis im aw’right.
“Yin’s ta wan thon write yon books?
“Oh ay. Keek yin stauning there as if shite never came out his erse”
“Ya reckon you’ll buy yin?”
“Wot, yon hen?”
“Eejit, yon book, yon book”
“Ay I ken thon, just pulling yer leg”
Welcome to Christopher Brookmyre land, where every other word of dialogue is either in some foreign dialect from the quaint city by the North Sea, Glasgow, or what’s affectionately known as profanity. My attempt to recreate the sound of working-class urban Scotland would have me lathered after two seconds in the playgrounds of the primary students who people the pages of A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil.
[ADBLOCKHERE]Nearly 20 years after the students, who attended St. Elizabeth’s primary school and St. Grace’s upper level, have moved on to other things, one of their numbers is dead with a bullet in his skull and found next to the corpse of another classmate’s father. Two other classmates, one the son of elder corpse and perpetual petty crooks and losers both, have been taken into custody on suspicion of murder and/or conspiracy to obstruct justice.
That one of them lies close to death in a hospital bed from multiple stab wounds either deepens the mystery or cements their guilt, according to Detective Inspector Karen Gillespie as she starts putting the pieces together that brought three of her former classmates to this end. Judging by their past records, neither of her accused have the form (police record) for this type of thing, having been in and out of trouble for a series of petty crimes since the days they were all wee lads and lassies together in primary school.
When the conscious one of the pair stretches his hand out to the past to request help from Martin Jackson, another old schoolmate, the past and present end up on a collision course as the murder case weaves a trail that leads back to their days in primary school together. What secrets were hidden under the surface in those days that made any of them who and what they are today? Had they always been capable of murder or were they innocent, as they both claimed?
This isn’t the first time Brookmyre has used forays into school days as a means of character self-analysis. One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night is set at a high school reunion. In that instance, the central characters reflected back on who they were, what they’d become, and regretting not what could have been, but that they were denied the opportunity to ever have a could have been.
Denied the opportunity to ever even having what if is Brookmyre’s biggest condemnation of Scottish society, Scottish Catholic society in particular, but the whole mess in general. Specifically he takes to task the ways in which children are intimidated and bullied, first by their authority figures like teachers and headmasters, and then by their schoolmates, whose job becomes the enforcement of conformity.
It doesn’t matter what they conform to as long as they learn how to conform, have their individuality stamped out by the demands of being accepted, and not become one of those on the outside looking in. For the weans who go to St. Elizabeth Primary and St Grace’s Upper school, that means everything from having the right clothes and keeping abreast of the right slang to obeying any one of the mysterious arcane rules of what is and isn’t done and who you can and can not talk to.
Twenty years later, Noodsy is still the guilty one even when he’s not had a hand in it, and nobody’s going to believe otherwise because that’s the way it’s been since Primary One. On the first day of school he was blamed for something he didn’t do and now he’s sitting in a jail cell for a murder he’s not committed with nobody he trusts but Martin, who he hasn’t seen in twenty years.
Martin and Karen are still the smart ones; the good yins, as their headmaster from the old days would have said. They ever only had borderline conformity status because they had been too smart and had the misfortune of being singled out from day one by either teachers or misfortune. The last thing you want to do is stand out from the crowd for something the crowd doesn’t approve of — otherwise you’re mince and everybody knows it and won’t have anything to do with you again.
As Karen and Martin work their way through the stories that have led up to the double murder involving three of their former class mates, they begin to unravel more strands and find out explanations for the reasons behind the way people were in school. In recent years, Martin has gained a certain level of notoriety as an “entertainment lawyer” and has been seen with starlets half his age and intellect on his arm on many occasions. He’s showing them all, he is — those half-wits who treated him like he wasn’t good enough to piss on if his liver was on fire.
But at what cost? Too many people have said to him that he used to be the nice one, one of the good guys, implying that it was no longer so. Or, as one old friend put it succinctly, when did the guy I know turn into such a prick? The truth is a nasty thing to be staring face to face with in the wee hours of the morning because it doesn’t give you many options. Martin is still one of the good yins at heart and he uses the opportunity offered by his old mate’s plea for help to go back and correct some wrongs and find the good yin he used to be.
Brookmyre has attempted something extremely difficult with A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil, writing a story told from a variety of children’s points of view as well as some of the adult versions of the same people. Believability would be an issue for a good many authors attempting what he has done with his re-creation of school life from the early primary grades through to the finishing of school and heading off into the wide world, but somehow he’s managed it without once striking a wrong note.
From the failed hard case to the ones who just want to be left alone to get on with it and from the observations on how the game is played and character’s justifications for playing it and discarding friends who no longer suit their needs, he shows us where all the seeds were planted and how they were germinated and nurtured to form the adults who figure in the contemporary parts of the book.
This isn’t a book of memories, but a book that takes place during various points in the characters’ lives. Nobody is looking back on fond memories of idyllic youth or even the opposite. They are just living their lives as they are now and they were then. The author Brookmyre’s task is to be our tour guide, showing us the highlights and steering us gently in the direction he wants us to travel.
The slang and vernacular which seem funny and causes us laughter (especially to a North American ear: he includes a glossary which is, in and of itself, hysterical) only serves to underline the divisions and antagonism that exists between the classes and how individuals are marked by the way they speak to authorities the second they open their mouths. Brookmyre’s Scotland isn’t the pleasant pastoral retreat of lochs and heather the tourist brochures sell to tourists. The lives of his characters are a mirror in which we see this reflected.
The moments of comic relief that happen during their childhood, and the very few means of rebellion at their disposal that are exploited, are all the funnier for their contrast to the normal individual and spirit-crushing atmosphere of their school days. Brookmyre does a great job of interweaving the mystery and character study he has created, his scorn for systems everywhere that punish those who are a wee bit different without once detracting from the story.
Long-term fans of his irreverent style may find themselves slightly wrong-footed by his newfound introspection, but it has elevated his work to a new level that speaks volumes for his ability as a writer and storyteller. A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil is another step forward in Brookmyre’s evolution as a novelist. This has to be his most complete work of fiction to date.
It’s a right gallus tale, and in places will fair deck ye, but people are going to start thinking of him as a brainbox and one of the good yins if he’s not wary, thon where will ‘e be?