Written by Mick Scully — Over the last few decades, we’ve had superior gangland crime novels set in London (Layer Cake by JJ Connolly, Jake Arnott’s The Long Firm), Scunthorpe (Ted Lewis’s classic Jack’s Return Home, filmed as Get Carter) and Tom Benn’s current series set in Manchester. Now we have a smart, gritty account of Birmingham’s criminal underworld.
Following a story collection published in 2007, The Norway Room is Mick Scully’s debut novel and it’s the most intelligent and entertaining depiction of the insidious, parasitic power of organised crime I’ve read for years. Scully, a former bouncer, has given us a vivid portrayal of the Birmingham tower blocks and takeaways where his cast of rogues dwells, while the Brummie accent gives it a distinctive flavour. The Puccini Plaza estate is known to his characters as the ‘Pooch’, which immediately transports you to the city if you’re familiar with the Midlands dialect.
The Norway Room is generally closer in spirit to Channel 4’s menacing Top Boy than the knockabout films of Guy Ritchie, although it starts in a lairy style when Scully introduces 13-year-old Ash. The boy is facing life alone after his father, a single parent known as the Weasel among the criminal fraternity, casually informs his son at the pub he will be pleading guilty (presumably to burglary). Ash reacts badly to the news his father will be going to prison, leaving him facing a spell in care. He kills the family dog and his dad’s pigeons, prepares to set fire to his school and even inflicts an unpleasant yet comical injury upon himself, which he intends to blame on the headmaster.
Ash needs a family and probably a therapist, but what he gets is the attention of the Weasel’s Irish associate Kieran, who happens to be the henchman of crime boss Crawford, proprietor of pole-dancing club The Spotted Hippo. Kieran says the boy can continue to live in the family home with the mortgage taken care of and the school informed that he’s moved to Ireland, as long as a couple of rooms can be secured for storage. Obviously, the house is being used for stolen goods and one day Ash attracts too much attention to this illicit activity, which earns the first of several warnings from Kieran.
There’s an element of the caper to this opening as Ash begins to behave like a little gangster with his wannabe Jamaican friend Geezbo, a member of the Doberman Crew who appears to be paid in marijuana.
Scully then cuts away to a very different narrative featuring Shuko, a Chinese criminal and contract killer who serves the Triad-style gang known as the Dragons. Shuko is a thoughtful villain whose actions are explained with a ruthless attention to detail and quasi-mystical tone. He alludes to the ‘quiet power of my physical presence’ in a first-person narrative that is chilling and convincing.
Shuko is tasked with arranging a takeover of the Norway Room, the most lucrative club the Chinese gangsters have yet to get their hands on. However, Crawford also wants the club while the owner, who is not prepared to sell, recruits his own East European muscle. This is the cue for Scully to introduce his third narrative from ex-copper Carrow, haunted by the death of his mother and a job that went wrong. He’s now a doorman at the Norway Room but he’s also being slowly corrupted by Crawford, who’s paying him for information about the rival club.
As well as employing an underused Midlands setting, Scully also has a talent for lively storytelling and elaborate yet clear-cut plotting. The Norway Room doesn’t glorify gangsters, though it is a humorous and sympathetic portrayal of the foot soldiers toiling in the city’s underbelly.
Scully’s villains and victims are brought to life with arresting dialogue and deft exposition, and the narratives ultimately knot together when the burgeoning rivalries reach a shocking conclusion. The Norway Room is a gripping gangland story featuring morally nuanced, memorable characters. It’s a fine debut novel that would make a great film.
Tindal Street Press
CFL Rating: 5 Stars