Glasgow author Callum McSorley’s award-winning debut novel brings us Scottish crime fiction with a new flavour. The book might be titled Squeaky Clean, but this is a story that’s rancid and filthy, in which every bodily fluid you can imagine is amply spilled, and if there’s squeaking it’s coming from the bedsprings of a woman forced into prostitution and held against her will on the 11th floor of a crime-riddled tenement block.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll dial back now to the side-street carwash where our protagonist, Davey Burnett, works for his stoner pal Sean, cleaning vehicles for customers from all walks of life. It’s a job the author once held, and he clearly knows all about the hoses, detergents and vacuums, plus the range of spillages that occur in Glasgow vehicles. Davey wants to be on the comeback and is off the drugs, booze and inane whims that made his former partner Sarah walk out with their five-year-old daughter, Annalee.
He’s still a bit vacant, though, and forgets a family court date relating to his parental access. If he doesn’t show he won’t get to see his daughter. Simple.
A last minute call from his mother reminds him to get there so he takes the Land Rover he’s busy washing for Paulo McGuinn, a local gangster. Up until now, Davey has seen McGuinn as a loudmouth thug rather than a kingpin – but that view is changed when, on the way to court, he’s hijacked by McGuinn’s enemies.
Davey is beaten to within inches of his life. The Land Rover is torched. He loses the right to see his daughter. And now he and Sean are in debt to McGuinn, who turns out to be a phenomenally menacing player in organised crime. Drugs, prostitution, people trafficking, murder – all with the scent of stale sweat and expensive aftershave. When McGuinn needs something cleaned up he makes Davey do it, and that goes well beyond car seats. It’s fierce and frightening stuff.
Meanwhile, Allie McCoist – not the footballer, and she’s sick of the jokes – is a detective inspector who has tried and failed to convict McGuinn in the past. The case collapsed and now she’s the lowest of the low in her department. Her biggest bust lately is an illegal puppy farm and she kept one of the dogs for her kids, in an attempt to impress them because like Davey she has lost custody.
When carwash Sean threatens a TV licence fee collector with an air pistol, this is exactly the kind of loser call-out McCoist is used to. However, various other antics on the soggy blacktop tell her that something’s not right at the carwash, and when she sees McGuinn on the scene she starts sniffing around. Is this her chance to return to proper detective work?
The unspoken sympathy that Callum McSorley builds between McCoist and Davey – hidden behind their complete mistrust of one another – is the most beautiful thing about Squeaky Clean. They are totally different, but have exactly the same life problems and desperately want to help one another. Giving in to that could be the death of either of them. Both are being watched, and swirling around them are gangsters of varying rank, men out for revenge, dirty cops and faint hints of an undercover operation that will have you confused, suspicious and worried right to the conclusion.
There’s a touch of the irreverence you’ll find in an Irvine Welsh story, but McSorley has crafted something that feels at first like a contemporary pulp novel set in Glasgow and Squeaky Clean taps into something deeper. The novel is richly descriptive, rudely so. While interesting, the scene setting takes a little too long, but once it gets going it will have you gripped.
Much of the dialogue is delivered in a phonetic interpretation of Glaswegian dialect. Normally, I enjoy this in novels – it works well for the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Adrian McKinty, for example. In Squeaky Clean it’s taken to an extreme and I was continually rereading conversations to work out the meaning. Even when you get used to certain spellings, such as ‘goat’ for ‘got’, it’s distracting. I kept picturing a goat. Sometimes Lionel Messi.
There’s a rich vein of humour in Squeaky Clean. Key characters like Davey, Sean and McCoist are ironic and self-effacing, and in fact it’s these qualities that identify and separate the good from the bad. Everyone’s flawed but you’ll like the company of the ones who realise it over those who don’t. It’s a very violent book too, but the author is showing us Glasgow life from street level. It’s a society set up to benefit the well-off, one that rewards aggression and exploitation both legal and otherwise. The guys who work in a carwash live in borderline poverty on the fringes of a world that revolves around drugs, alcohol and petty crime, which leads into things much worse…
An important read. It’ll stay with you, and is set up for a sequel.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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