A quiet autumn Saturday in a rustic town near Glasgow. The rural idyll gets shaken up when a conspicuous automobile comes racing around the lanes at dangerously high speeds, nearly plowing down bystanders. The car, carrying two youngish passengers, makes an even more surprising move by coming to an abrupt stop on the grounds of a hospital. The intrigue thickens when the driver then jumps out of the buggy and flees the scene on foot. But none of this compares to the drama that unfolds when people get a look at the passenger, who turns out to be unconscious in his seat; soon it becomes clear that he’s dead.
And if that’s not enough of an event for one day in the sleepy town, things get really interesting when the identity of the deceased is revealed to be Tom McDowell, 19-year-old son of one of the area’s leading figures: successful businessman and high-level politician Frank McDowell. And that ain’t all; young McDowell, who bears no external injuries at the time of his passing, died from an overdose of heroin.
Pretty heady opening, right? And the book – Hugh C. Rae’s 1972 crime thriller The Shooting Gallery – only gets more and more engrossing from there. The tale has a three-tiered perspective: (1) It follows the police’s investigation into the death, focusing on the actions of Superintendent McCaig, a recurring character in some of Rae’s novels and a man who has bitter connections to Frank McDowell; there were once rumors that McCaig’s estranged wife had an affair with the promiscuous McDowell, who in his role as local politician has made a habit of publicly criticizing McCaig’s police work. (2) It studies the thoughts, feelings, and actions of both the McDowell parents in the wake of their son’s abrupt death. (3) It keeps tabs on the goings-on between a drug-pushing tandem, who fear that the investigation into McDowell’s o.d. will lead the police (or “blues,” as they call the fuzz) to them.
The Shooting Gallery is a crime novel, but more than anything, it is about dissolution in human lives. Exposed between its pages is the dissolving of relationships people have with their spouses and children, and the ebbing away of their own spirits and integrity (well, some of the characters never had much of the latter to begin with). Frank McDowell, in particular, has his soul revealed, as Rae’s omniscient narrator watches what becomes of the corrupt man when his son’s death removes the false exterior that’s been holding up his life.
The characters are memorable. Some of the players in the book are intriguing just for their utter seediness. Gregor Yule, the brains (as it were) behind the drug dealing team, is perfectly unsavory. Yule, in his early 20s and a business management major at the local college (where young Tom McDowell had been an undistinguished architecture student), is a handsome, cunning devil who is out to make big bucks and who will use his good looks and his lazy charms to take advantage of anyone who might help him make his greedy way in life. Other characters include Yule’s repugnant drug runner, his frowsy landlady who will accept Yule’s indifferent love-making in lieu of rent payment, an important and compelling side character I prefer to let readers learn about on their own. There's Tom McDowell’s mother, who doted on her son so much that there’s a question, among others, of what she will have to live for now that he’s gone. And then there’s McCaig, who is pulled apart inside by this investigation, not only because he is challenged to treat McDowell fairly and humanely—despite his longstanding, hard feelings for the man—but because of his personal sense of loss, which the investigation exposes, at being estranged from his own young son.
Rae’s writing in this book is flawless. Whether he’s taking dense looks into the essentials of his characters’ inner workings, or blatantly showing the depravity in some people’s lives, he is precise with every turn he takes in the novel. In this passage, he is following McCaig’s thoughts, as the police chief reflects on the generation gap between himself and a younger cop who is in the field investigating Tom McDowell’s death:
Clearly the case would not be a simple one. Ryan was whining because there was no passion to trigger off his best hunting instinct. He should have learned by this time that violence isn’t always shaped like a razor, and that the epitome of passion isn’t necessarily rape. A hollow needle could be the tool of a different kind of violence, another variety of passion. Ach, but youngsters were too impatient to dedicate themselves to the tasting of life through life, now; wanted it in capsules, instant release. How could they ever learn to endure the periods of emptiness between those vital moments which left sediment in the memory? How could they hope to collect sensations which the mind so quickly silted over? Too much of it and the nerves atrophied and you died; they called it God’s mercy in the old days, and carted you out in a box. No, the process was not one to be hurried.
One of my favorite segments in the book concerns a layabout artist named Peter Whitehouse, who is a friend and housemate of Gregor Yule’s. Whitehouse doesn’t work and doesn’t pay rent on his lodgings—the agreement is so long as he’s willing to look after the landlady’s daughter from time to time, and so long as his mate Yule gives the woman a roll in the hay every now and then, Whitehouse doesn’t have to worry about contributing to the mortgage. In the following mesmerizing scene, Whitehouse is alone in the house for the moment and has his paints and brushes out:
Landscapes evolved in his mind, like smoke in a Mason jar; sensual substances of childhood, the blissful age of perception. He had been reared in a cottage by a loch on the edge of the distillery holding. His father, a blender, had worked in the distillery, and the distillery had worked on Whitehouse, junior, mixing the fecundity of barley and the peat tang, the smugglers’ thump of casks on the ramps of the trucks in the dark, the natural geometry of vats and kettles, hoppers, silos and slate-roofed bonds. The early influences had been complicated by more recent impressions of the city of Glasgow, which had in turn mingled with a harvest of impressions from a long summer in a tent on a green beach in the western isles, after they booted him out of art school for welching on his year’s bill for materials. The decaying landscape, sea-scalloped thought it was, had elements of the city in it, one imagistic panoply pleated to another, each queerly enhancing each, until he had become so sensitive and so aware that he could hardly bring himself to paint at all. Now though, confronted by black primed canvas, there was an urgency, a desperation to track an uncharged brush over the whiteness, dry-run for another frustrating trip.
Whitehouse is also the object of a sentence that is so good I had to read it three times over before I could move ahead with the story:
Being a parasite had its disadvantages.
Rae, who was born in Scotland in 1935 and is still with us, has written many different types of novels, crime and otherwise, and under a variety of pen names (he’s even done books with a female pseudonym). For a straight-ahead literary social novel I strongly recommend his Night Pillow from 1967. But noir heads unfamiliar with Rae’s works will want to begin with The Shooting Gallery.
The seventies-era image above and more at UrbanGlasgow.co.uk
Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Cirlces, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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