I’ve got this theory on how you find good crime writers, purely non-scientific, but pretty reliable so far. Check out the author photo and if they look like a right piece of work, you buy the book. Nine times out of ten you’ll get something decent. The other one you get Russel D. McLean.
The Death of Ronnie Sweets is a collection of McLean’s early short works featuring Dundee P.I. Sam Bryson – yes Dundee has P.I.s, alright, who do you think tracks down the city’s unfaithful spouses and insurance frauds? Or, in the case of a more committed character like Bryson, skipped witnesses, nonce councillors and a solicitor with some rather destructive daddy issues.
Across ten short stories McLean builds a credible world around Bryson, the city is present without becoming overbearing and the cast of secondary characters is skilfully deployed, with many recurring right through; there’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by the protagonist of McLean’s novels, J McNee.
Bryson is an engaging character, less intense than some literary P.I.’s but he feels refreshing for that precise reason. So he’s handy with his fists and he likes a drink – glass houses, people – he’s also sentimental, loyal and maybe a bit too understanding for his own good.
I was expecting a lot of blood and ruptures in this book, and I wasn’t disappointed, but there’s an emotional element here which is missing from a lot of gritty crime fiction. Mclean has a keen eye for human frailty and every story has a deep undertow.
This collection is uniformly strong, although you do get a sense of progression in McLean’s writing as it continues, finishing with Flesh and Blood, a heavily freighted story about the responsibilities and abuses of fatherhood – served up with plenty of violence and a surprisingly sweet ending. Her Cheating Heart is another standout, a short but atmospheric story about a man who desperately needs to be told that his wife is unfaithful. It’s a two-hander, tough to write but beautifully executed.
The Death of Ronnie Sweets feels very complete for a collection of short stories and promises great things for McLean’s full length novels The Good Son and The Lost Sister.