Close Quarters by Angus McAllister

Matador, 2017, 493 p.

When I picked this up I wondered if it might be a kind of Glasgow riposte to Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh set 44 Scotland Street novels. Close is of course the Scottish word for the entranceway and stairwell of a tenement block and the inhabitants of such a building do live in proximity to each other – if not necessarily always on good terms – and there are certainly differences between the two cities to be exploited in a project of that sort. However, Close Quarters, while still genteel in its way, has a more earthy, more Glaswegian, approach to the aspects of communal living, and is its own thing.

There are faint echoes of A Christmas Carol in the opening line, “Walter Bain was dead,” but McAllister is not providing us with a ghost story. What he does is outline the various reasons why the building’s occupiers over the years might have had a motive to kill Bain. As the officer in charge of the case says to his sergeant in the prologue, “We’re talking about Walter Bain. The Walter Bain. Did any of them not have a motive?”

For Walter Bain was one of those self-appointed, nit-picking guardians of moral and social welfare, forever peering out through his windows at visitors or residents arriving at the close to check they’d shut the gate of the small enclosure at the front of the building, posting through doors misspelled and ungrammatical missives scribbled onto scraps of paper regarding the stair and window cleaning rota, or the undesirability of wheelie bins being left outside for hours on end, harping on disturbances to the tranquillity of the family nature of the building; or else arranging meetings of tenants to discuss problems with cleaning, maintenance and upkeep, though reluctant to take on himself his portion of any financial burden that might necessitate.

We are shown the experiences with Bain of new tenants Jenny Martin and Joe Robinson, of long-term residents Gus McKinnon, George Anderson and his girlfriend (later wife) Cathie, Billy Briggs, Henrietta Quayle, and that of more recent occupant Tony Miller. Most are rendered in third person past tense but Anderson’s (a lecturer in English at Strathkelvin University – a recently upgraded technical college) is couched as a set of diary entries he composes for Cathie to read as practice for the novel he intends to write and Henrietta Quayle’s is in the form of a psychiatrist’s report by one Philomena Warner who treated Quayle when she had a breakdown after her mother’s death.

The story also centres round the Centurion pub on the corner of Byres Road. Several of the drinkers there are lawyers and McAllister has a lot of scope in his tale to send up both the law and academia. Since Briggs is a dealer in comic books we are also provided with a history of the graphic novel.

Despite the body on the carpet this is not a typical crime novel. McAllister’s interest is not in the murder per se and his treatment is far from po-faced. At several points in reading it I could not suppress giggles. Close Quarters, is also, due to the time frame of McKinnon’s, Briggs’s and Quayle’s occupancies, a social history of the 1980s and 1990s.

It is not difficult to guess who the murderer was. I had my suspicions from early on and indeed it turned out to be the only person it could possibly have been, revealed in an epilogue titled Who Done It. However, working that out in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book. The gratification here is in the journey, in the many ways in which Bain could wind up his neighbours, and in their reactions to him.

Pedant’s corner:- “the epicentre of the West End” (I don’t think McAllister meant it was off-centre,) a missing punctuation mark – either a comma or full stop would have done the job – before a piece of direct speech, margarene (margarine,) a projected graphic novel is titled Last Exit to Salcoats (that town is spelled Saltcoats,) e-mails (the passage was set in 1999, so fair enough, but this book was published in 2017 so, ‘emails’,) “e mail” (inconsistent with the previous instance,) “‘put his gas on a peep’” (usually ‘gas at a peep’,) syllibi, (syllabi, or, syllabuses.) “None of our classrooms … were big enough” (None …. was big enough,) “divided about half in half” (half and half,) “which would allow me make these appearances” (allow me to make,) “which he he’d recently missed” (remove ‘he’,) “that Matilda has aked me to collect” (the rest of the passage was in the pluperfect so, ‘had asked me’,) “‘glad to be assistance’” (glad to be of assistance’,) “had showed” (had shown.)

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