Bloody January by Alan Parks

December 14, 2017

When a teenage boy shoots a young woman dead in the middle of a busy Glasgow street and then commits suicide, Detective Harry McCoy is sure of one thing. It wasn’t a random act of violence.

With his new partner in tow, McCoy uses his underworld network to lead the investigation but soon runs up against a secret society led by Glasgow’s wealthiest family, the Dunlops.

McCoy’s boss doesn’t want him to investigate. The Dunlops seem untouchable. But McCoy has other ideas . . .

My final review of 2017 needed to be something a little bit special, and the good news is that Bloody January by Alan Parks is exactly that. Time for an old school crime novel set during the 1970s in a city with a notorious reputation for violence.

I’ve long since held the belief that the best detectives are the ones who are a complete shambles as a human being. Harry McCoy is no exception. He has a childhood friend who is a psychopathic gangster (more on him in a minute), a relationship with alcohol and recreational drugs that borders on a problem, and an easy-going attitude towards organised crime. Peel back the layers and you discover there is more to McCoy than his many faults. He is a mess, but for good reason. McCoy is also unrelenting when it comes to solving problems. He has a tenacity that feels palpable. Here is a man that will do anything to uncover the truth, no matter the cost. There is also an inherent sadness to the character that I think helps to explain a lot of his motivations. A traumatic event in his past has left a hole in his life, and he has nothing but his work and his various addictions to keep him going.

It is up to McCoy to try and understand the reasons behind a seemingly random act of violence on a busy street. How does this crime tie in with an upper class family called the Dunlops. In a time before internet searches and social media, it’s up to the detective to rely on good old-fashioned police work. For McCoy that involves dealing with all manner of low lives. Alan Parks’ Glasgow is populated with madams and junkies, porn merchants and drug dealers. To uncover the truth, our hero has to try and navigate his way through all the corruption and vice the city has to offer.

Stevie Cooper is McCoy’s oldest friend. Cooper is a violent gang leader who runs a good chunk of the organised time throughout Glasgow. The two men have been friends for years and they each view one another as a useful contact. The problem is that Cooper is getting drawn more and more into the drugs trade, and this is starting to seriously affect the decisions he is making. Important rule of thumb for drug dealers – don’t start sampling your own product. You learn some of their shared history and Cooper was always unpredictable; hard drugs just make him more and more deranged as the plot unfolds. Unfortunately, Cooper is about the only person that McCoy can trust.

I grew up just outside Glasgow and it will always hold a special place in my heart.  The industrial heritage of the city has led to a reputation of it being a bit rough and ready, and to be honest that is probably merited. That said, I don’t think I have ever been anywhere that is quite so full of life. Growing up I had the distinct impression that there was a dark side to the town that was always there, just out of sight. It feels like Alan Parks’ writing shines a light directly on that dark underbelly of criminal activity.

For the curious amongst you I can confirm all the colloquialisms, and swearing, are bang on the money. Actually, this should probably act as a word of warning. If you are easily offended by strong language, pretty graphic violence and some particularly adult themes then you may wish to look elsewhere for your crime fix. Personally, I loved it all. The entire novel encapsulates just a single week, and as the investigation progresses, events just get darker and darker.

I really enjoyed Bloody January, in fact it was a late contender for my book of the year. It made me feel strangely nostalgic. Alan Parks has perfectly captured a snapshot of a city during a period of intense change. For me, when it comes to crime the darker the better. Please tell me there is going to be another Harry McCoy novel, I’d read it immediately.

1970s Glasgow requires a soundtrack with a good sized chunk of gritty soul. I can think of no one better than a 1970s band from Glasgow to accompany Bloody January. Pretty much anything by Stone the Crows fits perfectly. Maggie Bell’s bluesy vocals are perfection. My personal preference would be for the album Teenage Licks, but feel free to choose another. Take it from someone who knows, Glasgow is all about the gritty.

Bloody January is published by Canongate and is available from 28th December. Highly recommended. I’m going to buy my dad a copy, he’ll love it. I think part of him still lives in 1970s Glasgow.


  • russell1200 December 14, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    I started reading Tartan Noir with Malcolm Mackay and then read some Denise Mina Alex Morrow novels. She is probably more true to the actual living conditions of general folks, but Mackay’s assassins and what-not running around are a lot of fun. Tartan Noir is a pretty big sub-genre it would take forever to read it all.

    • pablocheesecake December 15, 2017 at 7:41 am

      Bloody January is great fun. I may be slightly biased however. I was born just outside Glasgow in the 1970s. There are a lot of observations that feel familiar to me.

  • russell1200 December 16, 2017 at 1:46 am

    My knowledge of Scottish contemporary culture comes from Tartan Noir and various apocalyptic novels (some of them being of the zombie genre), so I am not really able to judge hoe “true” to the culture any particular novel is.

    Scotland seems to have a bit of that gritty sort of culture I recall from some of the medium-size urban parts of the U.S. Northeast.

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