Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison

March 4, 2021

Glasgow, 1932.

When the son-in-law of one of the city’s wealthiest families is found floating in the River Clyde with his throat cut, it falls to Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn to lead the murder case – despite sharing a troubled history of his own with the victim’s widow.

From the flying fists and flashing blades of Glasgow’s gangland underworld, to the backstabbing upper echelons of government and big business, Dreghorn will have to dig deep into Glasgow society to find out who wanted the man dead and why.

All the while, a sadistic murderer stalks the post-war city leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. As the case deepens, will Dreghorn find the killer – or lose his own life in the process?

Much like corporation buses, you wait for one historical crime novel set in Glasgow to arrive and then three come along at once. I recently read and reviewed Bobby March Will Live Forever by Alan Parks and in a couple of weeks I’ll be reading The April Dead, also by Parks. Sandwiched between the two we have Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison. Fortunately, Alan Parks’ novels are set in the nineteen-seventies while Morrison’s debut takes place in the nineteen-thirties. The only common ground is the city itself.

Detective Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn is a bit of a novelty. He is the first Catholic officer in a police force primarily made up of Protestants*. Jimmy has a no-nonsense approach to policework and will happily bust a few heads to get results. When a mutilated body washes up near a shipyard, he is given the task of uncovering the culprit. Between chapters, there are flashbacks of Jimmy’s life before the Great War as well as his time in the trenches. In modern parlance, I suspect we would probably describe Jimmy as suffering from something akin to post-traumatic stress. He has seen so much blood and death it has fundamentally changed his outlook on life. The only thing that keeps him going is a tenacity fuelled by copious amounts of booze and cigarettes. I got the distinct impression that if Jimmy didn’t have his job, he would likely already be dead. For me, the best detectives are the ones who are barely functioning human beings. They are so driven by the need to make sense of their world it makes following their journey utterly fascinating

One of the novel’s many highlights was Jimmy’s partner, ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid. A strapping Highlander, McDaid is the polar opposite of Jimmy. Where DI Dreghorn is a pugnacious scrappy little fighter, McDaid is a man mountain. Away from his job, Jimmy lives an almost monastic existence while McDaid has a family waiting at home. They complement one another and you see that with the easy camaraderie they share.

There is something deliciously lurid about Morrison’s vision of Glasgow. Just below the wafer-thin veneer of civility is a city rife with corruption. Everywhere there is prostitution, gangland violence, social problems and political manoeuvring. It’s hardly a surprise when tensions boil over and bad things happen. Historically, there was so much money and heavy industry in and around Glasgow it was considered Britain’s second city. Morrison’s novel is set just after that period and you can see evidence of the rot beginning to set in. this is a city moving from boom to bust. The Great Depression has burst the post-war economic bubble and the shipyards on the Clyde aren’t the hive of activity they once were. With low employment, slum housing and sectarian gangs stalking the streets, violence has become the norm. The powers that be make the decision that they will fight fire with fire. Jimmy and his colleagues are compared more than once to The Untouchables, and this seems entirely apt. They will do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Morrison peppers the narrative with some cracking colloquiums that I can confirm are all one hundred per cent accurate. You can’t beat a bit of slang to give your characters that extra air of authenticity.

On an entirely personal note, I was extremely pleased to see mention of a village very close to my childhood home. I guess that’s one of the many reasons why I enjoy crime fiction set in the west coast of Scotland. Weird though it may sound, it always makes me feel a little homesick and misty-eyed for ‘the auld country’.

This debut kept me enthralled from the first page. The plot keeps getting darker and darker, and by the novel’s climax you really want to see Jimmy dish out some justice. Robbie Morrison’s evocative storytelling places the reader right in the heart of the action. Things get pretty grim, but that’s what held my attention. I had to know how things were going to turn out.

Edge of the Grave is published by Pan MacMillan and is available now. Here’s hoping there will be more DI Jimmy Dreghorn novels in the future. I’d certainly be happy to read them.

My musical recommendation to accompany Edge of the Grave is the soundtrack to season four of Peaky Blinders by Antony Genn and Martin Slattery. There is something dark, almost tribal about the music. Seems like a good fit while reading about a city full of rival gangs and violent tendencies.

*Take it from me, in Glasgow in that time period this would have been a huge deal. There are still people to this day who bang on about the importance of religion and football in the town.


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