Cast A Cold Eye by Robbie Morrison

April 18, 2023

Glasgow, 1933

Murder is nothing new in the Depression-era city, especially to war veterans Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn and his partner ‘Bonnie’ Archie McDaid. But the dead man found in a narrowboat on the Forth and Clyde Canal, executed with a single shot to the back of the head, is no ordinary killing.

Violence usually erupts in the heat of the moment – the razor-gangs that stalk the streets settle scores with knives and fists. Firearms suggest something more sinister, especially when the killer strikes again. Meanwhile, other forces are stirring within the city. A suspected IRA cell is at large, embedded within the criminal gangs and attracting the ruthless attention of Special Branch agents from London.

With political and sectarian tensions rising, and the body count mounting, Dreghorn and McDaid pursue an investigation into the dark heart of humanity – where one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, and noble ideals are swept away by bloody vengeance.

Back in March 2021 I read Robbie Morrison’s first novel, Edge of the Grave. It’s a rather fine historical crime fiction set in 1930s Glasgow*. I’ve been waiting impatiently for its sequel, Cast A Cold Eye, to reach the top of my review pile, and this week it finally got there. 

One of the things I enjoyed most about Detective Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn is he’s a flawed but likeable protagonist. Traumatic events during The Great War have left him suffering something akin to PTSD. If Dreghorn is not consumed by working a case, he can barely function. Like all the best detectives he is an absolute mess of a human being. On the outside, Dreghorn may appear the quintessential Glasgow hard man but there is a broken soul hiding beneath his brittle exterior. 

As far as the other characters are concerned, of course it’s Archie McDaid who remains a firm favourite. Dreghorn’s monolithic partner is the polar opposite of Jimmy. McDaid is a family man, never happier than when surrounded by the members of his chaotic brood. This novel features more moments viewed from his perspective, and we get a real insight into McDaid’s motivations. There is far more to Bonnie Archie than just his giant muscles. Not only is he fiercely loyal to his friends, he is also driven by a personal code that transcends to religious violence that surrounds him. There are a few tantalizing hints about what events drove the highlander to Glasgow and I’m burning with curiosity to discover more of his backstory. Dreghorn’s too for that matter. Enquiring minds need to know more about his time overseas!

I’ll always have a place for Glasgow in my heart, I grew up only about ten miles away, but I’m under no illusions that it has always been a bit rough around the edges. It’s probably even fair to say that the city has often revelled in its notorious reputation. In the early decades of the 20th-century, gang warfare, usually based along sectarian lines, was rife. This tension was further added to the city’s relatively close proximity to Ireland. Events across the Irish Sea had a tendency to spill over to Scotland. The politics of this time period were morally dubious at best. Violence leads to more violence in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of vicious one-upmanship. Everyone is entirely convinced that their point of view is the right one and death to everyone else. What’s that phrase? One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. From a reader’s perspective, all this political upheaval adds an extra layer of tension to the plot. 

A word of warning to the more delicate amongst you. Morrison’s latest novel does contain some pretty violent scenes. There was one that was particularly visceral, so much so that I’ll admit a classic Glaswegian expletive escaped my lips once I finished reading it. Other reviews are bound to use words like ‘gritty’ or ‘hard-hitting’. I’m not sure that does the narrative justice; it’s far more than that. Morrison’s writing has heart. It’s a dark heart, but it’s there nonetheless. Perhaps I’m just overly sentimental, even when it comes to razor-welding gangsters, but I loved it all. Morrison also manages some nice plot twists that all land perfectly. No spoilers here, obviously, but one was particularly well executed. I’ll admit I did not see it coming at all. 

This series goes from strength to strength. Edge of the Grave was good, but I think this second novel is better. The characters get more room to breathe and evolve. There is little better than seeing an author really hit their stride. Long may this trend continue. 

Cast a Cold Eye is published by Pan Macmillan and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to The Devil’s Hour by The Newton Brothers. It has a suitably tense vibe that fits the dark tone of the novel perfectly. You know the drill by now, if you’re inclined, listen to one while reading the other and enjoy both. 

*Don’t just take my word for it the international crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland, awarded it Scottish Crime Debut of the Year.

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