Hugh C. Rae is one of the untold thousands of authors who’ve fallen into relative obscurity; despite penning several well-regarded crime thrillers in the ’70s, he’s probably better-known in the Scottish historical romance field under the nom-de-plum Jessica Stirling. E-publisher 280 Steps brought back his Edgar-nominated The Shooting Gallery in early 2014, calling him “Scotland’s answer to Ted Lewis”—Lewis being one of the key writers in the Brit Grit era, whose Jack’s Return Home became the Michael Caine classic Get Carter. The Shooting Gallery is the second novel following police superintendent McCaig, though with Rae’s passing on September 24th, 2014, I have to wonder if the first will be republished.
One quiet, rainy autumn evening in a small town near Glasgow, a sports car peels into the driveway of the local hospital. As the car screeches to a halt, the driver flees into the woods, eluding pursuit; concerned medical staff check the car, only to find Tom McDowell—-son of Frank McDowell, wealthy businessman and powerful local councillor—dead of a heroin overdose in the passenger seat. They are unable to resuscitate him.
This sudden death, and the appearance of heroin in this small community, spurs the police into action. Led by Superintendent McCaig, one of Rae’s recurring characters, the police investigation of Tom’s death and search for the pusher unearths that the town may not be so quiet after all—beneath its sleepy exterior is a seething underbelly of adultery and narcotics, an exposé on the methods some will undertake in pursuit of power by any means.
The characters are quite memorable—none of them are perfect human beings, but you can see and understand the reasons for their flaws; the criminals are people who’ve made their easy choices for their own reasons, but are not entirely unsalvagable. Actually, the various “bad guys” are more complicated and interesting than the police, though they have their own flaws and foibles. The novel’s broken up along three groups of point-of-view characters, and Rae goes very deeply into the minds of each, the prose changing ever so slightly to carry the current PoV character’s perspective and beliefs:
- First is the police procedural element under superintendent McCaig, namely detective Harry Ryan and McCaig’s secretary Sheila. The police are most interested in catching the pusher who gave Tom McDowell the drugs in hopes that they can bring down the drug chain that way. However, they’re lacking any real leads, though their mobile drug squad is having a riotous good time busting the dregs and carting off a few potheads here and there. Ryan is a tried-and-true copper in the early years of his career; McCaig is like the kindly old grandfather forced to take strict measures against those who would break the law; Sheila is a lonely young woman with a hobbled leg who knows a bit too much about what’s going on in the police station.
- Second is Frank McDowell. Frank is torn apart by the loss of his son; from what the other points-of-view show, Frank was a domineering father who pushed his quiet son into directions Frank wanted. The McDowell family was already fractured, with Frank sickened by his aging wife and having affairs, but Tom’s death causes Frank to realize just how hollow and barren his life is when he wasn’t living for his son. Never mind that his best interests for Tom weren’t what Tom wanted. Frank is a complex character, morally bankrupt in his secret affair and ruthless business-dealings, yet the portrayal of him as a grieving father is stark and humane.
- Last are the drug-dealers themselves and their attempts to stay out of the hands of the “blues”/”fuzz”—Mulligan, aging b-and-e man who does the legwork, and Gregor Yule, crafty young college student headlining the operation. Greg’s got a loose link to foreign heroin and has his brother Charlie Yule, merchant seaman, smuggling it into the country. A handsome, well-to-do business management major, Greg sees the £400 or so of weekly drug profits as the funds that will build a future Yule Brothers corporate enterprise. None of the criminals know who it was that gave Tom the fateful dose, since they’ve kept their market to a small stable of six. But Greg lucks out when he gets wind of Sheila and discovers she not only knows the goings-on of the investigation but tends to gossip about police business.
More than just a crime novel, The Shooting Gallery is about the entropy of relationships, the corruption of integrity not just because of drugs but because of power. At the center are the effects of Tom’s death on the distanced McDowell family, peeling back the layers behind Frank’s toughened persona as everything he worked for was for Tom, who’s now gone. There’s Greg’s pursuit of power built on the back of his brother, who shoulders all the risk. Greg lives in a flophouse with failed painter Whitehouse, a layabout who leeches free rent in exchange for Greg’s rolls in the hay with the floozy landlady; Whitehouse proves to be one of the few good-natured characters in the story in his care for the landlady’s young daughter, as her mother abandons her at any sign of a good time. Sheila is left alone after her father died a hero, saving some boys from being washed downstream; the legman Mulligan clings to his decaying family home, the other members dead or having moved to Seattle. Even the pusher who drove Tom to the hospital is adrift after a failed marriage and lacking any direction.
The thing I realize now is how many stylistic choices were due to the genre/era—these old ’60s-’70s UK thrillers can be more introspective, moving with precision between very detailed description into chatty dialogue, underscored by dry wit and muted violence. It’s more slow-going compared to the doorstopping page-turners they sell today, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Rae’s writing is top-notch, delving into these many flawed characters to see the essentials of their inner-workings. There can be a bit too much exposition detailing a character’s past or somesuch, cyclopean block-paragraphs of the past that you need to surmount before you enter a long stretch of dialogue. It’s a bit much, but I think the detail helped establish the themes Rae was working with.
I see why 280 Steps brought this one back: The Shooting Gallery is a layered read and impressed me with its complex characters. It’s not exactly what I thought of when I saw it referred to as a police procedural, since the criminals are more interesting and developed than the coppers, and as a thriller it’s a bit lacking in thrills (though the climax was quite good). Still, I think it stands tall on its strengths, which earned it an Edgar nomination for a good reason. With few reservations, I found it an enjoyable read and would recommend it to anyone interested in ’60s-’70s crime novels, particularly those from the UK.