Not only is Cry Uncle the first of Russel D. McLean’s novels I have read, it is also the first crime fiction I’ve read set in Dundee. Having previously turned away crime plots set locally, thinking that familiarity would somehow dampen the thrill associated with the genre, McLean surprises with his new novel, dragging me in to the underworld of Dundee with just as much realism and pleasurable tension as the stories I’ve read located in places unknown.
The novel follows the story of J. McNee, a personal investigator with a questionable past, who once again is working undercover for the police assigned to take down notorious gangster David Burns. McNee is, of course, also a former copper. Sound familiar? I thought so too. However McLean proves that familiarity definitely does not breed contempt. The simplicity of the main plot allows the reader to be transfixed by the protagonist and narrator, McNee, and it is his internal struggle which most absorbed me. We follow this complex character as he becomes Burns’ right hand man, trying to gain enough evidence to put him away for good. However, as the plot unfolds, McNee’s allegiance wavers; his morally ambiguous perspective mean that we begin to identify with the seemingly cruel Mr Burns. This novel blurs the line between good and evil. McNee realises that he supports a lot of Burns’s (ostensibly questionable) decisions, or that at least he understands them, and that he sometimes enjoys the violence he must partake in. Rather than the action itself, the question of whether he is more like Burns than the moral man he has tried to be is what makes the novel gripping. Some of the scenes, however, are brutal and reaffirm the novel as a hard hitting, gritty and violent crime piece, not just a story of identity and morals.
As the plot and the tension thickens, McNee is constantly at risk of being found out and killed by Burns or by his many violent henchmen. However, he is also at odds with the police due to his chequered past, and most of all with himself. The importance of flashbacks into his past become clearer as Cry Uncle goes on and we gain more insight in to McNee’s fragile mental state. However, McLean does not overdo the tragic circumstances, as some crime novelists like to do with their troubled characters, but instead allows the pain McNee feels to be accessible to the reader, making him extremely likable despite the tough guy narration.
The romance between McNee and a policewoman named Susan is refreshingly realistic, highlighting the obvious issues of being attracted to a man caught up in the world of crime. The problems they face make us identify with the characters on another level, and given McNee’s mental state, gives him more depth and believability. The two end on hopeful terms, and although there is no promise for a happy ever after, this presents an uplifting end to the darker plot.
If there is anything that I might have reservations about, it would be the somewhat anticlimactic ending in which Burns as a character seems to change dramatically. Given that the whole novel shows his brutal yet admirable determination to hold on to the empire he has worked so hard to gain, and given also that he wants to be feared and respected despite his increasing age, he just seems to roll over and give in, and within a matter of pages.This being said, Cry Uncle is definitely a worthwhile read, psychologically gripping and excellently written. The gritty and honest narration has a truly Scottish attitude.