Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Glasgow, gangsters, and ice cream vans: Douglas Skelton

Back in the 1980s, the East End of Glasgow was divided in a turf war between criminal gangs who fought over ice cream van routes. It was suggested (not proven) that the ice cream vans were used distribute drugs and other stolen goods. The "Glasgow Ice Cream Wars" lead to a mass murder and then a 20-year fight courtroom fight that become one of Scotland's most contentious cases and helped launch the groundbreaking Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, before two men were finally freed after being wrongfully imprisoned for murder. Glasgow journalist and true crime writer Douglas Skelton co-wrote a book, FRIGHTENER, which played a part in the men's exoneration.

But when I met Douglas Skelton at Bloody Scotland last year, it wasn't in his guise as a true crime writer (he has written 11 non-fiction books), but as a teller of fictional crime stories. His 2013 debut, BLOOD CITY, centred on Davie McCall, a henchman with a conscience for one of Glasgow's criminal overlords. "A good man walking in a bad man's skin" is how Skelton describes Davie, who returned in CROW BAIT (2014).

I caught up with Skelton last weekend at Crimefest in Bristol. His third book in a planned quadrilogy, DEVIL'S KNOCK, will be released in the UK next month. But for now, Douglas Skelton, "a crime writer steeped in the real stories of Scotland", becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
That’s a moveable feast. Or maybe I’m just fickle. If you’d asked me a few years ago I’d’ve said Steve Carella in the 87 Precinct novels. Then came Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro team. Right now it’s Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole.

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Going way back it would be a western called ‘Seventh Cavalry’ by Jeff Jeffries, part of the Children’s Library. I wish I still had it. Like any boy with an ounce of sense, I loved western movies and this merged that with a bit of history, although the portrait of Custer was somewhat rose-tinted. But the first crime-related book would have to be ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, which began my affection for Holmes and Watson. It’s hard to say why I loved it. After all, Holmes is out of the narrative for a long period. But it mixed a bit of detection with an element of horror, which I enjoyed at the time, and the phrase ‘It was the footprint of a gigantic hound’ is up there for sheer hair-raising appeal along with the words ‘Man is in the forest’ from ‘Bambi’. Which I’ve never seen, actually, but I know about the line.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Well, before my first novel was accepted I’d written 11 true crime and historical books. However, like everyone else I’ve got unpublished thrillers locked away in a drawer that will probably never see the light of day. I look on them as training materials. I’ve also got some comedy scripts written for hospital radio – and the recorded shows. Overall they’re pretty dire, heavily influenced by ‘Round the Horne’, a radio show from the 60s, but there are occasional flashes of something that might work. And some of the performances need a little attention, especially mine. But the production was not bad and helped the shows hold together. Barely.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Walking the dogs. I’ve two, a Lab and a Lab Retriever, and I like to take them to the beach or up into the hills near my home and just walk. It helps the little grey cells. I’m a movie fan so I watch a lot of films, and listen to film music – I’m pretty geeky that way. Oh – and reading of course. You can’t write without reading, as far as I’m concerned. After all, who are you going to steal your ideas from? Sorry, be influenced by?

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Take a trip round the east end estates and discover they’re not as rundown, in general, as the media would have them believe. Glasgow gets a bad rep but really it’s no more dangerous or slum-ridden as any other city, perhaps even less than some. Sure, it has less-than-garden spots but where hasn’t?

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
George Clooney but I’ll say anything for a cheap laugh. There are those who say I bear a striking resemblance to Brad Pitt, if someone has been striking Mr Pitt on the face with an iron bar for an hour or so. A ‘Four Weddings’ Hugh Grant and I have been known to share a hairstyle and a tendency to self-deprecation that is irritating to some. But I’d probably end up with Andy Serkis doing motion capture.

Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
Of my non-fiction I’d say ‘Indian Peter, because it’s such a fabulous and little-known story. Fiction-wise, whatever I’m writing next. I know that’s a cop-out but I’m never wholly satisfied with what I write and continually feel I can do better. I think that’s healthy for we must always strive to outdo ourselves, to reach a potential that we may not even possess. For, as James Stewart said in ‘Shenandoah’, if we don’t try, then we don’t do, and if we don’t do then why are we here on this earth? See what I mean about being geeky over movies?

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
My initial reaction was one of shock. I was on my way out when the phone call came from Bill Campbell at Mainstream Publishing that he wanted my first true crime book and I remember calmly thanking him and walking out to my car in a kind of daze. This was a dream come true. I think later there might’ve been a glass or two of something amber and Scottish – not Irn Bru – but I can’t recall. On publication day I went round all the bookshops in Glasgow city centre just to see it on the shelf or on a table. It was a thrill, then and now. I couldn’t quite believe it and I still can’t.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
What comes to mind first was when I was giving a solo talk on true crime at a festival many years ago. There was a guy in the audience who complained because I didn’t have any photographs of dead bodies in my books. He was a bit creepy looking and the people around him shifted their chairs away. I couldn’t blame them. Then, last year at Bloody Scotland, I met this New Zealand bloke called Craig Sisterson. That was strange, unusual and an experience.

Thanks Douglas. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch


You can read more about Douglas Skelton and his writing here: 

Have you read any of Douglas Skelton's crime novels? Or his true crime books? Do you like to read books that are based on reality?What did you know about the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars? Comments welcome. 

No comments:

Post a Comment