Friday, 11 July 2014

Talking Artefacts of the Dead with Tony Black

Credit - Dan Phillips
Ayr doesn't have a Starbucks.

The birthplace of the poet Robert Burns has, however, come a long way from the days when the ploughman poet was the talk of the 'Auld Toun'.

No longer the bucolic little hamlet with the odd thatched roof to mark stops on the Burns' heritage tours, Ayr has grown up.

To say this was a surprise to me would be the understatement of my life. I grew up in Ayr. Sleepy old Ayr, 'where ne'er a toon surpasses for honest men and bonnie lasses' as our most famous resident noted.

It was, then, a place where weekenders flocked from Glasgow and the surrounds to take the prom' with an ice cream or a poke ay chips. It was sleepy, uneventful. And boring beyond belief to my teenage self; I couldn't wait to get out.

Edinburgh, Dublin and then Melbourne became stops on the extended escape route. I moved on, giving little thought to what I'd left behind. It was a shock then, on returning two years ago, to discover that the old home town did not look the same.

Ayr doesn't have a Starbucks. But it now has just about everything else - including a campaign to bring the coffee behemoth to the town; Ayr folk want it all now, everything they'd been denied for many a long year, and they're not backward about asking for it.

A by-product of this rush to modernity is some of the less welcome traits of a town on the up, with its eye on city status.

Ayr has all the problems it once had: rebellious teens drinking in the street, a scuffle after match-day, road rage in the supermarket car park. But, the Auld Toun also has some decidedly nastier social ills altogether.

The first thing that struck me on my return home was the massive increase in the visible markers of social problems. Beggars, comatose junkies lying in heaps in shop doorways, car windows smashed and the contents ravaged. In the big city these become the wallpaper to everyday life, you hardly notice them. But in Ayr ..?

The town had changed and not only on the surface. The crime being recorded in the local newspapers was of an altogether harder core, too. Gangland beatings; smuggling and drugs offences; post-office and jewellers raids and murder. As a crime writer, I took note.

When bad things happen in good places, as I knew from setting six crime novels in Edinburgh, an extra layer of intrigue is added to the mix. People don't expect the worst from such locations, and when it does occur, it hits hard.

The Irish crime writer, of whom I'm a huge fan, Ken Bruen put it in another way, when talking about the changes - post Celtic tiger - he'd noticed in his home town of Galway: "I wanted to wait until we had mean streets to set a novel in Galway, and boy, we had them now."

I can't say - as Ken did - that it was ever my ambition to set a novel in my home town. If you'd suggested the notion to me a few years back, I'd have found it laughable. But if you'd said the country I lived in would crash so dramatically and we'd be swept into austerity measures worse than the immediate post-war years, in the blink of an eye, I'd likely have laughed too.

That's the thing about seismic shifts, rarely do we see them coming. If we did, we'd batten down the hatches and prepare for them. At least get ready and try to ride them out in reasonable fashion; but when massive change happens so fast, all you can do is adapt and at best, interpret the new landscape.

Artefacts of the Dead opens with the discovery of a body. A banker has been impaled on a wooden spike near Ayr's communal waste ground. The spike has entered where the sun doesn't shine and exited, trailing blood and viscera, through the abdomen creating a scene that is both stark and shocking to residents of the Auld Toun.

As the investigation gets underway, what would once have been a high-profile case for the Glasgow murder squad, is kept in-house by an ambitious Chief Superintendent. That investigating officers are overstretched as it is doesn't seem to matter. There is, after all, DI Bob Valentine - an officer recuperating from a near-fatal stabbing to the heart - who can be brought back into the fold.

The murder investigation becomes Bob's last chance to re-establish himself. His spirit has
been broken by his stabbing, and the way his family has reacted to his near-death experience - but he now feels keenly how fragile life is.

Bob is a man ill at ease in the modern world, confused by what has happened to his town, on his watch, and plagued by a nagging guilt to make things better. The outside world has become an alien place to him; he feels a stranger in a strange land.

As the pressure, and the body count, mounts Bob begins to question his abilities. When the physical limitations of his recovery - and a weakened heart - lead to blackouts by day and sweat-soaked nightmares by night, he wonders if he has started to lose his mind.

The town of Ayr soon demands answers, a media frenzy threatens to have the case handed over to the Glasgow murder squad, but Bob's options are running out. The one hope he has of solving the case comes in the form of a tenuous lead to a similar, though unrelated, case from the past.

Can the earlier disappearance of the schoolgirl Janie Cooper provide the clues to solve the Ayr murders that are plaguing Bob's days and nights? He hopes so, because the little girl in the missing posters seems to be following him around - it might be the only way to recover his sanity.

Artefacts of the Dead is published by Black & White Publishing, price £7.99 and is available as paperback and eBook 14th July.

For more info' visit:   

No comments: