Just before Christmas in 2015, a shocking attack took place in a suburban street somewhere in Glasgow. The journalist Russell Findlay was attacked by a hitman posing as a Royal Mail delivery man. The hitman, William ‘Basil’ Burns threw acid in the investigative reporter’s face and intended to stab him to death with a knife, but was overpowered by the enraged Findlay, who proceeded to beat up the hitman while the acid burned his skin and his right eye. Burns was convicted in June 2017.
While this may read like a gritty true crime screenplay, it’s all truth, and it’s detailed in Findlay’s book ‘Acid Attack’. Findlay goes back and forth, using the acid attack to look back on his distinguished past career as an investigative journalist at the Daily Record, Sunday Mail, and the now-defunct News of the World. He tells of the criminal underworld that plagues Glasgow and the surrounding areas of Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire, as well as the figures that dominate this underworld. Findlay does not shy away from also attacking the law – blasting the failures, incompetencies and cover-ups rampant in institutions of law and government, particularly the Scottish judicial system, which takes a battering in almost every chapter.
Findlay is a thrilling writer. Years of writing for red-top newspapers have clearly taught him a trick or two about grabbing a reader, and he’s equally enrapturing here as he was in the papers. He uses simple language, and doesn’t try to show how clever he is with purple prose, which makes for lightning-fast, fluid reading. That being said, however, the newspaper-style sensational writing doesn’t entirely carry over to the novel format. A fondness for alliteration starts to wear after the first few chapters, and it loses the punch with repeated use – writing is an economy, and the more you use a technique, the less effective it becomes. These techniques work fine in the papers, where 100-1000 words will do, but in a novel they wear thin. Seemingly in parallel with this, the book as a whole loses punch as the reader progresses through it; it doesn’t get worse, it just doesn’t feel as impactful or shocking as it did at the start. Even a coincidental encounter with infamous serial killer Peter Tobin and the progression onto the identity of the murderer Bible John lacks oomph.
Perhaps this is due to the immense amount of sheer experience and material Findlay has tried to cram into the book. He whisks us through time, from the present, to the acid attack, to the 1990’s, to the present, to the early 2000’s, and never really settles until he picks up the thread of domestic abuse by the gang boss who Findlay suspects of ordering his assassination. All of this, interspersed by Findlay’s endless attacks on the inefficencies of the Scottish legal system, police, politicians and media, as well as his old-hand, cigarette-smoke-stained lamenting for the decline of print journalism, makes for a feeling that we aren’t getting the full story. The Tobin story is enough to fill a book in itself, but it’s relegated to a mere chapter here. The bloody Lyons vs Daniels feud which has raged for decades and has included a shooting in an ASDA car park in broad daylight also merits a full book rather than about a chapters worth of information. While the details Findlay includes are very interesting, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed.
That being said, these are otherwise minor flaws in what is overall a very good book. As a factual thriller, it’s not quite up there with Roberto Saviano’s exposé of the Neapolitan mafia Gomorrah, but fans of crime thrillers and tales of shady dealings with organised crime will surely enjoy it anyway. To describe it as ‘airport reading’ would be a little derogatory, if not too far off the mark – if you’re looking for an enjoyable, interesting read to pass the time, pick this up. But expect to come out like a glutton on a diet; you’ll be wanting more that sadly isn’t going to be delivered, and end up, while half-full, unsatisfied.
Words: Gabriel Rutherford (@niemalsallein_)