By Allan Guthrie (Polygon)
ISBN 978 1 84697 097 9 • £8.99 (pbk)
With nothing to attract in the sepia-tinted cover image of a hefty bunch of keys, for two months I passed over my copy of Slammer, moving it ever lower down the bookstack as I reached for more appealing titles. I was greatly deluded. Bedazzled by the polish and glitz of new literary fiction releases, I nearly missed out on one of the best thrillers of the year.
Slammer opens in September 1992. Nicholas Glass, the anti-hero, is a ‘slammer’; an inexperienced prison officer just six weeks into his time in the slammer, ‘the Hilton’, a fictional “modern … maximum security prison” near Edinburgh: “three hostage crises in the last ten years. Four officers stabbed. One had lost an eye. One had died” (p. 12). Alienated and a prisoner to his vulnerability, he’s nervy and inexperienced and he knows it. His colleagues also know it and the inmates can sense it too. Inept and indecisive, he’s a laughing stock, bullied by the other officers and an easy target for hardened criminals. Menace seeps in from the outside world. His family is threatened and, attempting to do the right thing to keep his fragile relationship intact, Glass is soon embroiled in drug smuggling and an attempted breakout.
Slammer has all the ingredients of the perfect noir-thriller: black-mail, kidnap, multiple murders, crisp dialogue, sex, thuggish, brutal gangsters who wear their nick-names like commemorative battle ribbons, ‘Mad Will’, ‘Caesar’, ‘Mafia’, violence and malevolence (with an especially gruesome scene involving self-harm on p. 15 for the squeamish to skip over), extra helpings of drug-taking (recreational/prescription and alcohol), mixed together with a dash of black humour to lighten the tone. “Watt looked different with his clothes on and, somehow, Glass doubted that his real first name was Brad. Maybe that wasn’t even his porn name” (p. 68). But there are new things too.
Guthrie’s Scotland is on the cusp of a literary revolution and he contrasts Scottish cultural references playfully, setting prime-time soap opera Take the High Road against The Shamen’s ‘Ebeneezer Goode’; a pre-Trainspotting song about the pleasures of social drug-taking. The story zips through a shadowy landscape emptied of historical references with not a scrap of tartan or chunk of shortbread in sight.
When four o’clock came, Glass was waiting by the north wall of the Castle Esplanade looking across the Firth of Forth. Tourists spilled out from the Castle in regular spurts. They milled about, gibbering in languages Glass didn’t understand, pointing, exclaiming, crossing from one side of the Esplanade to the other, taking in the scenery, snapping photos. A solitary fat cloud squatted in the sky. Hardly a breath of wind. Stunning views…
But it wasn’t what Glass wanted. The weather was wrong. It ought to be stormy. Thunder and lightning. Lashing rain. Zero visibility. An atonal kind of weather, dissonant clouds, clashing light and dark. (p. 68)
Personal and collective amnesia and mis-remembering are at the heart of Guthrie’s exposure of the lie that everyone can live a just life in an unjust society. Glass, a once bright boy whose “teachers had had high expectations of him”, “wasn’t qualified to do a damn thing”, so is compelled to work for “shitty pay” : “Scottish officers were on a much lower salary than their counterparts in England” (p. 13).
Above all, it’s Guthrie’s focus on the landscape of the mind that sets Slammer apart. The novel is split into three sections, ‘Narrative Exposure Therapy’, ‘Confabulation’ and ‘Cognitive Dissonance’, with each one representing different shards of Glass’s fractured consciousness. About a quarter of the way into this relatively short, gripping novel, the narrative takes a surprising turn when the narrator presents different scenarios of the same scene. Memory, we are reminded, is unreliable. “Sometimes Glass’s imagination got the better of him. He’d run through the possibilities and they’d all seemed equally real. Not real in his head, but as if they were actually happening” (p. 59). Perception and self-perception skate across the slippery narrative.
Allan Guthrie has been lauded as “one of the new kings of tartan noir” (The [Glasgow] Herald). Be that as it may, Slammer’s affinities with the Scottish tradition of narrative unreliability, such as in Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), places him very firmly in the literary mainstream.
Interestingly – the image on the cover of American version of Slammer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, November 2009)
has strong links with the Vintage edition of Trainspotting (new ed. 1994)