We read somewhere recently that "Murder on the Orient Express" is being remade as a movie. Which raises an obvious question: if the makers of the new film are true to the plot of Agatha Christie's novel, and the 1974 film, then won't a large part of the audience know in advance how the mystery is resolved? Will it change the experience of watching the film to know that it's not so much a case of "whodunit?" as "whodidn'tdoit?"
There are times when "Close Quarters" by Angus McAllister begins to feel a little like it might turn into Glasgow's answer to the Orient Express. Not for the scenery or the exotic destinations, but rather because just about everyone involved seems to want the murder victim dead, and most are far from shy in saying so. 13 Oldbury Road is a traditional tenement building in Glasgow's west end. Walter Bain is a hated man. The occupant of one of the flats, he has for decades acted as a self-appointed dictator, imposing his sense of family values and community responsibility on other occupants of the building, whether they be owner-occupiers or short-term tenants. Have the bins been put out or brought in? Has the front gate been properly closed? Have windows been cleaned? Have the stairs and close been properly cleaned in accordance with the rotas he imposes on his neighbours? The book opens with new tenants taking up residence in August 2000. Within a day Walter is found dead in his flat, his head bashed in with a poker. The problem faced by the police is that just about everyone who has ever come into contact with Walter Bain has a reason to murder him.
Much of this wryly amusing take on a very Glaswegian way of life explores the stories of some of the more obvious suspects over the years since each of them first moved in to the building. We follow the life of alcoholic solicitor Gus Mackinnon since he took up residence nineteen years earlier in 1981; and of comic book dealer Billy Briggs, who has only lived in the building for a year; and of superficially timid Henrietta Quayle, behind whose facade lies a murderous obsession; and of Tony Miller, who is unemployed and facing eviction following a spectacular party that got completely out of control a few months earlier.
Each of them has every reason to want Walter Bain dead, but who actually did it? Or maybe they all did it? No, while Agatha Christie might just about have been able to get away with that in 1934, no modern author is likely to try to repeat the trick. But that doesn't stop you wondering. "Close Quarters" isn't, oddly, really a crime novel, it's far more a gentle satire about Glasgow and some of its denizens. The murder of Walter Bain is certainly central to the plot, but finding out who committed the crime turns out to be almost incidental to what follows, and to the considerably enjoyment this book gives the reader.