"The Storm Without" by Tony Black introduces two new characters to Scottish crime fiction. The first is ex-policeman Doug Michie, a man returning to his boyhood home after being kicked out of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the aftermath of a case that cost him both his career and his marriage. The second new character is the town of Ayr. Setting is critical to the success of crime fiction, and with Ayr, a port and resort in south west Scotland, Tony Black is breaking new ground.
Fans of the genre will be familiar with the darker side of cities like Aberdeen, Glasgow and, especially, Edinburgh. But you don't automatically think of Ayr as having enough of a dark side to provide a convincing backdrop. Well think again. It's a well-worn cliché to suggest that the Ayr that Doug Michie drives round in his Audi TT is not the Ayr the tourist board would want publicised, and it's probably also untrue: crime fiction has brought a number of places to the attention of a larger audience, and having an active fictional detective on the scene adds another string to the town's bow.
Except that Doug Michie doesn't come back to his native Ayr to be a detective. He comes back to try to rediscover a possibly irretrievable past, to visit his alcoholic mother, and to see if anything can be rebuilt from the shattered ruins of his own life. And perhaps to renew his links with his literary inspiration, Robert Burns. But things don't work out that way. A chance meeting with an old flame finds Doug persuaded to investigate why her son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, and Doug's questioning provokes a response that suggests that there are those in the town who do not want him to uncover the truth. The world Doug Michie inhabits is a bleak one, and there's a sense in which his fixation on finding out why a girl was murdered, and who by, is a substitute for what he really ought to be doing, finding out what has happened to his own life, and why.
This novel first saw the light of day in serialised form in the Ayrshire Post, and it is no surprise that it was very well received. It is highly entertaining, fast paced and tightly, almost sparingly, written. Tony Black clearly knows Ayr intimately, and though it never quite gets to the point where a street map would help the reader follow the plot, the action moves around the town with an easy assurance. It seems we may well be meeting Doug Michie again in future novels, which after this first outing would be very welcome indeed.