BITTER WATER: GORDON FERRIS

Posted: July 1, 2012 in Book Awards, review, Scotland

1946: It is a very hot summer in post war Glasgow and there are plans afoot for a redevelopment of the bomb and slum scarred city. But when Councillor Alec Morton, head of the Finance Committee, is found murdered it is clear that some people want to take more than a fair share of the profits of regeneration.

The newest reporter on the Glasgow Gazette Douglas Brodie, formerly a Major in the Seaforth Highlanders,  is asked by a strange man calling himself Ishmael to get his friend Advocate Samantha Campbell to defend an ex-serviceman on  charges of armed and attempted burglary at the home of the Chief Constable’s sister. The defendant Sergeant Johnson had been a prisoner of war for five years captured during the Fall of France in 1940, and while he was away he had lost his wife and home. Living rough and hungry he had broken into the house looking for food. But the ex-soldier was found guilty and sentenced to five years at His Majesty’s pleasure. Ishmael is furious and when Johnson is found dead in his cell hanged, he launches a campaign of vigilante attacks across the city aimed at those who have escaped regular justice. The action widens as several homosexuals are murdered, but Ishmael denies his men, known as the Glasgow Marshals, are the perpetrators of these crimes. 

Meanwhile the newspaper runs a story about the new found wealth and lifestyle of Councillor Jimmy Sheridan, of the Planning and Regeneration Committee, who is subsequently found with his mistress in a Morris Eight at the bottom of Loch Lomond. How will the two strands of the story, corruption and vigilantism, become one?

This is the second book, the first was e-book best seller The Hanging Shed, in the story of ex-policeman Douglas Brodie and it is told in a convincing first person narrative.

A metal grate and two gas rings, a sink, a coal hole and a rickety table and one wooden chair. Gas lights one with a broken mantle. Two strips of lino that didn’t meet and were riddled with holes. A wardrobe surely salvaged from the Clydebank blitz topped by my empty suitcase.

The writing is so evocative of the harshness of the period that it is a surprise to read the back flap and discover that the author, Gordon Ferris, was a computer expert for the Ministry of Defence and a partner in a Big Four accountancy firm. He has come a long way from humble beginnings in a small flat in Kilmarnock, but has not forgotten the details of life during that period, no inside toilets, tin baths, gas mantles, and freezing temperatures. 

The Glasgow Marshals, ex-soldiers, who found that the country to which they had returned was not a land fit for heroes, but one of rationing for some and black market excess and fat profits for others. Some things never change. Their leader, Ishmael, is a frightening character with his biblical quotations and vigilantism, but does get some sympathy in the narrative for his time in a prisoner of war camp working alongside the enlisted men even though he was an officer. There is no sympathy in the violent denouement for those who want to exploit the opportunities that the war has created. Gordon Ferris in this series proves you  don’t need mobile phones, DNA or modern problems to write an exciting crime story.

‘Why aren’t you lot at school?’

A grinning ragamuffin replied, ‘We’ve a’ got impetigo, mister. The hale class.’ 

I looked round them all and now saw the tell-tale red blisters and dried scabs. They all looked mighty pleased with themselves. 

Bitter Water is well written top quality crime fiction that was both entertaining, exciting and a social commentary about a period that is becoming more popular with crime writers. The gap in lifestyle and attitudes between the 1940s post war period, and the world of the Edwardians and 1920s and 1930s is far less  than that between the 1940s and the present day. Therefore the characters Douglas Brodie and Samantha Campbell would also seem to be perfectly at home in a book by Sapper, or John Buchan, and the cover blurb “The New Ian Rankin” is a bit misleading. 

There was no third man. But they didn’t need any help. They looked grubby , but alert and competent. Their steady , gloved hands had held guns before. Ex-forces. But who wasn’t?

The possible resolution of Brodie’s tentative relationship with Samantha Campbell, who has had an unfortunately traumatic life, is one reason why I will be on the look out for the third book in this promising series.

[Spoiler alert: Obviously it would have been better to start with The Hanging Shed and there are plenty of references/spoilers in Bitter Water to the events that occurred in that book.]

Bitter Water has been shortlisted for the 2012 CWA Ellis Peters Award.  

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Comments
  1. Norman – Oh, thank you for reminding me of this one! You’ve done an excellent review here, and I’ve meant to read it and just… haven’t yet. It has just moved up on my list.

  2. Maxine says:

    I haven’t been tempted to try him yet despite some good reviews, including this one. I am not much interested in 1940s/WW2 set mysteries but looks as if I should try this one.

  3. Norman Price says:

    Thanks Margot and Maxine. Bitter Water is more of a thriller than a mystery, but ironic that in the book Glasgow is suffering an American style heatwave, while I was reading it in the British rain. It is a bit like a winter’s day in Glasgow outside today. 😦

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