Friday, July 07, 2006

MY LIFE AS A MAN By Frederic Lindsay

Polygon Books, 2006, ISBN 1904598722, £8.99

Starting with an old man attending protests against the war in Iraq, My Life as A Man takes us back to trace the events that would form this principled character whose devotion to his wife seems so total and complete we know almost from the start that without her he is somehow lost and ill-defined. The past finds our protagonist, Henry Glass, as a young man being fired from his first job at a factory. In a fit of pique, he steals the bosses car and - by proxy - the man's wife, too, who spends her time waiting outside the factory in the car for her husband to take her home.

But when his boss and his brother pursue the fugitive pair, its not simply about returning the man's wife. There's something in the trunk, too: something that's worth killing for.

Of all the publishers currently working at the moment, Polygon seem among the most willing to take risks with their crime output. While they publish the out and out noir of Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie, their literary crime sentiment extends also to this tale of a young man finding out not only who he is, but what is important in life. Its a brilliantly told - and, despite the emotional complexity, suprisingly simple - tale recounted through the memories of a man in his twilight years who has learned about the principles that matter and has come to an acceptance of who he is and how the world relates to him.

My Life as a Man seems to be about about growth and loss and how the world may sometimes surprise us when we least expect it. Its about how impetuous decisions may sometimes lead to unexpected results. The criminal aspect seems almost incidental, as it should in good crime fiction which uses the lawbreaking element to explore something else, something more fundemental to the human condition than the simple solving of a puzzle or the constant affirmation that killing is evil.

Having always maintained that crime fiction is at its best when it is not simply about the crime, Lindsay's excellent novel comes as a welcome reminder of that maxin. Despite the lack of on-page violence and despair there is a sense of melancholy and menace to the text that, for emotional impact, is worth twenty on-page slaughters at least. The lonely existence of the wife who waits every day in the car for her husband is given an odd poignance. The threat of the couple's pursuers is ever present. And the sense that here is a man coming into his own, discovering not just himself but the world is what keeps these pages turning.

My Life as a Man benefits from the lack of traditional crime structure and its focus instead on relationships, not just between characters but between people and the world at large. Which makes it not just a good crime novel, but a good novel, one that will not only engage your brain but your emotions as well.

Russel McLean fro Crime Scene Scotland, 15 November, 2006