Lewis Winter is something of an unfortunate. He’s a low-level, middle-aged drug dealer in Glasgow, a man with few bigger prospects, until he gets involved with Zara Cope. She’s young and attractive. She believes he can up the stakes of his business, or says she does. Whether she’s right or not is ultimately irrelevant. Lewis is pitiable, and he’s suddenly on the radar of men with the will and decisiveness he’s always lacked.
Enter Calum McLean. He’s a hitman, a freelance operator. That suits him, and no one organization has pushed for him to commit to working for them only. It’s his job to dispatch of Lewis Winter. None of that’s surprising; Malcolm Mackay gives away Winter’s death in the book’s title. To his credit, that becomes one of the book’s strengths, or creates room for Mackay to develop them.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter has a number of moving parts (dueling events and motivations, mostly), but none of these strike false notes or seem included as simple foils. Zara Cope is ambitious in her way, though whatever ends she wants to achieve can only be reached by back channels, through various forms of manipulation. The organized crime figures – McLean’s bosses, their competitors and the couple of other hitmen we encounter – work with straightforward enough intentions in mind. It’s Calum McLean who remains a cipher to some extent, beyond his professionalism, tight-lipped demeanor and love for video games, but this, again, ends up feeling like a selling point, since Lewis Winter is the first of a trilogy of novels by Mackay.
He’s a stylist, Mackay, in an alum-strict sort of way. He avoids cliche for the most part, lyricism as well. This is stripped-down, matter-of-fact writing, and it’s hard to imagine another style serving better here. Taken in isolation, most any sentence Mackay writes in Lewis Winter would appear drab. Simple actions, the kind writers are so often conscious of skipping in favor of more apparently lasting observations, add a definite gravity here by way of accumulation. We don’t absolutely have to know that Calum, “gets a coat; it’s a colder day. Blustery outside. He picks his car keys from the top of the fridge in the kitchen and leaves the flat,” but that clinical thoroughness becomes a very fine weave as the pages pile up.
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter is a success, and I say that without qualification. The slight hiccup in the final pages – the pace seems to accelerate a bit suddenly, at first glance – in fact sets the stage nicely for a follow-up. I’m left thinking of triumphs like Geoffrey Householder’s novel Rogue Male and Allen Baron’s 1961 film Blast of Silence as cousins to Lewis Winter. But it’s Malcolm Mackay’s time now. On to How a Gunman Says Goodbye.
— John McIntyre