Cast a Cold Eye
May 7, 2024
Book Review

Cast a Cold Eye

reviewed by Lou Jacobs


This follow-up to Morrison’s award-winning “Edge of The Grave” is a historical police procedural packed with bloody thrills and mystery. The year is 1933, and Glasgow is deep in the Great Depression, grappling with poverty, unemployment, and hunger while contending with rampant street gangs and the ever-present threat of IRA reprisals.

This gritty street tale unfolds through the eyes of Detective Inspectors Jimmie Dreghorn and Archie McDaid. Alcoholism and discontent fuel a climate of fear and violence, with religious differences playing a significant role in the ongoing strife, even dividing the street gangs by religion. Chief Constable Percy Joseph Sillitoe, a man with radical ideas, institutes a new direction in crime control, forming a special unit of twelve handpicked officers known for their prowess and stature, and unafraid to use force when necessary. Known on the streets as the “Tartan Untouchables” (deliberately modeled after Eliot Ness’ Chicago “Untouchables”), the unit’s most prominent officers are Jimmie Dreghorn and Archie McDaid. Jimmie, a veteran of the Great War, is a complex man of contrasts and contradictions. Standing only five feet eight inches tall, he possesses the body and skill of a boxer. He is a Catholic cop in a Protestant force. Archie, the tallest and largest man on the force, won a bronze medal for wrestling at the 1924 Paris Olympics and held the title of Scottish Police Heavyweight Champion in 1928. At times, he could be seen playing the bagpipes in full Highland dress. The two share an unwavering belief in justice.

While investigating a string of house robberies, they stumble upon a ghastly murder scene. During their investigation, a witness mentions that a nearby boat hasn’t moved in a week and its captain is missing. In the ship’s hull, they find Captain Reginald Smith bound and lying in a pool of blood, with a single shotgun wound to the back of his head. This was obviously an execution. Guns are illegal and carry a stiff penalty, while knives, razors, and clubs are the weapons of choice. The motive remains elusive and may be related to the ongoing issues of sectarian differences or their attendant politics.

During their investigations and multiple interrogations, a second murder occurs with the same MO. Jimmie and Archie come upon a pub meeting of notable criminals in Glasgow—the bosses of both the Catholic and Protestant gangs—along with several notable outsiders from Ireland. Their presence attracts the involvement of the Special Branch, an independent force tasked with combating terrorism, subversion, and threats to national security. By its nature, it was enmeshed with politics and skulduggery. (Interjected is a necessary history lesson involving the extensive conflicts and killings leading up to The Partition and its aftermath. We also learn of the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.)

Robbie Morrison proves to be an exceptional storyteller, weaving a complex narrative with vivid, multidimensional characters placed in severely compromised situations. This twisted narrative presents many unexpected events that lead to escalating suspense and intrigue, culminating in a thrilling denouement. Be prepared to become immersed in the life, culture, and politics of the time and place. History is made fascinating with this dark street poem of bloody vengeance. Hopefully, this won’t be the last of Inspector Jimmie Dreghorn. Thanks to NetGalley and Bantam Books for providing an Uncorrected Proof in exchange for an honest review.

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