Pilgrim Soul by Gordon Ferris - exclusive extract
First chapter of latest crime novel by Scotland’s best-selling author
To mark the publication of Pilgrim Soul by Scotland’s bestselling author, Gordon Ferris, we're running an extract here, exclusively to The List.
It's 1947 and the worst winter in memory: Glasgow is buried in snow, killers stalk the streets and Douglas Brodie's past is engulfing him. It starts small. The Jewish community in Glasgow asks Douglas Brodie, ex-policeman turned journalist, to solve a series of burglaries. The police don't care and Brodie needs the cash. Brodie solves the crime but the thief is found dead, butchered by the owner of the house he was robbing. When the householder in turn is murdered, the whole community is in uproar - and Brodie's simple case of theft disintegrates into chaos.
Pilgrim Soul is Waterstones Scotland Book of the Month.
by Gordon Ferris
There’s no good time to die. There’s no good place. Not even in a lover’s arms at the peak
of passion. It’s still the end. Your story goes no further. But if I had the choice it wouldn’t be in a snowdrift, in a public park, ten minutes from my own warm fireside, with a two-foot icicle rammed in my ear. This man wasn’t given the option. His body lay splayed in cold crucifixion on Glasgow Green, his eyes gazing blindly into the face of his jealous god.
I looked around me at the bare trees made skeletal with whitened limbs. High above, the black lid of the sky had been lifted off, and all the warmth in the world was escaping. In this bleak new year, Glasgow had been gathered up, spirited aloft, and dropped back down in Siberia. So cold. So cold.
I tugged my scarf tight round my throat to block the bitter wind from knifing my chest and stopping my heart. I looked down on his body, and saw in the terrorised face my great failure. The snow was trampled round about him, as though his killers had done a war dance afterwards. Around his head a dark stain seeped into the pristine white.
A man stood a few feet away, clasping a shivering woman to his thick coat. Under his hat-brim his eyes held mine in a mix of horror and accusation. I needed no prompting. Not for this man’s death. I was being paid to stop this happening. I hadn’t. This was the fifth murder since I took on the job four months ago. But in fairness, back then, back in November, I was only hired to catch a thief …
‘I’d be a gun for hire.’
‘No guns, Brodie. Not this time.’
‘A mercenary then.’
‘What’s the difference between a policeman’s wages and a private income? You’d be doing the same thing.’
‘No warrant card. No authority. No back-up.’ I ticked off the list on my fingers.
She countered: ‘No hierarchy. No boss to fight.’
I studied Samantha Campbell. She knew me too well. It was a disturbing talent of hers. Of women. She was nursing a cup of tea in her downstairs kitchen, her first since getting home from the courts. Her cap of blonde hair was still flattened by a day sporting the scratchy wig. The bridge of her nose carried the dents of her specs. I’d barely got in before her and was nursing my own temperance brew, both of us putting off as long as appeared seemly the first proper drink of the evening. Neither of us wanting to be the first to break.
‘How much?’ I asked as idly as it’s possible for a man who’s overdrawn at his bank.
‘They’re offering twenty pounds a week until you solve the crimes. Bonus of twenty if you clean it up by Christmas.’
‘I’ve got a day job.’
‘Paying peanuts. Besides, I thought you were fed up with it?’
She was right. It was no secret between us. I’d barely put in four months as a reporter on the Glasgow Gazette but already it was palling. It was the compromises I found hardest. I didn’t mind having my elegant prose flattened and eviscerated. Much. But I struggled to pander to the whims of the newspaper bosses who in turn were pandering to their scandal-fixated readership. With hindsight my naivety shocked me. I’d confused writing with reporting. I wanted to be Hemingway not Fleet Street Frankie.
‘They gave me a rise of two quid a week.’
‘The least they could do. You’re doing two men’s jobs.’
She meant I was currently the sole reporter on the crime desk at the Gazette. My erstwhile boss, Wullie McAllister, was still nursing a split skull in the Erskine convalescent
‘Which means I don’t have time for a third.’
‘This would be spare time. Twenty quid a week for a few hours’ detective work? A man of your experience and talent?’
‘“Ne’er was flattery lost on poet’s ear.” Why are you so keen for me to do this? Am I behind with the rent? Not paying my whisky bills?’
She coloured. My comparative poverty was one of the unspoken barriers between us, preventing real progress in our relationship. How could a reporter keep this high-flying advocate in the manner she’d got accustomed to? My wages barely kept me; they wouldn’t stretch to two. Far less – in some inconceivable medley of events – three.
‘The Gazette’s just not you, is it? An observer, taking notes? Serving up gore on toast to the circus crowds. You’re a doer, not a watcher. You’re the sort that joins the Foreign Legion just for the thrill of it.’
‘Not a broken heart?’
‘Don’t bring me into this. What shall I tell Isaac Feldmann?’
Ah. Playing the ace. ‘Why didn’t Isaac just call me?’
‘He wanted to. But he’s from the South Portland Street gang. This initiative’s being led by Garnethill.’
In ranking terms, Garnethill was the first and senior synagogue in Glasgow. It served the Jewish community concentrated in the West End and centre. I’d only ever seen it from the outside: apart from the Hebrew script round the portal, more a pretty church façade than how I imagined a temple. Isaac’s place of worship was built about twenty years after Garnethill, at the turn of the century. It looked after the burgeoning Gorbals’ enclave. Jewish one-upmanship dictated that they called the Johnny-come-lately the Great Synagogue.
Sam was continuing, ‘I’ve worked for them before.’
‘A group of prominent Jewish businessmen. I defended them against charges of operating a cartel.’
‘I proved they were just being business savvy. The local boys were claiming the Jews were taking the bread from their mouths, driving their kids to the poor house and generally living up to their reputation as Shylocks. But all the locals managed to prove was their own over-charging.’
‘I suppose I should talk to them.’
‘Oh, good. I’d hate to put them off.’
They came in a pack later that evening, four of them, shedding their coats and scarves in the hall in a shuffle of handshakes and shaloms. They brought with them an aroma of tobacco and the exotic. Depending on their generational distance from refugee status, they carried the range
of accents from Gorbals to Georgia, Bearsden to Bavaria, sometimes both in the same sentence. As a Homburg was doffed, a yarmulke was slipped on. I recognised two of the four: a bearded shopkeeper from Candleriggs; and my good friend Isaac Feldmann, debonair in one of his own three-piece tweed suits.
‘Good evening, Douglas.’ He grinned and shook my hand like a long-lost brother.
‘Good to see you, Isaac. How’s the family?’
‘Ach, trouble. But that’s families, yes?’
I guessed he meant his boy, Amos. Father and son weren’t seeing eye to eye on life. A familiar story. I envied such trouble.
‘But business is good?’
‘Better. Everyone wants a warm coat. Come visit. I can do you a good price.’
‘I don’t have the coupons, Isaac. Maybe next year.’
I grew conscious that the other three men were inspecting me. I turned to them.
‘Gentlemen, if Miss Campbell will permit, shall we discuss your business in the dining room?’
Sam led us through the hall and into the room at the back. We played silent musical chairs until all were seated round the polished wood slab, Sam at one end, me at the other, then two facing two. I placed my notebook and a pencil down in front of me. I looked round at their serious faces. With the hints of the Slav and the Middle East, the beards and the lustrous dark eyes, it felt like a Bolshevik plot. None of your peely-wally Scottish colouring for these smoky characters. Sam nodded to her right, to the big man stroking his great brown beard.
‘Mr Belsinger, the floor is yours.’ She looked up at me. ‘Mr Belsinger is the leader of the business community.’
‘I know him. Good evening, Shimon. It’s been a while.’
‘Too long, Douglas. I’ve been reading about your adventures in the Gazette.’ His voice rumbled round the room in the soft cadences of Glasgow. Shimon was born here from parents who’d pushed a cart two thousand miles from Estonia to Scotland seeking shelter from the Tsar’s murderous hordes.
‘Never believe the papers, Shimon. How have you been?’
I’d last seen him just before the war in the wreckage of his small furniture store in Bell Street. Some cretins had paid their own small act of homage to Kristallnacht. All his windows were in smithereens and his stock smashed. But the perpetrators hadn’t been paying real attention; the legs of the daubed swastikas faced left, the wrong way for a Nazi tribute. Unless of course they really meant to hansel the building with the gracious Sanskrit symbol. We caught the culprits, a wayward unit of the Brigton Billy Boys led personally by Billy Fullerton, who wanted to show solidarity with his
Blackshirt brethren in the East End of London.
‘Getting by, Douglas, getting by. But we need your services.’
‘You want me to write an article?’
He looked at me through his beard. A rueful smile showed.
‘We could do with some good publicity.’
‘You need more than a Gazette column.’
No one had to mention the headlines in these first two weeks of November: ‘Stern Gang terrorist arrested in Glasgow’; ‘800 Polish Jews held in South of Scotland’; ‘MI5 searching for Jewish terrorists’; ‘Irgun Zvai Leumi agents at large’.
The factions fighting to establish a Jewish state in Palestine were exporting their seething anger and violence to Britain. Poor thanks for trying to midwife the birth of a new nation already disowned by every other country in the Middle East.
Shimon nodded. ‘Not even Steinbeck could improve our standing. But that’s not why we’re here. We are being robbed.’
He shook his head. ‘They don’t come, Douglas. Your former colleagues are too busy to bother with a bunch of old Jews.’
Isaac interjected from the other side of the table: ‘They came the first few times, but lost interest.’ Tomas Meras leaned forward, his bottle glasses glinting from the light above the table. Tomas had been introduced as Dr Tomas, a lecturer in physics at Glasgow University.
‘Mr Brodie, we pay our taxes. We work in the community. We are Glaswegians. We expect an equal share of the services of the community.’ His vowels were long and carefully shaped, as though he polished them every night.
I knew what they were saying. It wasn’t that the police were anti-Semites. Or not just. They were even-handed with their casual bigotry: anyone who wasn’t a Mason or card carrying Protestant got third-rate attention. Jews were at the bottom of the pecking order when it came to diligent community law enforcement, alongside Irish Catholics. On the other hand crime was rare in the Jewish community. Self-enforcing morality. Glasgow’s finest were used to leaving them to their own devices until whatever small dust storm had been kicked up had settled.
‘First few times, Isaac? How many are we talking about and what sort of thefts? I mean, are these street robberies or burglaries? Shops or houses?’
Shimon was nodding. ‘Our homes are being broken into. Eight so far.’
‘Nine, Shimon. Another last night,’ said the fourth man, Jacob Mendelsohn, waving a wonderfully scented Sobranie for emphasis. As a tobacconist, he could afford them. It went well with his slick centre parting and his neat moustache. A Cowcaddens dandy out of central casting.
‘Nine is an epidemic,’ I said.
They were all nodding now. I looked round at these men and marvelled at the capacity of humans to uproot themselves and travel to a far-off land with weird customs and languages and make a home for themselves and their families. How did these innocents or their forebears fare when they encountered their first Orange Parade or Hogmanay? What use was their careful cultivation of a second language like English when faced by a wee Glesga bachle in full flow? Urdu speakers stood a better chance.
I thought about what they were asking of me. It didn’t seem much, yet I wondered if my heart would be in it. I used to be a thief-taker but I’d moved on. The world had moved on. Did I care? Was I still up to it? I wouldn’t give my answer this evening, but in the meantime …
‘Gentlemen’ – I flipped open my reporter’s notebook – ‘tell me more.’ I began scribbling in my improving shorthand.
Pilgrim Soul is published by Corvus Books