Among the more welcome returns in 2017 is that of Glasgow detective Dominic Queste in Douglas Skelton’s new novel, Tag – You’re Dead. If you read last year’s The Dead Don’t Boogie (which was one of our Books Of 2016) you’ll have been looking forward to this since turning the last page. If you didn’t that won’t affect your enjoyment of Tag – You’re Dead which works equally well as a stand-alone thriller. But you should.
That’s not to say that this novel is simply a retelling of the first. Genre fiction has some recognisable tropes which are expected, and which are part of the appeal, but Skelton manages to play with those themes and ideas while at the same time adhering to them. However, where The Dead Don’t Boogie was, at least in terms of plot, a detective and gangster novel, here Skelton introduces no little amount of horror, with a faceless killer on the loose with a taste for mind-games, torture, classical music, and possibly steak pies.
There are clues as to where Skelton is taking a story with the references he uses. In the previous novel they were mainly there to establish the character of Dominic Queste, with plenty of nods to Philip Marlowe and other noir fiction and movies. Those are still present, but the references are widened to include (amongst many others) Halloween, Scream, Silence Of The Lambs and Fallen to prove that Queste is as much pop-culture nerd as he is tough-guy gumshoe – in fact the former has a direct influence on the latter. He is creating his own persona in a manner not too far from The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, except Dominic Queste really commits to the role.
Spotting the cultural references is one of the great pleasures when reading Skelton’s work. You may not get them all, but there is undoubtedly another level of enjoyment when you do, in a similar way as there is with a Brett Easton Ellis novel or Quentin Tarantino’s movies. This is culturally literate writing. The writer is not showing off but having fun, and that translates to the reader. While keeping the tension ramped up there is always something else going on.
Perhaps oddly – and bear with me on this – Tag – You’re Dead also put me in mind of The Guardians Of The Galaxy movies in that you have a wise cracking central character who can’t keep himself from making the smart one-liner even when he is aware it is likely to get him a doing or worse, except I don’t think they ever refer to it as “a doing” in the Marvel Universe.
But, as with that franchise, this second outing sees the support cast come more into their own; the dangerous but oddly adorable Sutherland brothers – (the Hairy Bikers with more violent tendencies – slightly), Father Verne, a modern-day Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town who is not averse to using his fists to protect his flock, and Ginty, who refuses to be thought of as anyone’s moll, no matter how much Queste may wish it. Add a coterie of police and thieves, all of whom retain their own personalities where they could have become amorphous, and you realise you are in the hands of a writer who understands the genre completely, but understands human nature equally well.
And that’s what makes these novels stand apart – the characterisation. For all the quotes, smart dialogue, references and in-jokes, Skelton has managed to pull of a very difficult feat of giving us depictions of people who could have been two-dimensional stereotypes but who work individually, and are even better as a whole. Despite their flaws and failings, and partly because of them, you care what happens and want to know what happens next.
The Dead Don’t Boogie introduced us to a memorable new star of Scottish crime fiction, but Tag – You’re Dead takes what Douglas Skelton started with that book and dials everything up to 11. Funnier, wittier, darker and more dangerous than its predecessor, it is a novel which dares you to put it down and wins every time.