Tuesday, August 7, 2018


by Iain Banks, 2012

Scottish gangsters. That’s not a noun phrase that bounced around my brain before I read Iain Banks’ 2012 novel Stonemouth, but maybe that’s just my blinkered view of the world.

Stonemouth is a Scottish town dominated by a pair of wealthy families, the Murstons and the MacAcetts, both with deep links to organized crime. It is also the hometown of our protagonist Stewart, who is returning home after a five-year absence. He has done quite well for himself while away, getting hired by a prestigious London firm, but he didn’t leave Stonemouth by choice. He’d been engaged to be married to a Murston girl named Ellie, but something happened . . . and ever since, it’s been clear that if Stewart returned to Stonemouth, the consequences would be unpleasant, painful, and possibly fatal.

So what happened? Banks doesn’t tell us at first, rather letting us put the pieces together as we follow Stewart’s cautious return to his hometown. The patriarch of the Murston clan has died, and it’s been agreed that Stewart’s attendance at the funeral will be tolerated, as long as he doesn’t stir up trouble in town, he stays away from Ellie, and he doesn’t overstay his welcome.

Needless to say, Stewart stirs up trouble, at least as the Murston clan reckons it, by speaking to rather too many people and asking inappropriate questions. Some time after the messy end of the engagement, one of Ellie's gangster brothers, Callum, plunged to his death off the town’s landmark suspension bridge. The death was officially a suicide -- case closed. Why is Stewart so oddly interested in what happened, anyway? Doesn’t he know it’s none of his business? the Murstons must be thinking.

The answer is that Stewart wants clarity. He wants to know exactly what happened to Callum, who’d been one of his old schoolmates. And he wants to clear up some niggling unanswered questions from the events that surrounded his breakup with Ellie . . .

Stonemouth is the most conventional Iain Banks novel I’ve read (comparing solely to other no-middle-initial Iain Banks books); it’s also the most recently written of the Banks novels I’ve read, by a considerable margin. Perhaps he mellowed quite a bit as he aged. (It’s very odd to read an Iain Banks novel set in a universe where Family Guy exists: it’s why Stewart hates it when people call him Stewie.)

Stonemouth does have one signature bit of Iain Banks grotesqueness, a lengthy flashback, near the middle of the book, in which Stewart as a child witnesses the violent demise of one of his friends. It seems completely superfluous to the plot. And yet I don’t think it’s gratuitous -- remove it, and the general mood of the book seems to be off, somehow, in a way I have trouble precisely articulating. Maybe the book needs this bloody middle to provide balance to the bloody ending that by then we readers are all aware must be coming.

Banks was a tremendously skilled writer who knew how to persuade readers to keep turning pages: I read Stonemouth beginning-to-end within a 48-hour period. He was playful with language and references; I am absolutely convinced, for instance, that he named an overgrown, dim-witted boy George specifically so readers could chuckle and think “That’s not George, that’s Lenny!” Sadly, though nobody knew it at the time, Stonemouth would turn out to be Banks’ penultimate book; just a year after it was published, Banks was diagnosed with aggressive cancer that quickly brought his life to an untimely end.

In the end, Stonemouth leaves me with an overpowering mood of what living in small-town Scotland is like. Also, the lesson “Don’t mess with gangsters”.

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