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McLevy

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McLevy: The Edinburgh Detective

Such as met ‘Jamie’ for the first time might have taken him for a well-to-do farmer from the Emerald Isle on a visit to Scotland intent on
a ‘deal’. He was of medium height, square-faced, and clean-shaven, and always wore a tall silk hat, from beneath the broad brim of which a pair of quick black eyes scrutinised the crowd
as he sauntered along the streets accompanied by his faithful companion Mulholland.

Edinburgh Evening News,
1922

 

 

 

Praise for
McLevy: The Edinburgh Detective
:

‘This is a gem ... A fantastic weaving of period Edinburgh culture with intricate, captivating detective work ... Go out and buy one, now.’—

Manda Scott,
The Herald


‘A fascinating insight into the Victorian underclass ... a powerful writer.’

Daily Mail


‘This excellent book… is a cracking good read.’

Sherlock Holmes Society


‘Very inspiring ... part of our history and part of our culture.’

Alanna Knight,
Sunday Times

This eBook edition published in 2012 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road
Edinburgh
EH9 1QS
www.birlinn.co.uk

First published in 2001 by Mercat Press Ltd
This edition published 2008 by Birlinn Limited

Stories first published in 1861
in Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh
and
The Sliding Scale of Life

Foreword © Quintin Jardine, 2001

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-215-3
ISBN 13: 978-1-84158-741-7

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Contents


Foreword by Quintin Jardine

Memoir of Mr James M’Levy

The Blue-Bells of Scotland

The Broker’s Secret

The Dead Child’s Leg

A Want Spoils Perfection

The Breathing

The Child-Strippers

The White Coffin

The Cobbler’s Knife

The Cock and Trumpet

The Widow’s Last Shilling

The Happy Land

The Wrong Shop

The Letter

The Monkey-Jacket

The Coal-Bunker

The Mustard-Blister

The Pleasure Party

The Tobacco-Glutton

The Whiskers

The Club Newspaper

The Laugh

Foreword by Quintin Jardine


I
t would be nice to say that James McLevy, for all that he was a man of flesh and blood, and that his stories are based on his own career, is the
progenitor of all of the fictional Edinburgh detective policemen who have followed in his wake, up to and including today’s anti-heroic figures, Ian Rankin’s celebrated John Rebus, and
my own dark character, Bob Skinner.

It would be nice to say that, but in my case, at least, it wouldn’t be true. The fact is, I had never heard of McLevy until I was asked by Seán Costello if I would read some of his
stories, and then consider writing a foreword to this republished edition of his work. I undertook to do the first part at least, then at once withdrew for a while into my own fictional world,
leaving the pile of photocopies from Mercat Press gathering a fine layer of dust on my desk.

When finally I had sent
Head Shot
on down the road to London, ultimately into the hands of one of those people called copy editors—whose mission in life seems to be to boldly pick
nits where no person has picked nits before—I blew it away and picked them up, expecting to find some pretty dusty prose inside. Wrong. Within five minutes I knew I was going to write the
foreword; now that I’m doing it I regard it as an honour to have been asked.

McLevy writes of another time, another historical era. His characters and contemporaries are not people we know; they didn’t even live in the tales we were told by our grandparents. Yet
paradoxically, it is our world of which he writes. He walked many of the same streets we walk, and the crimes which he records in his stories are not far different from those of which we may read
daily in the
Evening News
, or even in the
Scotsman
, another living link to McLevy’s days.

Of course, narrative styles have moved on since he sat down to write these stories in the middle of the century before last; his is very much of that period and God alone knows what my copy
editors would make of him. But the quality of the printed word is not eroded by time, and McLevy’s tales more than pass the first and most important test, in that they remain an outstandingly
good read, as well as being a very important contribution to the social history of that time.

They indicate too that political correctness was something of an alien concept in McLevy’s day. He was an Irishman, come to seek work in Scotland, and his dislike of the English is nowhere
hidden or understated. He cast a critical eye over the press of the day too, and the combination of his twin dislikes is beautifully expressed in the opening page of “The Pleasure
Party”, in which his natural talent as a writer is seen at its sharpest.

Yet most of all these stories are true crime classics, imbued with all the pathos, darkness and occasional humour that you will find in the best crime fiction. Take “The Cobbler’s
Knife” as an example; McLevy’s account of the killing of one friend by another, and the bizarre circumstance that led up to it has an undertone of horror worthy of Poe. On the other
hand, “The Pleasure Party”, his tale of the apprehension of a quartet of hapless pick-pockets from England, up for the gullible and supposedly easy marks along Princes Street, is a
comic gem, rounded off by the priceless sentencing speech of Sheriff Hallard, which seems to my layman’s eye to contain grounds for appeal in every line.

There are timeless moments too. In “The Breathing”, McLevy, in thoughtful pursuit of two robbers—muggers, in modern-speak—says to a constable, “Then stand you
there, as steady as a post, but not as deaf. Keep your feet steady and your ears open.” If I gave that line to Bob Skinner, the order would be exactly the same, if a little more terse, and
perhaps with the odd adjective.

The seeds of the fictional anti-hero lie within the real-life character of McLevy. There is a clear impression of kinship in spirit between him and the people he pursues, and invariably
apprehends; indeed, he knows most of them by name. This is not to say that he was a thief sent to catch another; far from it, the man is a moral paragon from the soles of his boots upwards. But he
is of their stock, of their community, and he understands them and has more sympathy for them than is likely to be found towards their clients in most of today’s inner city police
forces—always acknowledging that their working environment is vastly different from the days of McLevy’s perambulations around the Old and New Towns. (Clearly this is true in physical
as well as social terms. For example, the two failed robbers mentioned earlier were spotted heading for “the valley between the Pleasance and Arthur Seat”, a popular hideout of that
time.)

The man was no soft touch; a reputation for heavy-handedness comes through on occasion. Yet he pursues his quarry, in most of his stories, more in sorrow than in anger. His sympathy for the
unfortunate William Wright in “The Cobbler’s Knife”, as well as for his victim, is real and clear, and when, unexpectedly, the jury chooses to convict him of culpable homicide
rather than send him to the gallows, the relief of the matter-of-fact McLevy is palpable. Yes, he knew wickedness when he saw it, but clearly in his life this was far from a common occurrence.

So how does James McLevy relate to my generation of fiction writers? How would Bob Skinner handle him if he were transported through 150 years or so? Very carefully, I should imagine; McLevy was
clearly a one-off, a character who would have trouble fitting into a modern police force, yet whose perception and knowledge of his streets and his subjects would have made him too valuable to be
excluded from it.

But the fact is, when I try to consider his work in the context of crime fiction as it has developed since his day, leading as it did to the emergence of Conan Doyle, I find myself thinking not
of Edinburgh at all, but of somewhere long ago and far away. When I look through my limited encyclopaedia of fictional detectives and try to find a match for McLevy’s street savvy and direct
action, there are two who stand comparison best of all. Chester Himes, in the earlier books in the Harlem cycle, comes right at the top of my all-time-greats list. His characters, the jovially
ferocious Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones have the same feel about them, for me, as the real-life James McLevy. And in his prose, in the humanity and humour with which he tells his stories,
in his way of chronicling a unique era in the history of a unique city, the Victorian detective stands alongside their creator.

Memoir of Mr James M’Levy

From
Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh
, 1861


M
r M’Levy was born in the parish of Ballymacnab, county Armagh, in Ireland, his father holding the position of a small farmer. Having
received a suitable education, at the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to the trade of fine-linen weaving, at which he continued till he was seventeen, when he came over to Scotland. Having
remained for two years at the Gatehouse of Fleet, he came to Edinburgh, where he was first employed by Mr Wallace, a considerable builder at that time, and subsequently by Mr Walker, a son-in-law
of Mr Wallace’s. Latterly, he went into the service of Robert Paterson, builder and tax-surveyor. During all this time he conducted himself with honesty and propriety, occasionally displaying
freaks of humour, and instances of that ingenuity which so signally marked his subsequent career.

In particular, Mr M’Levy had so recommended himself by his uniform steadiness to Mr Paterson, that that gentleman, who probably saw other qualities in him capable of being turned to better
account than in the daily toil of a hod-man, advised him to enter the police, and promised to get Captain Stewart to accept his services. He immediately agreed to this proposal, and Mr Paterson
having succeeded in his application, he entered the force in August 1830, as a night-watchman. In this capacity he acted till 1833, when, having taken fever, he was removed to the Infirmary. Though
at one time dangerously ill, it was not long till, through the means of a strong constitution, he began to show symptoms of amendment; and at this stage there occurred an incident worth recording,
as showing his turn for “finding people out.” It seems the doctor who attended his ward, having noticed with satisfaction the returning convalescence of his patient, in whom he felt
perhaps more than the usual interest, ordered nourishing food and wine for him. On the first day after this order, the nurse brought the supply. There was no objection to the food, but the patient
thought the quantity of wine not only below what he wished and required, but so limited as to do him no good. He at once suspected the nurse of defrauding him of what he so much required.
Accordingly, when the doctor came round next day and asked his patient how the wine agreed with him,—”Why, sir,” said he, “it could not disagree with me, for I scarcely knew
it was in my inside, it was so small.” “Well, you shall have more,” replied he; “I will give directions to the nurse.” Next day the nurse appeared again, this time
with a good quantity in a bottle. As she entered, M’Levy turned his eye, saw the bottle, and then throwing the clothes over his head, with room only for the play of one eye, began to snore
loudly. Up comes the nurse, and being satisfied that her patient was sleeping, she put the bottle to her head, and took off nearly the half. “So, so,” said the patient quietly, getting
his head out, “this is the way my wine goes. Madam, this will be the dearest gulp you ever had in your life.” Then the woman began to preach and pray, and appeal to his
feelings,—that she would be turned away if he informed on her, and would, in short, be a ruined woman. But M’Levy would not say he would not inform—he kept his intention to
himself, and the consequence resulted very happily for him, and not unhappily for the woman, who, from that day, gave him even more wine, not only raw, but in the form of negus, than he could
swallow—all which tended to his convalescence.

BOOK: McLevy
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