Some years ago, I wrote a piece entitled The Genres of Frontiers where I discussed four Welsh-based crime novels and their varying exploration of borders (be it geographical, ideological, etc). One of the books discussed was Duncan Bush's excellent GLASS SHOT. In a recent blog interview on Col's Criminal Library, I was asked "which book do I wish I had written", Glass Shot immediately came to mind. This prompted me to re-share my exploration and brief critique of Glass Shot, which is a compelling, brilliant and sadly often overlooked crime, noir classic. Here's my take on it:
One Cardiff-based novel, which explores centre-margin border conflicts, although focusing more on Cardiff and its burgeoning disconnection with the Welsh hinterland beyond it, is Duncan Bush’s brilliant noir novel Glass Shot.
Set in 1984 against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, Glass Shot is narrated by its main protagonist, thirty-six-year-old Stew Boyle, a Cardiff-based garage mechanic of Maltese-Irish descent.
Recently separated from his wife and children, Boyle now lives alone. Known locally as Yank, American-movie-obsessed Boyle dresses like a cowboy and drives a 1957 Thunderbird, cruising around the capital and its periphery, where, as Tony Bianchi suggests ‘empty space and its open possibilities are always present at the borders of the known’.
Places and interior spaces, in the form of bedrooms, living rooms, the city’s alleyways and streets, rural villages, and the Brecon Beacons National Park, are significant themes throughout the novel. Bush uses them to map out his region and its related borders and explore an alternative sense of place. It is ‘a sense of place that reflects a gap between the dominant ideological and aesthetic interests and the interests and stories of persons who reside in the locale’.
Bush also explores themes of displacement as illustrated when Boyle drives to the Brecon Beacons to spy on his ex-wife, travelling to a place that is beyond the centre, still part of Wales, but separated by distance:
[…] one more dirty-looking, Welsh, played-out little village, don’t even ask me to pronounce the name of it. Just another place that grew up around a hole in the ground twenty miles from nowhere […]
Interestingly, when Boyle eventually travels beyond the village, and into the hills and the valley beyond, he imagines it as another place, likening it to Montana and Wyoming; it’s ‘like a background you’d see in a film. Or some Shangri-La, another mountain land painted on glass’. Such themes are reflective of the novel’s title:
Glass shot. A shot obtained through a glass plate on which part of the scene has been painted. This Special Effect can be used to simulate elaborate locations
without the need to construct expensive sets.
Such blending of fantasy and reality works on multiple levels. Through intermittent flashbacks we learn of Boyle’s violent history and that some of the sexual conquests he lists in his scrapbook are, in fact, his victims. What makes this even more unsettling is how Boyle tries to paint another picture. He justifies his actions, convincing himself that his victims were willing, and grateful participants.
Boyle’s disillusionment and his reimagining of social and geographical borders work well. Cardiff, like Boyle, focuses in on itself and tries to reimagine itself in relation to a more globalised culture. This positions the regions beyond the periphery of the centre into what Jeanette Leyes describes as, a ‘paradoxical border space’. The paradox is that, as the social and cultural gaps grow wider, the centre identifies even more with a globalised mass-culture, which, in Boyle’s case, is American television and films.
Boyle’s reimagining of people and places is only a snapshot. The results of this, in reference to both Boyle’s delusions and the centre’s perception of what lies beyond its geographical borders, is that: ‘there is never a stable, unitary knowledge of reality: never the ‘whole picture’.