Today on Their Final Act Blog Blitz I have a fab guest post by Alex Walters telling us about his character DI Alec McKay
Jimmy McGuire, a washed-up comic, is found dead on the streets of Inverness, his body garroted. Back in the 1990s, McGuire had been half of a promising double-act until his partner, Jack Dingwall, was convicted of rape.
Soon after, a second corpse is found in an abandoned industrial site on the edge of the Moray Firth. The body has been there for some days and has also been garroted. The victim turns out to be a former musician turned record producer, who had also been the subject of rape allegations.
Meanwhile, DI Alec McKay and DCI Helena Grant are still wrestling with the fallout from one of their recent cases following an acquittal.
As the body count rises, the police think they have the killer in their sights. But McKay is concerned that the evidence is too neat so when he realises there will be a final victim, he fears that time is running out…
Of all the characters in my books, DI Alec McKay is perhaps the one I most enjoy writing. That’s partly because he says things I never would and behaves in ways I wouldn’t contemplate. And he’s always ready with the perfect response in situations where I’d just be fumbling for words.
When I was first thinking of setting a series of books in the Scottish Highlands, McKay sprang into my head pretty much fully formed. I had a good idea what he looked like, how he spoke, and the way he thought. That’s unusual for me. Usually, it takes me longer to get to know my characters properly. Their characteristics are gradually revealed to me, usually through the process of telling their stories. And as I learn more about my characters, their stories gradually become clearer. It’s one of the reasons I tend not to plot in detail.
But I felt I knew McKay from the start. Not everything about him, of course. I’ve discovered more about him as I’ve written the books, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. I suspect there may be more in his background than he’s let on so far. Even so, I’ve a pretty good idea what makes him tick.
Oddly, the inspiration for McKay came in part from the now sadly deceased Scottish singer-songwriter, Michael Marra. I’ve long been a fan of Marra’s work (and if you like bittersweet melodic songwriting, you should definitely give him a listen), and he always struck me as having a remarkable stage-presence. He introduced his songs with witty anecdotes, recounted in his distinctive slow Dundonian drawl, his face always deadpan. He gave you the sense that he knew a little more than you did about the ways of the world – never arrogant or pompous, but just naturally one step ahead.
That was how I imagined McKay. Physically, I envisage him as looking a little like Marra – a relatively slight figure but wiry, self-assured, face expressionless but with a twinkle deep in his eyes. I imagine him talking as Marra did – a little more slowly than most of us, every word considered, with a lurking note of irony. That’s where the similarity has to end. My knowledge of Marra’s character is confined to what he reveals in his songs (many of what are written from the perspective of third-person personas anyway). But his physical presence provided me with a hook on which to hang McKay’s personality. And if nothing else, it gives me an opportunity to sing the praises of the late Michael Marra, who remains criminally underrated, at least outside Scotland.
I certainly don’t imagine that Marra swore in the way that McKay does (although if he did, I don’t much care). I can’t really talk about McKay without addressing his extensive use of profanities, which have certainly troubled one or two readers. If you’re offended by bad language, I can only apologise on his behalf. It’s just the way he is.
In fact, very few of my characters swear much if at all (and then usually only when confronted by a mutilated corpse or similar). McKay’s the exception, and it felt natural for him. Language is one of the tools he uses to control the world around him. He’s short and physically unimposing, but he adopts a chippy, mildly aggressive tone to wrongfoot those he’s dealing with, whether it’s a suspect or his own boss, Helena Grant. He uses language in the same way, sometimes by pursuing apparently irrelevant chains of thought to bamboozle those he’s talking to, sometimes simply through a string of expletives. People often suggest that swearing indicates a lack of ideas. That’s not true of McKay. He has plenty of ideas. He just doesn’t always want you to know what they might be.
He’s certainly not a bully. If he’s aggressive, it’s generally to those in power. He’s always supportive of more junior staff and, unexpectedly, he makes a decent if idiosyncratic boss. Ask his number two, Ginny Horton, who’s learnt plenty from McKay, even if she’s managed to teach him a thing or two in the process.
McKay will never talk about his feelings, often claiming that emotion isn’t a word that middle-aged Dundonian males understand. But he‘s a fundamentally decent man, who’ll generally do the right thing, if not always in the right way. He has a sharp mind, but he’s easily bored and prone to embarking on frolics of his own. He’s been through a few traumas, not least the death of his own daughter, possibly by her own hand, and the impact of that on his marriage to Chrissie.
At the start of the third book in the series, Their Final Act, Alec and Chrissie are still living apart, still struggling to come to terms with their daughter’s fate and their own responsibility for it. But, unlike many fictional police-officers, McKay is an uxorious man, who finds the separation agonizing. My guess is that he’ll eventually find a way back home, even if, typically, he chooses to go the longest way round.
Alex Walters is the author of Candles and Roses, Death Parts Us and Their Final Act, all featuring DI Alec McKay and set in and around the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. He has also written four books set in and around Manchester – Trust No-One and Nowhere to Hide featuring the undercover officer, Marie Donovan, and Late Checkout and Dark Corners, featuring DCI Kenny Murrain – and three crime novels set in modern-day Mongolia, The Shadow Walker, The Adversary and The Outcast. Alex has previously worked in the oil industry, broadcasting and banking and as a consultant working mainly in the criminal justice sector. He now runs the Solus Or Writing Retreat in the Black Isle with his wife, occasional sons and too many cats.