By Craig Russell
Strachan, it would seem, had slept the deep, dark sleep for a long
Gentleman Joe had slept the deep dark sleep while I had been up
to my knees in mud and blood in Italy; while the Luftwaffe had growled
high above him on its way to rearrange Clydebanks town planning;
while Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had carved up Europe between
them and had given an idea to Glasgows crime bosses, the Three
Kings, about how they could do pretty much the same kind of carve-up
with the Second City of the British Empire. The fireworks at Dresden,
Hiroshima and Nagasaki had also done nothing to disturb Joes
Even the constant to-ing and fro-ing above him the propeller
churning of the vast Clyde-built ships or insolent tugs had
failed to stir him.
For the deep, dark sleep that Gentleman Joe slept was the undisturbed
rest one only found at the bottom of the Clyde after somebody lullabied
you to your final slumber with a solo for blunt instrument, tucked
you up nice and cosy in some shipyard chains, and slipped you over
the side of a midnight rowboat in the middle of the rivers
But, as I say, I spent the war years as ignorant as everyone else
about Joes repose. I just wish I had stayed that way.
I, for one,
was someone for whom the whole idea of dredging up the past was
particularly unappealing: being of that generation given especially
colourful pasts courtesy of the little party thrown for our benefit
in Europe and the Far East. My own history had been particularly
gaudy, and I had to admit to adding more than a dash or two of extra
colour myself over the years. I had once seen a movie about some
guy who woke up in the middle of nowhere and couldnt remember
who he was or where he was from and this lack of autobiography troubled
him immensely. Me, I would have given a lot to have had that kind
The dredging up of Joe Strachans past had been literal rather
than metaphorical. The River Clyde must have been about the busiest
waterway in the world, mainly because - wherever you were on the
worlds seas - any luxury liner, cargo ship, warship, tub or
rust bucket you saw bobbing past carried the mathematical probability
that it had been conceived and born on the Clyde. And that meant
that the riverbed along the navigation channels had continuously
to be kept wide and deep by a constant grime-dark procession of
So when a tangle of skull, bones, a few rags and a gold cigarette
case were hauled up in a conveyor bucket through roiled waters to
the surface of the Clyde, then it really had been a literal dredging
up of the past; a past that would have been best left exactly where
Dredger crews on the Clyde were a pretty phlegmatic lot; they had
to be. Their haul was mainly the oily, silty muck that clogged the
bottom of the channels and had an odour to offend a dung beetle;
but it also included everything from fossilized tree trunks and
giant elk antlers from a long-inundated ancient forest, to bedsteads,
pieces of ships engine, aborted babies in weighted Gladstone
bags, dumped murder weapons, and anything else that could be jettisoned
from a passing craft.
The late Mr Strachans were by no means the first mortal remains
to be recovered from the Clyde and they certainly would not be the
last. But there was a significant difference between the floating
corpses retrieved from the surface by the Glasgow Humane Society
and the City of Glasgow Harbour Police, and those brought up from
the river bottom by the dredger crews; and that difference was all
about intent. For a body to sink and stay sunk involved ballast,
usually pockets filled with stones or a wrapping of chains. The
bodies the dredgers brought up were the bodies that had been meant
to stay lost.
Like Gentleman Joes.
I could imagine the scene: the dredgers crew taking a moment
to decide what to do as the still anonymous Joe beamed a bright
skull grin at them from the greasy black mud of the bucket. There
had probably been a debate about whether to toss the bones back
into the river; there would certainly have been a tussle over the
gold cigarette case. But my guess is that someone on that tub had
been long enough in the tooth and had enough sense about him to
think that the initials JS on a hunk of gold might just spell a
lot of trouble. In any case, the decision was made to inform the
City of Glasgow Police.
The initial discovery of the remains was something that had passed
me by; me, and the vast majority of Glasgows population. It
had only warranted a couple of lines of red print in a late news
column of the Glasgow Evening Citizen. Significance, you
see, is something that tends to attach itself to things or events
after the fact. To accrue. The significance of the bones, their
resting place, and the monogrammed cigarette case remained disconnected
for a few days. After all, it wasnt uncommon for human remains
to be found in the Clyde. More than a few tipsy fishermen or smog-blinded
patrolling coppers had misjudged the long walk/short pier equation;
capsized tugs and the odd shipyard launch disaster had also helped
populate the rivers currents. And, of course, the citys
enterprising underworld made full use of the rivers capacity
As for me, I
had a lot of other things on my mind in that September of Nineteen
fifty-five. It was the end of the hottest Glasgow summer on record
which, admittedly, isnt a big claim like being Yorkshires
greatest lover, the cheeriest person in Edinburgh, or Aberdeens
most generous philanthropist but the summer of Fifty-five
had literally outshone the previous summer and temperatures had,
according to the bemused local press, become hot enough to melt
tarmac. Whatever the statistical truth about the temperature, I
remember that Glasgow summer as sticky and acrid: the thick viscous
air smelling like hot metal and the bright sky black-streaked with
the dense granular smoke from the factories and shipyards. Whatever
the weather, Glasgows element was carbon, and in the open
street you felt like you were walking through the hall of a foundry.
And now the season was changing. Summer was becoming autumn, which
it rarely did in Glasgow: the climate of the West of Scotland was
famously mitigated by the Gulf Stream and the weather generally
varied only from slightly warmer and wet in the summer to slightly
cooler and wet in the winter. Glasgows smoke-belching heavy
industry also lent the city a unique, season-fudging urban climate,
and autumn normally confined itself to the calendar and sodden,
adhesive, grey-brown clumps of leaves clotted over street drains.
But this year, because it had been preceded by a summer to notice,
autumn was a presence felt.
Glasgows founding city fathers had been a benevolent bunch,
deciding to alleviate the cramped tenement squalor to which they
had condemned the majority of Glaswegians with large, open parks.
This had been the first year that I had noticed a blaze of autumn
reds and golds in the trees.
There again, a lot of things were different that year.
For the first time since I rented my Gordon Street office, I was
using it as my main place of business. I had just tied up three
divorce and one missing person cases, and I provided security on
a weekly wages run for one of the shipyards. I was particularly
pleased with this last contract. Jock Ferguson, my contact at the
City of Glasgow Police, had vouched for me; which was quite something,
given that he was aware that I had been known to associate with
the likes of Handsome Jonny Cohen or Hammer Murphy, both leading
lights of the balaclava-wearing set. But Ferguson and I were part
of that grim post-bellum freemasonry who recognized each other as
having gone through the mincer in the war. I didnt know what
Jocks history was and would never ask, as he would
never ask me but I knew it was more Dark Ages than Enlightenment.
I also knew that Jock Ferguson reckoned me to be straight
well, comparatively speaking. There had been a time when I would
have vouched for Jock with similar confidence. I had taken him as
one Glasgow copper I could be sure wasnt on the take or otherwise
double-dealing; but my faith in him had taken a knock a year or
so back and anyway, even at the best of times, I wasnt the
most likely to see the good in people.
The most important thing in landing the wages-run contract was that
I had made a real effort to stay out of the way of the Three Kings:
Cohen, Murphy and Sneddon, the triumvirate of gang bosses who ran
everything worth running in the city, even if the peace between
them was as tenuous as a showgirls chastity. The jobs I had
done for the Three Kings had been more than a few and often less
than legal. But it had gotten me started in Glasgow after I had
been demobbed and the work had suited me more back then, still under
the shadow of the mountain of crap that had built up behind me during
But now, I hoped, things were beginning to change. I was beginning
I had, however, made a point of making it known to those to whom
it should be made known that I was running the security for a particular
companys particular wages run, and that I could develop a
particularly good memory for faces if anyone tried to stick us up.
So my message was hands off my run. Or else.
Im sure my warning had Glasgows three most feared crime
bosses quaking in their handmade Loake semi-brogues. I had actually
half expected, and dreaded, a proposition of the blind-eye-turning
sort, but none had been forthcoming. Like Jock Ferguson, each of
the Three Kings knew I was straight. Comparatively speaking.
Anyway, like I said, the original discovery of a pile of bones in
a dredging bucket didnt raise a ripple on the pond of Glasgows
collective consciousness. But a week later, it made a splash. A
big splash. And the papers were full of it:
BODY IDENTIFIED AS WANTED
EMPIRE FESTIVAL ROBBER.
MYSTERY OF JOSEPH STRACHAN DISAPPEARANCE
SOLVED AFTER 18 YEARS.
PROCEEDS OF DARING 1938 FESTIVAL ROBBERY
Joe Strachan was before my time. But so were Zeus and Odin and I
had heard of all three. The Glasgow underworld had more myths and
legends than ancient Greece, and Gentleman Joe had become a towering
figure in the folklore of those trying to turn a dishonest buck.
Reading the article reminded me that I had heard the name mentioned
with hushed reverence over the years; but because my acquaintance
with the Second City of the British Empire had only begun when I
was demobbed after the war, Strachan had never been a visible figure
in my landscape. However, I did know that there had been a spate
of pre-war robberies, the biggest in Glasgow history, culminating
in the Empire Festival job in Nineteen thirty-eight. All of which
had been attributed to Gentleman Joe. Attributed but never proved.
What I had also heard was that if Strachan had hung around - and
not at the end of a rope for a policemans murder - then he
probably would have been the Fourth King of Glasgow. Or maybe even
the One True King of Glasgow; with Cohen, Murphy and Sneddon having
to settle for fiefdoms. But then there had been the spectacularly
daring robbery, a copper lying dead, and Gentleman Joe was suddenly
nowhere to be found. Nor was the fifty thousand pounds.
No one at the time had thought Strachan would be dead: rather that,
in keeping with his now mythical-heroic status, he had entered the
Glasgow gangster version of Valhalla. Which many took to be a luxury
bungalow on the Bournemouth coast or somewhere similar. Probably
All of which really had nothing to do with me and was of less interest.
Until I got a visit from Isa and Violet.
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