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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 33 - Arresting tales of Victorian low-life

AS readers would expect, I have a large circle of like-minded friends such as retired rear admirals, brain surgeons, journalists, beggarmen and thieves. With the last, I have had a nodding acquaintance as one recognising ham actors on the stage of criminal life.

Covering the law courts as a young reporter, I saw these light-fingered citizens, whose hands flickered over shop-counters, into people’s pockets and the cash and cosmetics’ cornucopia of handbags, collared in the dock with hang-dog expressions and charged with nefarious activities.

On that press bench basis, I also met freelance swindlers, spasmodic street brawlers, illegal tender utterers, domestic assault and battery practitioners and in the kaleidoscope of Edin-burgh’s anti-social activities, ancient, be-shawled beldames of Belial who admitted drunk and disorderly behaviour, some of them achieving over 100 court appearances.

Once, I bumped into a man acquitted of murder who tried to criticise my report of his trial. Naturally, I cut him dead.

These days were recalled by two books I have been reading: McLevy, The Edinburgh Detective and McLevy Returns - published by Mercat Press, once an adjunct of the former Edinburgh booksellers, James Thin, and now an independent company.

James McLevy, born at Ballymacnab in County Armagh, was a builder’s labourer before joining the police. He became a detective in 1833, handled 2,220 cases during his 30-years career and nearly always got a conviction. He published several popular books in the 1860s about his experiences that were almost forgotten until Mercat Press published the first selection of his writings two years ago.

McLevy’s Edinburgh was not markedly different from the city I knew as a child in the 1930s with its Old Town, in some parts, a labyrinthine, decaying collection of fetid tenements, noisome wynds and dark, dank passageways, where ragged children ran, families lived in a poverty unimaginable even to today’s low wage earners, and youngsters like me were warned not to enter certain streets lest we were molested by tough-egg toddlers, picked up contagious afflictions or worse, heard labial-fricative swear-words

Edinburgh, birthplace of the Enlightenment, was, in the 1830s, a city of free and often desperate enterprise, and Mc-Levy knew the Old Town especi-ally like the back of his baton-holding hand. Here, he reveals, was a confusion of dark dens in now vanished tenements. One, cynically dubbed "the happy land", was crammed with "thieves, robbers, pickpockets, abandoned women, drunken destitutes and their chance-begotten brats - a place of swearing, fights, drunken brawls and cruelties." Considering the social run-down in parts of today’s city, little has changed.

McLevy’s eye was all-seeing. He strode his world like a Nemesis in detective-sized boots with the assurance of one who recognised pimps, prostitutes and pilferers at a glance. A stair whisper, heard by chance, led him to solve a crime and the intriguing case of the bloodstained moleskin was, like many others, concluded satisfactorily by acute observation, patient detective work, luck and his ability "to be about the right place at the right time". We need more like him pounding the watchful beat on today’s streets.

His arresting tales have a mildly, moralising tone, relieved by flashes of humour. It seems likely that when McLevy was on the beat, criminals beat it up stairheads and piled ill-gotten furniture against their front door.

Impressed by McLevy’s origi-nal books, discovered when researching for an Open University PhD on early policing in Scotland, John McGowan, a former detective superintendent in Lothians and Borders Police and now British Energy’s security manager, donated the James McLevy Trophy to his old force, three years ago, to be presented to individuals or units for outstanding achievement in crime detection. The present cup holders are the Craigmillar Crime Patrol.

The spirit of McLevy lives on - certainly in the publishing world. Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is flourishing and Mercat Press is reprinting a book on the once highly-popular, fictional reminiscences of a Victorian detective, published 20 years after McLevy’s memoirs, entitled, The McGovan Casebook by James McGovan, the pen-name of William Crawford Honeyman, a professional violinist and writer in tune with underworld Edinburgh.

The city is lucrative turf for the detective story gang. It would be a publishing crime not to exploit it. I can’t wait to turn the next enjoyably-fearful pages.

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