Sunday, October 5, 2014

A darker shade of Tartan: examining Scottish crime

A darker shade of tartan
Classic British detective fiction centred on the gas-lamped streets of Victorian London and the quiet English countryside, but when it comes to contemporary crime it’s writers from north of the border leading the way. By Craig Sisterson

Note: this article was originally published in the October 2010 print issue of Good Reading magazine, and is published online for the first time here, four years later, in honour of my recent attendance at the wonderful Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling, 18-21 September 2014. 

Back in 1987 a laddie and a lassie from Fife in Scotland released debut crime novels. Neither was an overnight success. But each kept writing; weaving gritty, exciting tales focused on complex heroes operating in societies filled with shades of grey. Then, around a decade later, both came to wider attention in quick succession when first the lass, Val McDermid, then the lad, Ian Rankin, each won the prestigious Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association, was nominated for the Edgar from the Mystery Writers’ of America, and then later saw their tales turned into popular television series.

But that beachhead established by McDermid and Rankin, bringing greater attention to Scots-penned crime - which mixes touches of the American hardboiled school with British settings and a distinctly Scottish sense of duality and dark humour - merely foreshadowed an all-out Caledonian assault on the wider world of crime fiction.

Now there are dozens upon dozens of Scottish crime writers racking up awards, acclaim, and sales, and continuing the evolution of British crime writing from Christie-esque crossword puzzles to powerful tales that cast light on contemporary society through the prism of page-turning stories. In recent decades crime fiction has become the modern social novel, and many Scottish writers have been leading the way. Crime fiction “provides a great vehicle for writing very honestly, and sometimes very opinionatedly, about the society that you live in,” McDermid tells me on the eve of her recent visit to Australasia.

But just what makes this small country of barely five million people so conducive to quality crime writing?

Darkness and duality
“I think it’s because there is something in the Scottish psyche that is very much attuned to the dark existing with the light,” says CWA Dagger winner Craig Russell (the Jan Fabel series, the Lennox series), when I ask him what’s behind the thriving Scottish crime writing community. “If you look at Scottish folk tales, there are always stories of the devil waiting for you at the corner trying to entice you into a game of cards for your soul, and that kind of thing. And let’s be honest, we are not renowned for our sunny personalities, we enjoy the darker side of things, and that’s probably why we have a natural tendency towards writing crime. Jekyll and Hyde could only have been written by a Scottish author.”

And it is that classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale of the good and evil contained within one man, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), that many scholars, commentators, and authors point to as the true seed of what has become known as ‘Tartan Noir’. Stevenson believed that evil was no longer “the beast lurking in the auld kirk’s graveyard”, but that instead “we are the monsters, evil lurks in each of us”, said Carole M Barrowman in a 2004 article for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Modern Scottish crime is packed with anti-heroes, flawed detectives and other protagonists that mix good and bad, although usually not quite to the same extent as the monstrous and violent Mr Hyde.

“We do have ... the potential to do wonderful things, but we all have the potential to do bad things,” said Rankin in a recent interview with Prakash Karat in the Hindu Times. “All my books are really about reworking the basic theme of human beings containing within them the ability to do terrible things as well as good things.”

That sense of ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, that ‘duality of the soul’, is also evident in the macabre nature of historic Scottish literature, from gothic ballads to James Hogg’s influential novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), with its themes of the saved and the damned. Take a look at Shakespeare’s plays, and which stands out as the most gothic and gloomily atmospheric? That’s right - MacBeth, ‘the Scottish play’, with its witches coven and ‘something wicked this way comes’. Even Sherlock Holmes, a London detective penned by Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, somewhat reflects that lineage - the gothic sensibilities of The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1901) perhaps being the best example.

Combine all that with another ingrained Scottish duality - the tension between a history of repressive Christianity and a party-loving Celtic nature - and it’s easy to see why Scottish crime fiction so often manages to successfully combine darkness and light.

Politics and society
William McIlvanney
But there’s more than complex protagonists and a combination of grit and gallows humour in contemporary Scottish crime. Crime writers explore not only our deepest natures but also the nature of society itself, said Rankin recently. And that tradition of Scottish crime writers casting a keen eye over society, a trait shared with their Scandinavian counterparts who’ve also become increasingly popular, ties into the evolution of the crime novel in general over the past few decades. “Literary fiction has become detached from the contemporary realities of Britain, and in that sense it’s been left to the genre writers ... to hold a mirror up to contemporary Britain,” said literature Professor Liam McIlvanney (All the Colours of the Town) when I asked him about choosing to write a thriller for his fictional debut. “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s we had a growing campaign for a Scottish Parliament… and in a sense it was crime fiction that gave readers a place in which those political issues were explored.”

In fact it was McIlvanney’s father William, an acclaimed poet and novelist who has won several major literary awards, including the Whitbread (now the Costa Book Award) and the Saltire, that lead the way for socially conscious crime fiction back in the 1970s, with his novels featuring tough and uncompromising detective Jack Laidlaw. “It’s no coincidence that McIlvanney wrote the first Laidlaw book when Scotland was discussing devolution the first time around,” says McDermid. Laidlaw was a rogue and a philosopher, who “doesn’t so much solve crime as he strips them into submission, first exposing their causes and then confronting their consequences,” said Barrowman in 2004. “And in the process, Laidlaw uncovers the secrets of his humanity and ours.”

An unintentional crime king
Although his Laidlaw novels have been somewhat forgotten by the wider public, crime fiction aficionados and modern-day Scottish authors still appreciate the influence of McIlvanney on contemporary detective fiction. In fact, Rankin himself has repeatedly credited William McIlvanney as being a ‘literary father’ to him.

Rankin didn’t initially set out to be a crime writer, which is somewhat ironic for a man who has become the biggest name in British crime writing over the past decade and more. He was studying for a PhD in Literature at the University of Edinburgh when he wrote a couple of unpublished novels and what would become Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. “I started writing stories, poems and eventually novels about Edinburgh to try and make sense of the city,” said Rankin to the Hindu Times. “This was at a time in the early Eighties, when Edinburgh had the worst per capita problem with heroin and AIDS/HIV in Europe. But nobody was discussing it, nobody was writing about it, and nobody seemed to be trying to change the situation… Old Edinburgh, tourist Edinburgh, is ringed by problem areas that the tourist never has to see. What I really wanted to say to people was that Edinburgh was more complex than you think, and that it’s a city that despite appearances has a lot of social issues and problems.”

Rankin thought he was writing mainstream fiction that focused on social issues, and was surprised to see Knots and Crosses shelved in the crime section. But he soon came around, realising the opportunities within the broader modern genre. “Crime fiction is perfect for discussing those problems.” Rankin’s Rebus novels are much more than the escapist entertainment. “Not only does the series dissect the sinews of modern Scotland and Rankin’s scalpel does not reveal a pretty sight, it also explores bleakly topical ethical issues,” said Andrew Taylor in an article in The Independent in 2001.

It took more than a decade of writing for Rankin to become ‘an overnight success’ with Black and Blue, the eighth Rebus novel which won the Gold Dagger in 1997, but since then his star has skyrocketed. He won the Edgar Award for Resurrection Men in 2004, the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement in 2005, and has received four honorary doctorates from British universities, and an OBE.

Leading lady
While Rankin is known as the ‘biggest name’ in Scottish crime writing, Val McDermid, the lassie from Fife who also debuted in 1987 and became the feminine pillar of Tartan Noir, has actually sold more books worldwide, thanks to her large American following. Earlier this year McDermid was announced as the 2010 recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, after being inducted, along with Rankin, into the Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2009. She has written 25 novels and two short story collections, won or been short-listed for numerous awards in several countries, including the Gold Dagger, the Grand Prix des Romans d'Adventure, the Barry Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and had two acclaimed TV series made from her novels; Wire in the Blood and Place of Execution.

McDermid worked as a reporter before becoming a novelist, including on big cases like the Moors Murders and the Yorkshire Ripper murders, allowing her to see into many aspects of society. It was the “contaminating effect” of crime on victims and society, rather than mere whodunnit, that has always concerned her, she says.

Unlike many crime writers who have one dominant series character (eg Rankin’s Rebus), McDermid’s has penned three six-book series (one featuring lesbian journalist Lindsay Gordon, another private eye Kate Brannigan, and the third dysfunctional profiler Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan) and several standalones, including the recently-released Trick of the Dark. Inspired by the new wave American feminist and lesbian crime writers of the 1980s, McDermid has in turn gone on to inspire a new generation of female writers, who aren’t afraid to tackle the (very) tough issues.

Floodgates open
Denise Mina
There are now plenty of excellent female crime writers in Scotland, including CWA Dagger award-winners like Denise Mina (the Garnethill trilogy, Still Midnight) and Louise Welsh, whose ‘atmospheric and harrowing’ 2002 debut The Cutting Room also won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. Barrowman described Welsh’s debut as “like Stevenson on ecstasy”. “The crime fiction coming out of Scotland at the moment is the best in the world,” said Mina to Crime Time late last year. Like William McIlvanney, Rankin and McDermid, the new breed of Scots crime writers are often concerned with exploring the wider human and social aspects of crime. “Why someone did the crime, as opposed to who did it - I think that’s dead interesting,” said Mina. Glaswegian Welsh continues that Scottish gothic tradition of horror lurking beneath the everyday, weaving tales tinged with humour that can both lighten the mood, and make the darkness seem even blacker, with its contrast.

Other Scots females both riding and propelling the ‘Tartan Noir’ wave include the ‘Femmes Fatales’ trio of Lin Anderson (Final Cut), Alex Gray (Never Somewhere Else) and Alanna Knight (the long-running Inspector Faro series). The masculine side of the ‘Tartan Noir’ ledger is also well stocked, and likewise mixes dark and light. CWA Dagger in the Library winner Stuart MacBride (the DS Logan McRae series) is known for his gritty and gory Aberdeen-set tales, but they contain plenty of piss-taking and gallows humour. In contrast, Christopher Brookmyre has won several ‘comic crime fiction’ awards, but there’s darkness beneath the satire, with his flawed hero, Jack Parlabane, often coming up against corruption in ‘the Establishment’.

For whatever reason - storytelling tradition, gothic sensibilities, Caledonian antisyzygy, gloomy weather, or merely the ‘build it and they will come’ success of Rankin and McDermid - Scotland has proven a very fertile ground for quality contemporary crime writing. Scottish author and commentator Donna Moore now has almost 100 Scottish crime writers listed on her Big Beat from Badsville website.

Take your pick from any of them; you can’t go too far wrong.

Scottish crime - seven samples
Want to give ‘Tartan Noir’ a try? Expand the authors you’ve read? Try any of the following acclaimed titles, ranging from classic to contemporary. All are available in Australasia.

The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid (HarperCollins)
McDermid’s tenth novel introduced dysfunctional profiler Tony Hill and DI Carol Jordan, went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger, and led to the popular Wire in the Blood TV series. Across the city of Bradfield men are being kidnapped, tortured and killed by a mysterious psychopath who then dumps their mutilated corpses in areas frequented by the gay community.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (Houghton Mifflin)
The Silver Dagger-winning cult classic that back in 1977 first picked at the changing strands of Scottish society through the prism of the detective novel, and paved the way for the modern generation of ‘tartan noir’. Complex and unorthodox policeman Jack Laidlaw follows the trail of a murderer deep into the underbelly of Glasgow.

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (Bantam)
The second instalment in Mina’s award-winning Paddy Meehan series sees the aspiring journalist called to a domestic dispute in a wealthy suburb, where a man pays her off not to report the incident. When the woman shows up dead the next morning, Paddy finds she is the only one who cares where the truth really lies. Nominated for the 2007 Edgar Award.

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (Orion)
This eighth Rebus novel was Rankin’s breakthrough, and the book that began drawing attention to ‘tartan noir’, winning the CWA Gold Dagger, and becoming the first episode of the TV series. Rebus is on the ropes, juggling four cases and trying to nail a killer while under the scrutiny of both an internal inquiry and TV cameras investigating a miscarriage of justice.

Lennox by Craig Russell (Allen & Unwin)
CWA Dagger in the Library recipient Russell returns to his roots with his first Scottish-set thriller, an excellent 1950s noir tale introducing shady Glasgow private eye and ‘fixer’ Lennox. After turning down a job from an up-and-coming gangster, Lennox finds himself in the frame for murder, and dodging crime kings and hit man to prove his innocence.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (Penguin)
The original ‘shilling shocker’ that explored the duality of human nature, became a huge success and literary classic, and remains in print to this day, almost 125 years later. Dr Jekyll discovers a drug that releases a dark alter-ego that prowls the streets of fog-bound London. He thinks he can control it, but soon discovers his double life comes at a hideous cost.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (Text Publishing)
Welsh’s 2003 debut won the CWA New Blood Dagger, the Saltire Award, and was nominated for the Orange Prize. A Glaswegian auctioneer discovers a hidden cache of violent and disturbing photos from the 1950s in an attic, and become obsessed with discovering whether they are authentic. Was a young woman really murdered, or the photos staged?


This feature was originally published in print in the October 2010 issue of Good Reading magazine. Scottish crime fiction has continued to go from strength to strength, and there are a number of other authors not mentioned in this article that are also well worth checking out. Check out this list for some ideas.


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