When the father of terse, tough US crime fiction James Ellroy coined the term “Tartan Noir” in the late 1990s to sum up Ian Rankin’s success, little did he know that the Edinburgh author and his successors would quickly black out the literary sun.
With tales of brutal murders in Georgian town houses, gang wars in grimy estates, serial killers in the north east, and missing persons on misty Hebridean isles, all investigated by a gallery of anti-hero policemen and journalists, crime writing has dominated Scotland’s literary scene since Rankin’s Rebus made his bow in 1987.
And it shows no sign of abating. The Inverness Book Festival, which starts October 5, is selling itself on the glut of Scottish crime writers attending. Writing Scotland, a strand showcasing this country’s work at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, will be full of Scots crime writers, including Rankin, Denise Mina and Quintin Jardine. Rankin’s new book, The Complaints, introducing his major new character, Malcolm Fox, is selling just as strongly as his Rebus novels, which have racked up sales of more than seven million worldwide.
Mina, alongside Louise Welsh, Helen Fitzgerald, Harry Morris and Karen Campbell, will be taking over Glasgow’s Eastwood Park Theatre tonight to talk about the joys and challenges of the genre. Crime, it seems, certainly pays – at least if you write about it.
The crime fiction coming out of Scotland at the moment is the best in the world Denise Mina
The dominance of such literary bloodletting led Scotland’s last Booker Prize winner, James Kelman, to snap at last month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival: “If the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of f****** detective fiction.”
Kelman will doubtless be dismayed to hear that the juggernaut will keep slaying all before it.
“More people are doing it than ever before,” said Mina, author of the Garnethill Trilogy. “If you throw a brick on Sauchiehall Street you’ll hit someone writing a crime novel.
“Someone publishes a book, it makes a lot of money, and other people think, I could do that, which is brilliant. It is much easier to get published now. Publishers are aware there is a big movement and are looking for the next new Scottish crime writer.”
She added: “The crime fiction coming out of Scotland at the moment is the best in the world.”
But what makes this land so predisposed to crime writing? Crime levels are certainly high.
However, Louise Welsh, whose debut novel The Cutting Room won the Crime Writers’ Association prize for best first novel, an award dipped in tartan noir for the past decade, points to the skies.
“There is a quote about the weather in Scotland being so bad that people envy the dead,” she said. “We’re just going into autumn and the growing realisation that months and months of darkness lie ahead. A lack of sunshine definitely works on the psyche. And you get a lot of work done, which is maybe where the storytelling comes from.”
Mina puts it down to Scottish writers being more concerned with “why someone did the crime, as opposed to who did it. I think that’s dead interesting.” She added: “We are attracted to why people are deviant. That makes us good at dark stories.”
Aside from a morbid climate, the literary heritage is another theory: Robert Louis Stevenson’s fascination with gothic Edinburgh, embodied in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde; James Hogg’s devilishly spooky Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, and a national love of old tales of terror, like the story of Burke and Hare, the murderers who sold bodies to Edinburgh’s anatomists. Even the Sherlock Holmes mysteries have a Scots flavour after a young Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine in Edinburgh.
As Gill Plain, an professor of English from St Andrews University who has written about Rankin, said: “There is a duality in Scotland: respectable people harbouring deep dark secrets; truth and justice alongside a wonderful vein of criminality. If you have a literary heritage that includes such great characters as Jekyll, Hyde, Deacon Brodie, it is not surprising that writers might pick up on some of that.”
One less celebrated influence on the current crop of Scottish crime writers is that of Inspector Jack Laidlaw. William McIlvanney’s violent and uncompromising character, who first shambled into view in 1977 in the pages of Laidlaw, didn’t so much gently nudge Scottish writers in a different direction as give them a bloody nose and sent them to chronicle the country’s underbelly.
“Sadly he is one of the most forgotten now,” said Maxim Jakubowski, who used to run London’s celebrated crime fiction book shop, Murder One. “Had it not been for McIlvanney, Ian wouldn’t have turned to crime. He was doing his PhD on Muriel Spark after all. But like anything it takes a generation or two to take hold. Ian took it to a new level, and a younger generation realised they could say things about society through crime writing.”
And lo, a publishing juggernaut was born – and blogs like Big Beat From Badsville can exist. Dedicated to Scottish crime fiction, its writer, Donna Moore, updates it every day. And she has no trouble in finding something new to write about. The only problem, she said, is “having enough hours in the day to write about Scottish crime fiction”.
Originally from Cambridgeshire but resident in Glasgow for 20 years, Moore was attracted to the genre by its “gothic sensibility” and “wonderfully dark sense of humour”. She plans to publish her first crime novel later this year.
“I have currently listed about 90 crime writers in Scotland,” she added. “There just seems to be a wide-ranging, fresh scene. There is police procedurals, serial killers, forensic experts, amateur sleuths, crime in the past, present and future, private eye novels.”
Scotland’s success in crime writing has been greeted with enthusiasm around the world. “You get treated much more seriously as a writer in the US than you do here,” said Mina. In the south of England, where some crime authors still struggle to shake off the tweedy tones of an Agatha Christie afternoon tea party, the boom is affectionately known as “the McMafia”.
But like any keen student of gangster novels knows, once you are at the top, there will be many gunning for your position.
As a sign of the national dominance, Stuart MacBride, author of the Logan McRae novels set in Aberdeen, will organise next year’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.
However, Barry Forshaw, author of The Rough Guide To Crime Fiction, warned: “He has to be careful. There will probably be a temptation just to pack it full of Scots.”
And there are some reservations too about the growing violent content of Tartan Noir. Some Scottish writers could be accused of overkill, particularly towards women. As Welsh points out, “every second book has a woman raped and murdered”.
“We can choose not to have that,” she said. “And we can also choose not have a gay person as the killer. In Scottish fiction still, that comes up time and time again, the idea of the transgendered murderer. That is a bit boring.”
Like any boom, Scotland’s dominance of crime fiction cannot last. The Scandinavians, led by Henning Mankell and also powered by the same vitamin D-deficient climate and high crime rates, are the barbarians at the gate. Mina predicts a slow decline.
“Scottish crime writing is recognised internationally, but it is a bit of a fad,” she said. “There is too much of something and it just dies away. I think a lot of people will get dropped from their contract in the next 10 to15 years.”
Until that killer blow lands, however, the dark heart of Tartan Noir will continue to beat.
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