Tartan noir: An A-to-Z of Scottish crime writing

Tartan noir: An A-to-Z of Scottish crime writing


A dictionary of Scottish literature’s darkest genre

Briain Donaldson works through the dictionary of Scottish literature’s darkest genre

A is for Aberdeen

While Edinburgh and Glasgow get most of the crime fiction attention, the Granite City has been re-awakened from its seemingly law-abiding slumbers by the likes of writers Lance Black, Bill Kirton and MG Kincaid while Stuart MacBride is a regular on the bestseller lists.

B is for Bob Skinner

Having read an awful book on holiday in 1989, Quintin Jardine was challenged by his wife to write a better one himself. From that discussion, the 22-book strong Detective Skinner series was born.

C is for Cops

Yes of course, there are plenty police officers in Tartan Noir, but how many authors have gone from being in the force to penning crime dramas? Not as many as you’d imagine, though Karen Campbell and Craig Russell are two of the more successful Scottish ones.

D is for Death of a …

Robert Carlyle played Hamish Macbeth on the telly, the gentle crime series created by MC Beaton (aka Marion Chesney). All 28 of the books are entitled Death of a … (dentist, maid, chimney sweep etc) with the sole exception of 1999’s A Highland Christmas.

E is for Ellroy

When describing the success of Ian Rankin, the master of the modern US hard-boiled crime story came up with the term tartan noir. Barko was heard to woof in agreement.

F is for Femmes Fatales

Alanna Knight, Alex Gray and Lin Anderson are the trio in question who have gathered together for events under the moniker. Anderson and Gray are also the masterminds behind the recent Bloody Scotland, the first festival dedicated to crime writing in Scotland.

G is for Garnethill

‘The grand dame of Scottish crime fiction’ is one description of the still young Denise Mina and it all began in the late 90s with her Garnethill trilogy starring the resourceful if largely luckless Maureen O’Donnell.

H is for Historical

Those who have dipped back in time to satisfy a different kind of crime writing fix have been Pat McIntosh (medieval Scotland) and Gordon Ferris (post-war Glasgow).

I is for Isabel Dalhousie

The lead character in Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club mystery series has been dubbed a mix of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw.

J is for Joppa

Identical crime-writing twins, Morna and Helen Mulgray were born in this Edinburgh suburb in 1939. Their books feature the adventures of customs officer DJ Smith and her indestructible sniffer cat, Gorgonzola.

K is for Kirkcaldy and Kate Brannigan

The former is the birthplace of Val McDermid, the latter is her PI who starred in 90s books such as Dead Beat and Blue Genes. McDermid is on the board of her town’s football team, Raith Rovers.

L is for Laidlaw

While James Ellroy may have coined the term, William McIlvanney is considered to have written the first actual book of the tartan noir genre in 1977, with the first of his series of books featuring Glasgow DI Laidlaw.

M is for Marjory Fleming

Aline Templeton’s Galloway-based DI is dubbed ‘Big Marge’ for her height and feisty nature as evidenced in books such as Lamb to the Slaughter and Cradle to Grave.

N is for No Mean City

While the spectre of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde looms large over Edinburgh’s crime fiction fraternity (Ian Rankin has spoken of its influence on him), the 1935 novel No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H Kingsley Long reverberates among the Glasgow community with its tale of Gorbals’ razor gangs.

O is for Orkney

The birthplace of Allan Guthrie, agent, editor and writer of hard-boiled crime fiction such as Two-Way Split and the very pulpy-sounding Kiss Her Goodbye.

P is for ‘Plato’s Republic with a body count’

This is how one critic described Paul Johnston’s Quint Dalrymple crime series set in a futuristic Edinburgh of the 2020s.

Q is for Quite Ugly One Morning

Christopher Brookmyre introduced us to Glasgow journo Jack Parlabane who stumbles upon the investigation into the murder of a gambling medic in this witty novel.

R is for Rebus and Rankin

The most bankable pairing that tartan noir has spawned, the author retired his gnarled creation in 2007 only to revive him in 2012 with Standing in Another Man’s Grave.

S is for Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah’s notorious psycho-thriller is based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm, a crime drama from Gordon M Williams, the Paisley-born author who collaborated with Terry Venables on TV cockney cop show, Hazell.

T is for Taggart

Pretty much the best representation of tartan noir to make it to our small screens, from the bluesy theme tune, ‘No Mean City’, to the dark and brutal realities of Glasgow crime.

U is for Undertakers (Unrepresented)

Given the stench of death that by necessity permeates tartan noir, the humble undertaker is rarely seen. We have to venture into literary fiction for one of the best examples, Alan Spence’s Way to Go.

V is for Vet

Manda Scott, author of Hen’s Teeth and Night Mares, is a veterinary surgeon. Curiously, Singing to the Dead writer Caro Ramsay turned down a place at vet school.

W is for Whisky

John Rebus is certainly known to have swallowed a dram or two in his time, while the Mulgray Twins’ Above Suspicion is set among the distilleries of Islay, the same destination for Doug Johnstone’s ex-uni mates in Smokeheads.

X is for Exile and Exit Music

OK, we had to cheat slightly here, Exile being the second book of Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy while Exit Music was supposed to be Rebus’ swansong. I suppose there must have been lots of X-rays taken in Scottish crime books, many of which could be dubbed X-certificate?

Y is for Young Journalist of the Year

The award claimed by Tony Black, whose Edinburgh crime books include Truth Lies Bleeding and Long Time Dead.

Z is for Zenith

Glenn Chandler wrote comedy-drama movie Deadly Advice, starring Jane Horrocks and Edward Woodward, for Zenith Productions. The Edinburgh writer is most famous for creating Taggart and also penned the DI Madden books, Dead Sight and Savage Tide.

Post a comment