Scottish crime writing
- Kirstin Innes
- 1 November 2007
Scottish crime writing doesn’t begin or end with Ian Rankin. As writers such as Denise Mina, Alex Gray, Ray Banks and Val McDermid continue to win awards and acclaim, Kirstin Innes meets two rising stars of the genre known as ‘tartan noir’, and investigates why Scotland’s writers are attracted to life’s darker aspects
‘Ah, well. If you’re Scottish, and you’re writing crime fiction, at some point someone is going to hail you as “the new Ian Rankin” until they remember, no, actually Ian Rankin is still there. Alex Gray has been described as the Glaswegian Ian Rankin. Lin Anderson gets it as well, I think.’
Stuart MacBride – bearded, earring, late 30s, this year’s winner of the Crime Writers Association’s Bodies In The Library Dagger – is perched in a chair in the café of Dundee Contemporary Arts. Across the table is Allan Guthrie, 40, more or less clean shaven, teetotal, vegetarian, and current holder of the ridiculously prestigious Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. The venue was chosen as an appropriate central point between Aberdeen (where MacBride lives) and Edinburgh (where Guthrie lives), while the company was hand-picked by The List’s current guest editor who believes, quite rightly, that Messrs MacBride and Guthrie are producing some of the most exciting crime fiction around at the moment.
The main problem I’m having is working out how either of these witty, well-mannered men – neither of whom have displayed any obvious sociopathic instincts in the half hour of our acquaintance – could have dreamed up some of the most unflinchingly brutal murder scenes I’ve read all year. ‘Yeah, you say that, but you haven’t seen what Stuart’s got in his bag yet,’ says Guthrie, with a thoroughly unthreatening grin. ‘No, I’m kidding. It’s all vicarious; it’s all imagined.’ Guthrie’s novels trail wise-cracking, amoral men and spectacularly violent women round the darker corners of Edinburgh, imbuing the Inspiring Capital with all the hardboiled menace of an American pulp novel. ‘I have it a lot easier than Stuart does, too – there’s no set procedure to follow when you’re writing about criminals, you see, whereas there is a police procedure, and recreating it requires an awful lot of dedicated research and attention to detail.’
MacBride admits that he has spent time interviewing forensic pathologists, members of Grampian Police, journalists, and, for his most recent novel, S&M enthusiasts of the Aberdeenshire area (‘it’s a very middle-class pursuit. Very intellectualised sex’) in the course of researching his books. ‘Although I do make loads of it up. The thing is that if you make stuff up and are relatively convincing when you lie, it quite often turns out to be closer to the truth than you think.’
Both writers currently have three novels in print, and all of these novels, as MacBride mentioned, have weathered the inevitable comparison with the Rebus juggernaut. MacBride’s trio of novels featuring Aberdeen police detective Logan McRae (he’s just finished the fourth, Flesh House, which will be out in late 2008) come in for the most comparisons, simply because of his lead character’s profession. The other thing that Scottish crime writers hear a lot is the phrase ‘tartan noir’ – first applied by legendary American writer James Ellroy to Rankin’s work in 1997. It’s come to denote a certain style of Scottish writing – bleak, vicious stories of murders and rapes set in a Scotland not endorsed by the tourist board – a subject matter that exerts a peculiar fascination for many of our writers.
And these writers are very, very good at mining this dark and devilish subject matter. In addition to Guthrie and MacBride’s recent wins, the Dagger Award page on the Crime Writers Association website glitters with Scottish names, particularly from the last 12 years. Rankin recently received a lifetime achievement award; he and Val McDermid have both picked up various Gold and Silver Daggers and McDermid won Crime Novel of the Year in 2006; Denise Mina and Louise Welsh’s debuts both received First Blood daggers. Virtually every author to fall into the Tartan Noir bracket has been shortlisted for one of these coveted awards.
However, MacBride and Guthrie, both of whom claim that their influences and sympathies lie much more with international, particularly American, writers, are not keen to accept ‘tartan noir’ as anything more than a convenient marketing tool once their manuscripts are complete. ‘It’s a useful handle,’ says MacBride, ‘but I think people realise that it’s a brand. It’s not a movement.’
But doesn’t he agree that it’s interesting, at least, that a lot of the work Scottish writers are producing at the moment explores a much seamier side of the country?
‘I think crime fiction has always acted as a really good mirror for the fears in society. The crimes that are related in stories just now will be different from the ones that we had five years ago and the ones in five years from now which will probably be different again. What you see coming out of Scotland is just modern crime writers writing about crime in modern society.’
‘We do have a strong sense of the Gothic tradition, too, though,’ says Guthrie. ‘Maybe it’s the buildings, maybe it’s the weather, but you can see it affects us – that Scottish gallows humour; our tendency towards bleakness, to look at things in a negative way. Those definitely come out in my writing.’
‘There is a lot of that black, bleak humour in Scottish crime fiction, because we come from a culture that has developed a way of laughing at disaster,’ MacBride interjects. ‘Look at the performance of our football team until recently.’
Guthrie warms to his theme. ‘William McIlvanney’s (1977 novel) Laidlaw was the catalyst. I think a lot of writers probably picked up on that; realised that it’s possible to write a crime novel that is really a social novel, a realist novel. That’s what Ian Rankin did with his first; he didn’t think it was a crime novel; he’d no intention of it being a crime novel. At one point BBC Scotland and Scottish Screen were developing (Guthrie’s first novel) Two Way Split for a movie and they kept saying, “Can’t we make it a bit sexier? Can’t we have, you know, American police cars instead of British ones?” That sort of thing. It’s funny, because I’d deliberately tried to make Two Way Split very Edinburgh: you’ve got a very small gang of petty thieves who don’t even rob a bank, it’s a post office. Not sexy. Post office robbery is just so not Hollywood.’
‘Yeah!’ MacBride cries. ‘Let’s have a stick up in Argos!’ (At this point the waitress standing behind him looks a little alarmed.)
As he’s not convinced by the idea of a Scottish crime writing movement as such, MacBride is wary of committing to any idea of a generational shift between strata of crime writers. ‘I think that it’s more of an elongation of themes. The stuff that Val (McDermid) writes, for example, is as visceral, when it is needed by the story, as anything any new writer is producing.’
‘People are asking that question because Rebus is now coming to an end. Everyone wants to know what follows, what’s next?’ Guthrie says. ‘What’s ‘following’ is the same sort of writing that’s been around for years now. Stuart and I both have three novels out – we’re hardly debutants anymore, although we’re still baby writers compared to Val, or Denise Mina, or Christopher Brookmyre. I don’t really see it in terms of an old guard/new guard, although obviously, as you can tell, we do all have a great deal of respect for each other.’
‘We have joined the conga line,’ says MacBride, nodding sagely. ‘Yeah. I’m right at the back, holding on to Stuart’s bottom,’ adds Guthrie. ‘Mm. Hands up a bit, please. And other people will have their hands on our buttocks as we conga forwards; we’ll just keep going, I think. A Scottish crime-writing conga line.’
Allan Guthrie’s novels, Kiss Her Goodbye, Hard Man and Two Way Split, are published by Polygon; Stuart MacBride’s Cold Granite, Dying Light, and Broken Skin by Harper Collins. www.stuartmacbride.co.uk and www.allanguthrie.co.uk
As Rebus collects his bus pass, Kirstin Innes lines up the Scottish gumshoes poised to succeed him
CV Denise Mina’s girl reporter, taking on the man’s world of Glasgow journalism over the last two decades. Recently turned celebrity columnist.
Associates Hard and flea-bitten hacks, overbearing Glasgow Catholic family, over-sexed policemen-turned-talk show hosts.
Quirks Recently chucked her copy of Fat Is A Feminist Issue in favour of another packet of biscuits. Still gets lots of sex.
Rebus rating 4/5. She’s sarcastic, likes a drink, and she’s making a big, beautiful mess of her life.
CV Stuart MacBride’s everyman cop and reluctant tabloid darling.
Associates Sparky love interest WPC Jackie ‘Ball Breaker’ Watson, Teflon-trousered tabloid journalist Colin Miller.
Quirks Aside from occasional flashbacks to a near-death experience, MacRae is refreshingly normal, although reports directly to a compulsive consumer of jelly babies and a gay chainsmoking womaniser who specialises in other people’s wives.
Rebus rating 3/5. Right profession, but a bit too noble, dashing and heroic.
CV Christopher Brookmyre’s investigative journalist who uses Milk Tray Man methods to expose white collar corruption.
Associates Almost anyone who’s ever featured in any of Brookmyre’s other books; glamorous, unfortunately-named anaethetist wife Dr Sarah Slaughter.
Quirks Infuriatingly confident and ever-ready with the one-liners.
Rebus rating 2/5. He’s got the eclectic taste in music but he’s too successful for proper anti-hero status.
CV Kate Atkinson’s good old-fashioned private ‘tec with a tragic past and a knack for getting into trouble. Excels at missing person cases.
Associates Possessed of undescribed sexual magnetism to mysterious women with equally tragic pasts, also attracts hapless, friendless males. Young daughter Marlee remains his primary concern.
Quirks Thoroughly decent, can be over-protective when dealing with cases regarding women’s safety.
Rebus rating 4.5/5. Shambling, middle-aged, world-weary? Ding-ding-ding!