Scottish crime fiction

  • The List
  • 27 March 2008
Scottish crime fiction

Karen Campbell and Alex Gray

Lady killers

When it comes to crime fiction the female of the species is often deadlier than the male. Allan Radcliffe talks to two Scottish authors reshaping the genre

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers were arguably the most successful authors of the ‘golden age of the detective fiction’ in the 1920s and 30s while prolific contemporary thriller writers such as PD James, Ruth Rendell and Patricia Cornwell successfully updated the genre. That group shifted the focus from clues, suspects and secret passageways to a greater concentration on the psychology of the criminal. With members of the ‘tartan noir’ pack such as Val McDermid and Denise Mina regularly troubling the bestseller lists, some of the strongest and most respected female exponents of modern crime fiction hail from north of the border.

An exciting new addition to this grisly brigade is Karen Campbell, whose debut The Twilight Time introduces the latest in a long line of tough-but-flawed protagonists to the genre’s annals. Anna Cameron is a sergeant in Glasgow’s Flexi unit, charged with investigating attacks on local prostitutes. Campbell contrasts Anna’s vocation with the predicament of former constable Cath Forbes, who has left the force and is struggling with her new life as a homemaker.

As a former officer with Strathclyde Police, Campbell would seem ideally suited to taking up the literary baton and sprinting off with it. Yet, she admits she was surprised when The Twilight Time was billed as crime, thinking it a novel about motherhood and missed opportunities. ‘I wanted to write about how it felt to be a cop and a woman, and also about that 30-something stage in your life when you think, “Wait a minute; this isn’t actually the life I planned.” Mind you, the fact that it’s set in Glasgow’s red light district, has a murder, several slashings and explores prostitution might have nudged it towards the darker side.’

Also hitting the shelves in a shower of bright red blood is the latest novel by Alex Gray, whose four books to date have charted the unlikely partnership of earthy, old-school DCI Lorimer and psychologist and criminal profiler Solomon Brightman. Her latest exposé of Glasgow’s murky underbelly is Pitch Black, which opens with the gruesome murder of a football referee. Like Campbell, Gray took a circuitous route towards her life of crime. ‘I was always drawn to the darker side of literature and at age 14 had found Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. By my early 30s I was steeped in Dame Agatha and her ilk and haunted the library for anything in their crime section. But it was writers like PD James whose skill took my breath away and made up my mind that I was going to be a crime writer.’

While Gray agrees that Scots writers are well-known for mining the dark and devilish in their work, she believes this is due to something deep within the Scottish psyche rather than a simple morbid fascination with blood and gore. ‘We enjoy the shivery thrill of being led along sinister pathways and our penchant for using vivid language to relate stories has always been a strength. I think our contemporary crime writers, many of whom draw on the wildness of the Scottish landscape, are unconsciously following this tradition. Long may that last.’

Pitch Black is published by Sphere and The Twilight Time is published by Hodder. Both books are out on Thu 3 Apr.

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