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Crimes Against Fiction? – Scottish Review of Books
by Colin Waters

Crimes Against Fiction?

May 30, 2015 | by Colin Waters

‘TARTAN noir’ has been used to describe crime fiction written by Scottish crime writers for so long now – well over a decade – we’ve grown numb to it. Strange that a genre, or subgenre more accurately, that prides itself on mapping the moral badlands of contemporary Scotland should accept a label so redolent of national stereotype. Tartan? Noir? Readers unfamiliar with the work of Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre and so many, many more, would be forgiven for imagining the worst. CSI: Brigadoon, where criminals are pursued by Dirty Harry Lauder. Len Wanner’s flawed study of the genre, does at least make the reader consider the tag afresh, to the extent one realizes that much of the field is neither especially Scottish nor noir.

The birth of the descriptor ‘tartan noir’ is characteristically myth-ridden. Originally the story was that Ian Rankin, then a tyro author, encountered the American noirist James Ellroy at a signing. After explaining that he was attempting to do a Scottish version of what Ellroy had achieved, the American signed his book ‘To Ian Rankin, King of Scottish Noir’. Recently, Rankin has retold the story: now he’s the one who came up with ‘Tartan Noir’ while asking for Ellroy’s autograph. Whatever the truth, it’s fitting Rankin should be present at the birth; his Rebus novels furnished Tartan Noir with its mood, form and language.

It is William McIlvanney, however, who is accorded the honour of having written the first Tartan Noirs with his Laidlaw trilogy. With the first Laidlaw novel appearing in 1977, McIlvanney was a decade ahead of the debut works by a younger generation of writers who were to popularize the genre. Claiming McIlvanney as a literary ancestor is a canny move, his novels giving the subgenre a literary burnish contemporary practitioners don’t attempt to emulate. What his successors took from the Laidlaw trilogy was a setting and tone. The language and spiritual inquiries – think Chandler rewritten by Dostoevsky – were a little harder to pull off, especially when you’re due your publisher a book a year. McIlvanney himself couldn’t manage it: The Papers of Tony Veitch followed Laidlaw in 1983, with Strange Loyalties published in 1991. For some, the true mystery of the trilogy isn’t whodunit, but why should McIlvanney only write three Laidlaw books. Anyone who asks that question, however, hasn’t read the trilogy carefully enough. It tells the story of the defeat of their hero’s values entirely. Over a decade and a half we watch Glasgow lose its soul and Laidlaw struggle – and fail – to hold onto the compassion that set him apart from his colleagues. Further entries in the series would be superfluous. But then McIlvanney had a vision; his successors have contracts.

McIlvanney is quoted on the front of Wanner’s Tartan Noir, lauding it as ‘a ground-breaking book’. If he means Wanner is the first to write a book-length study of the genre, perhaps he’s right. If he means Tartan Noir is liable to change how one regards the subgenre, then I respectfully disagree. It remains a timid subgenre.

No one can accuse Wanner of not being thorough. His study looks in some depth at 48 books. He places the books he examines under four headings – or sub-subgenres: the detective novel, the police novel, the serial killer novel and the noir novel. He begins his book by asking ‘what is Tartan Noir?’ before offering ‘a short answer’: ‘Tartan noir is a Scottish literature which began to make a name for itself under a variety of genre labels in the second half of the twentieth century and which, at the beginning the twenty-first, has acquired an international reputation larger than any of its contemporary Scottish literatures. It has done all of this despite a lot of confusion about what exactly the term means and what type of writing it describes, so perhaps there is no point in giving a longer answer to the above question just to remove confusion which seems to have done the literature’s commercial success precious little harm.’

Might one hazard a more succinct answer to the question of what Tartan Noir might be? It’s a marketing label.

Wanner isn’t unaware he might be ‘over-analysing a clichéd moniker which, some will say, is no more than a meaningless, one-size-fits-all marketing label’. And one can hardly deny there exists a body of crime fiction produced by Scottish writers over the past two decades that share recognizable elements, although you’d expect genre bedfellows to. Arguably they have more in common with each other and crime fiction written abroad than they do with the body of Scottish literature. It’s only stating the obvious to say Ian Rankin’s work has more in common with Ed McBain, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver than Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Ali Smith.

Rankin makes one of the more curious assertions in the book. In interview, he tells Wanner that before Tartan Noir ‘there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland…. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English…. Because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and that you had to write a certain kind of book’. Even if one can set aside the legacy of Conan Doyle – and as Rankin is the author of a TV script called Reichenbach Falls, he clearly can’t – Rankin’s denial of English influence only underlines a more obvious truth: our home-grown subgenre is deeply in the debt of American crime fiction. Many of the crime writers and critics Wanner quotes are American. And in the original telling of how its name came about, remember, it’s an American who coins the phrase.

Wanner insists that there is ‘a strong trend towards the left’ politically in Tartan Noir, presumably in comparison with other countries’ crafters of whodunits, although Wanner rarely gives the reader a sense of how foreign crime fiction differs. True, the book isn’t meant to be a global survey, but without some sense of what makes Scottish crime fiction different from that of Italy or Argentina or South Africa, we must his word that it’s a distinct field worthy of study and not just a brand devised for the benefit of booksellers and publishers.

Besides, Wanner contradicts himself. While Scottish authors might appear socially leftish, the trend of the genre is implicitly conservative. Wanner writes of the serial killer sub-subgenre that it is at heart a reflection of fears around the place of the mentally ill in society. It gained in popularity during a period when governments in the UK and US were starving mental health services of money, leading to the release of patients who should have remained under psychiatric care. Crime fiction has little to say about this, instead transforming and amplifying fear of the mentally ill into the figure of the inventive if insane sadist who enjoys playing cat-and-mouse with the police. Equally, don’t read Tartan Noir novels expecting serious critiques of the police, despite the preponderance of maverick cops willing to bend the law to get their man. Tartan Noir believes in the system; its writers keep reaffirming it and protagonists who find a way to work within it. That’s because –and this is Wanner’s most acute observation – they’re not truly noir novels.

Anyone who has enjoyed the morally fraught novels of James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich or doomy film noirs such as Build My Gallows High or Double Indemnity knows there is a world of difference between them and the Rebus novels or Quentin Jardine’s Skinner series. In traditional noir, the protagonist, more accurately the anti-hero, is doomed from page one. He is complicit in the crimes that unfold as the plot progresses. His is a world without hope, only desire. The law is corrupt or a joke or entirely absent. Noir may well critique capitalism and state institutions, but it also mocks the family, romantic love and spirituality. Its pop-nihilism means it can’t generate a series of novels centred on the same character (Chandler’s Marlowe is perhaps the exception that justifies the rule): everybody’s dead by the final chapter.

The most interesting part of Wanner’s book is the last section which attempts to discern a strain of what he calls ‘Scottish noir’ as opposed to the cop dramas grouped under the heading of Tartan Noir. His selection is ingenious if not always convincing. Trocchi’s Young Adam from a certain angle does have noir-like qualities, but Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Irvine Welsh’s Filth?

Tartan Noir began life as a PhD and it betrays its roots in a number of ways. Wanner is interested in the phenomenon of Tartan Noir in itself and doesn’t often venture a view whether a book is any good or not. Like many an academic before him at work in genre-land, he prefers to plough through columns of books, noting broad similarities and praising small differences. This detective is gay! This detective is a woman! This novel takes place in the Hebrides! Readers who want to know whether the language rises above the functional or has characters who do more than push the plot forward are advised to look elsewhere for tips.

The book also appears to have been put together hastily. Long, circuitous sentences that really should have been reworked are left to stand. The lay-out is curious: headings indicating new sections often appear at the very bottom of a page instead of being carried over onto the next one. There are a number of oddly phrased sentences that read as if English isn’t Wanner’s first language. ‘Lennox has a knack to hit the nail on the head’. ‘Anna is going through pregnancy’. We’re told at one point that the noir hero is ‘typically born alone’, which, twins aside, I believe is usually the case. The author calls the officers who regularly assist one detective his ‘teamsters’, which is the opposite of what Wanner seems to think it means.

Ultimately, one is not convinced by his argument that these books present a resonant view of Scotland; they present a view of what publishers think will sell – rightly, it transpires. As mighty as the subgenre is in terms of sales, creatively, it remains timid. Tartan Noir lacks a David Peace, the crime writer whose Red Riding Quartet depicts a terrifying vision of Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s. The police are corrupt, killers are not caught, and there is a hint of the occult. By the time of his more recent Tokyo novels, Peace’s writing has grown experimentally terse and repetitive. In contrast, the development of Tartan Noir looks, like so many of its villains, arrested.

Tartan Noir – The Definitive Guide to Scottish Crime Fiction

Len Wanner

Freight, £9.99 ISBN: 978-1-910449-08-0, PP344

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