by Hamish Whyte

Kill and Be Kilt

October 28, 2009 | by Hamish Whyte

I BLAME JAMES ELLROY. Google ‘Tartan Noir’ and you get 26,000 entries. Ellroy coined the term in a blurb for Ian Rankin – and it stuck. There is an awful lot of Scottish crime fiction about – the pile of books I got through for this piece measured a metre in height – but it contains precious little tartan (that’s for weddings and a week in New York) and not a lot of noir.

I resent tartan as shorthand for Scottish. Is Reginald Hill marketed as Wensleydale Noir? Noir is really too specific for the wide range of fiction it’s applied to; in any case it’s a film term, describing a hardboiled style, specifically American, compounded of rain-washed streets, of shadows, an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, corruption and cynicism, all delivered in laconic dialogue. What does the term have to say about Scottish crime fiction?

Not much as far as Christopher Brookmyre is concerned, describing it (in an interview, rolling his eyes) as “chromatically impossible” and “a stupid expression”. Tartan is absent, but black, at least as far as humour is concerned, is chromatically integral to Brookmyre’s books. His new novel, A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil, begins with a murder that brings about an unintended reunion of schoolmates. An endorsement by Brookmyre is used to hype the debut novel by Doug Johnstone, Tomb-stoning, whose plot also centres on a school reunion, in Arbroath this time: “A seductive and thrilling evocation of what lurks beneath the surface of small-town Scotland – or indeed anywhere.” This last phrase suggests that Brookmyre might not see anything especially Scottish about the subject; possibly there isn’t. The title refers to the habit of Arbroath teenagers jumping off the local cliffs into the sea for kicks which you might think peculiar to Arbroath, but is actually globally popular.

Compared with Brookmyre’s A Tale, Tomb-stoning plods; we’re a hundred pages in before there’s a body. The Brookmyre doesn’t contain a lot of crime either, but that’s not the real interest. He tends to get filed under the Tartan Noir label presumably because there is usually a crime of some sort in his books – and crime sells. But more important questions are raised in A Tale than who committed the murder, questions about childhood and growing up. “Bad weans don’t necessarily turn intae bad adults. And the same goes for the good yins.” The themes are universal but the setting is local, and that applies to most crime fiction, from Margery Allingham to Daniel Woodrell. A Tale is undeniably Scottish. There may not be a crime novel written in Scots yet (in the way that Matthew Fitt’s But n Ben A-Go-Go provided the first sci-fi novel in Scots), but Brookmyre comes close, what with so much of his dialogue in dialect. A glossary is provided in A Tale, presumably demanded by the publishers. Brookmyre has responded with an uncharacteristically unfunny, arch Parliamo Glasgow-type A-Z; the joke’s worn thin by now and it just panders to the ‘aren’t they quaint?’ school.

Crime fiction is essentially a conservative genre: crime committed, crime solved, is the formula. But it’s also a genre that deals in extremes – of society, of behaviour, of character; there’s always an element of anarchy, of disorder. Perhaps this is a genre that suits the Scottish psyche – a psyche of extremes – the gamut running from repression on the one hand to excess on the other. You can find writers appealing to both. Perhaps the most interesting are the writers subverting the law and order notion, asking why rather than who, adopting a more realistic view of life – messy, irresolvable – to delve deeper into human issues and society’s problems.

Brookmyre, for example, is pushing the boundaries of the genre. Frederic Lindsay is another. His latest novel, My Life as a Man, is being marketed as crime fiction. Recently Lindsay has been operating in what we might call ‘the Department of Maverick Cops’, with his recurring Edinburgh DI Jim Meldrum. In My Life he steps outside the genre to produce a strange, dreamlike love story, with a Lancelot and Guinevere subtext. There’s fear, violence, incest, murder and the McGuffin is a suitcase (it’s always a suitcase), but mostly off-page, and all related with great economy of style. “His gaze went from Mrs Morton to me and then to the plates and breadboard with the sliced loaf. He took his time and we waited and when he finished he looked back at me. He had small brown eyes, not soft, but hard like little polished stones, and when he spoke the words rumbled at the back of his mouth like pebbles rattling in a bag” – almost pure Chandler.

Allan Guthrie brings the American tough style to the mean streets of Edinburgh, sort of Mike Hammer meets Irvine Welsh. He’s been compared to Mickey Spillane and the comparison is not unjust. This is definitely Scottish pulp fiction: amoral anti-heroes, brutal action, stripped-down prose. His depiction of low-life Edinburgh is the flip side of Rankin’s policeman’s view (as Walter Mosley’s LA is the underside of Chandler’s), the side you never see. Guthrie knows his noir and is convincing, though he’ll never have Chandler’s way with a simile. “Scaffolding had spread in rectangles, like ivy with an instinct for geometry” is a good try.

Alongside Brookmyre and Guthrie, Louise Welsh is reworking the genre. Her first book, The Cutting Room, featured Rilke, a Glasgow antiques dealer detective who could easily have had a series built around him. Welsh (so far) has chosen not to revive Rilke. The Bullet Trick instead see-saws between a seedy Glasgow and a seedy Berlin, and like Lindsay’s My Life, Welsh’s latest is essentially a love story. The literary reference here is to Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator’s name, William Wilson, taken from Poe’s story. Appropriately, the book is about that old Scottish favourite, the double. Welsh plays with illusion and reality: “A successful conjuror can challenge gravity, defy nature, escape any restraint and sidestep death – as long as he’s on stage.”

None of which is to say there is no interesting work being done in the more traditional areas of crime fiction. Stuart McBride’s Cold Granite and Dying Light bring a touch of Frost to the Scottish police procedural, their nastiness tempered by the mordant humour and the fresh setting of Aberdeen. No doubt the unconventional DS Logan McRae will run and run, but really, how many serial killers can there be in the granite city?

Mention must be made of Denise Mina whose recent The Field Of Bloodpushes the bounds of the cub-reporter-as-detective tale by the brilliantly simple device of naming her heroine after a real-life criminal, Paddy Meehan, and combining her investigation into a prisoner’s false imprisonment with a mysterious child murder that echoes the Jamie Bulger case.

The Scottish crime fiction industry is booming; one only need register the number of Tartan Noir-related events at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. But is there anything specifically Scottish about Scottish crime fiction, other than location and language? Bring up the subject of Scottish fiction and immediately someone will cite Jekyll and Hyde or Confessions of a Justified Sinner. An argument could be made that they are crime novels, while the dualism that is central to both classics is replicated in many examples of our crime fiction. Glasgow and Edinburgh novels deal with an overworld/underworld dichotomy most obviously; for example, Anthony O’Neill’s The Lamplighterdevelops a Stevensonian metaphysical interest in good and evil.

Stevenson himself, as William Power identified, catered for the “Scots love for a ripe, measured, savoury, slightly quaint style, canting rascals, amusing ruffians, gravely whimsical humour, seemingly profound sententiousness, topographical particularity, weird effects conveyed in a studiedly prosaic fashion, and solid narrative construction.” Change the intensity of these elements and you’ve got the recipe for modern Scottish crime fiction.

Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels particularly fit this bill, what with his interesting villains, cynical hero, exploration of Edinburgh’s dark places, and well-plotted stories. Rankin himself has admitted placing parallels with Stevenson and Hogg into his books. His recent, fascinating Rebus’s Scotland quotes an apt passage from Stevenson’s Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes: “In the first room there is a birth, in another a death, in a third a sordid drinking-bout, and the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon the stair.”

But does the Scottishness really matter? Crime happens everywhere and crime fiction, like all fiction, can entertain, inform and examine our deepest feelings and emotions. We read crime fiction for various reasons and doubtless some readers like books set in Glasgow or Aberdeen for the recognition factor, but does anyone ask how English is English crime fiction? The sooner we stop all this tartan tosh the better. Don’t tell me it’s just a marketing ploy: Scottish as exotic. I know genre sells. We’ll be having Caledonian Anti-syzygy Noir next.

Another question. Is Scottish crime fiction any good? The models are usually American (hard-boiled) or English (police procedural), but is there anyone here to put alongside their best: Rendell, Harvey, Hill, Graham, and Dexter, or Stark, Connolly, Crumley, Gorman, Greenleaf, Woodrell, Mosley, and the James gang (Ellroy, Lee Burke, Sallis)? There are some excellent crime writers in Scotland and the good ones are extending the genre: Rankin, Lindsay, Mina, Brookmyre. New boys like Guthrie and Ray Banks (whose hapless ex-con from Leith Cal Innes is the only PI on the Tartan Noir block at the moment) are revelling in home grown hardboiled fiction (real noir as opposed to marketing noir). Perhaps the tough spare style suits the reductive in our character.

Crime is the biggest selling genre in British publishing. In July of this year five out of ten books in Ottakar’s Scottish Top Ten were crime fiction and Ian Rankin’s A Question of Blood was number nine in the Public Lending Right list of most borrowed adult fiction for 2004/6. With that in mind, little wonder ‘serious’ novelists are trying their hand at crime fiction (it’s that or children’s fiction). Kate Atkinson’s last two novels, to take one example, have dabbled in the genre. Where will it all end? Apparently J.K. Rowling has hinted that post-Potter she might try her hand at a crime novel.


A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL
Christopher Brookmyre
Little, Brown, £14.99
pp339, ISBN 0316730106

MY LIFE AS A MAN
Frederic Lindsay
Polygon, £8.99
pp261, ISBN 1904598722

THE BULLET TRICK
Louise Welsh
Canongate, £12.99
pp363, ISBN 1841958034

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