While it’s as misleading to lump all Scottish crime authors under one umbrella as it is to refer generally to “American crime writers,” there are certain common threads that run throughout the mysteries and thrillers of Scotland.
“The Scots have a long history of what has been called ‘the Caledonian anti-syzygy,’ ” says author Val McDermid. “It means the yoking together of two opposing forces: in our case, the dark, brooding, sin-obsessed Presbyterian and the dancing, drinking, storytelling Gael.” (For more from McDermid, see “Why I Write.”)
Christopher Brookmyre points to another factor that sets Scottish crime fiction apart: “Generally speaking we tend towards a more socially aware kind of writing.” He points out that “Scottish writers almost always place crime in a context that forces the protagonist to confront the social, economic and political factors that have given rise to the narrative’s events.”
The writings of Brookmyre and McDermid belong to a subset of Scottish crime fiction known as “tartan noir”: darker, grittier stories with more violence. Tartan noir owes much of its success—and arguably its very existence—to the pioneering vision of William McIlvanney who, in 1977, published the first in what would become his Laidlaw trilogy. Featuring a Glaswegian detective with an intellectual and philosophical bent, the series—comprising Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991)—follows the investigations of Det. Insp. Jack Laidlaw and his younger associate, Det. Constable Brian Harkness.
The influential Laidlaw trilogy is poised to find a new audience: In June, Europa reissued the first installment in a new edition under its World Noir line. Veitch followed in September and Strange Loyalties will pub in April 2015.
In a 2013 profile in the Telegraph, Allan Massie said that McIlvanney “is an existentialist writer, like Camus, whom he admires, has learnt from, and matches.” PW, in a starred review, recommends the first Laidlaw installment “for anyone looking for a cop who’s more than a badge.”
Author Russel D. McLean, long a fan of U.S. writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, says that “I gained a late appreciation for the world of William McIlvanney and... years before I thought about bringing the hardboiled school to the streets of Scotland, there he was, doing it with passion and skill that make me weep with jealousy.”
There are undeniable hints of the brooding Laidlaw, immersed so deeply in the pursuit of criminals that it’s difficult for him to switch off at the end of the day, in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, who first appeared in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Though the formerly hard-drinking Edinburgh detective seemed to retire in 2007’s Exit Music, he returned in 2012’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave, starring alongside Rankin’s new hero, the less brooding, more sober Det. Malcolm Fox of the Complaints and Conducts (think Internal Affairs) series. The two reluctantly joined forces again in 2013’s Saints of the Shadow Bible; Rebus reclaims center stage in summer 2015, when Little, Brown will publish The Beat Goes On, the complete Rebus short stories.
Another tartan noir writer, Denise Mina, reiterates Brookmyre’s point that Scots are “obsessed with politics and Scottish crime fiction tends towards political narratives.” All three of her series—the Garnethill trilogy, featuring the shambling, unlikely crime solver Maureen O’Donnell; the books featuring 1980s-era Glaswegian crime reporter Paddy Meehan (Field of Blood, etc.); and the contemporary exploits of Det. Insp. Alex Morrow (Still Midnight, etc.)—feature characters battling the status quo.
A Darker Shade of Plaid
Readers know they’re in for a dark tale when, in the first five pages of Mina’s Field of Blood, two boys kill a toddler: “James strangled him and then Callum hit his head with rocks. The baby’s head was all mess. They looked at it, afraid and not wanting to, but drawn to the sight.”
Catriona McPherson calls her present-set standalones very “Scottish in tone—it’s raining and everyone’s got a troubled past and a bad cough.” For her 1920s-era Dandy Gilver series, which skews a bit lighter, “I channel the English Golden Age,” she says.
The contrarian nature of Scottish crime writers best boils down to a Scots word perhaps unfamiliar to American readers: thrawn. “As a nation, we’re incredibly thrawn,” says Stuart MacBride. “Which basically means that if you tell us to do something we’ll generally do the complete opposite.” James Oswald agrees, adding that thrawn, “a kind of obstinacy that makes us all the more likely to do something if we are told we can’t or shouldn’t,” is often “a defining characteristic of both protagonists and antagonists in Scottish crime fiction.”
This attitude often runs concurrent to what Oswald and others describe as a “dark gallows humor”; the crime writer Caro Ramsay calls it a “caustic, black humor.” Even in the bleakest of circumstances and at the goriest of crime scenes, it’s common to find Scottish coppers punctuating the somber situation with dark jokes.
In MacBride’s Bloodshot, Det. Insp. Logan McRae and his superior Roberta Steel go back and forth about the motives and methods for a particularly gruesome homicide while studying crime scene photos. Logan argues that “if you’re going to kill someone, there are better ways of doing it. You’ve already got the guy tied up and gagged, why not just strangle him? Or put a plastic bag over his head. And why rush him to the hospital afterwards?” Steel is noticeably disappointed by the complexities of the case, lamenting “bloody hell... so much for my nice juicy murder.”
Val McDermid points out that Scots have “become obsessed with what drives the psyche to its extremes.” It’s the black humor, she says, that “saves us from ourselves.” This mixture of brutal crime and gallows humor is evident from the get go in Ian Rankin’s first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, when the detective—after having more than a few drinks at the pub—walks home and muses on the city around him: “Who said that the people of Edinburgh were dour? A smile, a song, and a strangulation.” Though many of McDermid’s plots, like Rankin’s, are unrelentingly bleak, and the psyches of her serial killers are extremely unpleasant, the camaraderie of series leads Det. Insp. Carol Jordan and criminal profiler Dr. Tony Hill is a bright spot.
It’s also important to remember, as Caro Ramsay points out, that Scots “have over 60 words for being drunk.” The Glaswegian Ramsay, known for her police procedurals set in her home city, also underscores that “Glasgow matches Moscow in the world crime statistics and weirdly, we are very proud of that.”
All Over the Map
Scotland, roughly the size of Maine, provides a variety of locales for its fictional crime fighters to find corpses. More than a half dozen sleuths cover the capital city, Edinburgh, while at least twice that many are on the case in Glasgow.
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Moving outside the two largest Scottish cities, Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver lives in Perthshire—“smack in the middle,” says the author, “to let her get around as easily as she could on the terrible roads”—while Stuart MacBride sets his long-running Logan McRae series in Aberdeen, nicknamed the “Grey City” and also Scotland’s third largest population center; his new series featuring cop Ash Henderson takes place in Oldcastle, a fictional town between Aberdeen and Dundee.
The latter is the home to Russel D. McLean’s PI J. McNee, and McLean points out that Scotland’s fourth-largest city was once known for three industries: jute, jam, and journalism. “The jute trade, of course, is no more,” he says, “and the jam was actually marmalade but again is no longer central to the city’s economy, but we do still have journalism—the Courier has one of Scotland’s biggest circulations for a newspaper.” Both Peter May and Ann Cleeves chose more remote locations for their series: Fin Macleod, a former detective inspector in Edinburgh, resettles on the Isle of Lewis, his birthplace, in the Outer Hebrides. Cleeves’s Det. Insp. Jimmy Perez lives and works in the Shetland Islands.
In one of M.C. Beaton’s long-running series, policeman Hamish Macbeth lives in the fictional village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands, the area where A.D. Scott set her mysteries featuring journalists of the imagined Highlands Gazette in the 1950s. (For more on Beaton, see “On the Beaton Path.”)
Of course, not all Scottish authors set their work in their home country. McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series, for example, take place in the fictional northern English city of Bradfield. But occasionally, “a place will cry out to be written about, and that can be the trigger for a novel or a subplot,” she says, pointing to her childhood home of Fife where there are “a string of caves along the coast where we used to play as kids. I always knew they’d provide me with a perfect setting in which to find a body—and they finally did, in A Darker Domain.”
A strong sense of place is one of the joys, particularly for U.S. fans, of reading Scottish crime fiction; Scots vocabulary is another. The dialect McIlvanney uses in the Laidlaw trilogy becomes especially apparent when Laidlaw and Harkness conduct interviews with witnesses and potential suspects who aren’t exactly posh. Take, for example, this conversation in The Papers of Tony Veitch: “Ye’re no’ supposed tae catch me. Ah telt ye about this job. Ah’m the one that jist manages tae get away.”
Lin Anderson, whose The Case of the Black Pearl is out now from Severn House, sums up the language’s appeal: “Scots terms for the most part don’t just describe something, but how you feel about it, too.” Some of the authors’ favorite phrases aren’t necessarily fit for print. Denise Mina, who reminds us that Scots “swear all the time,” offers “did you fuck!”—which means “no, you didn’t!” A popular adjective to describe the bleak Scottish weather is “dreich,” sometimes combined with “haar,” which means a sea mist or fog. As you might imagine, in the realm of Scottish crime fiction, these words come up a lot.
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.
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