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There’s Been a Murder: Reading Scottish Crime Novels as an Actual Scottish Person

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | June 29, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | June 29, 2017 |

After talking a lot about the ways in which Scotland, its people and its dizzying array of national stereotypes are utilised to swoonworthy effect in the romance genre, I began to think about how this strange nation of mine is portrayed in other literary genres. There’s a long history of Scotland in fiction, written by Scots and non-Scots alike, delving into a multitude of themes, styles and intents. Anyone who’s browsed the Scottish fiction section of a bookshop or spent time studying here will know the classics - Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Alasdair Gray, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Jackie Kay if you had a really cool teacher - but every visit I make to my local Waterstones leads me to one section where national pride is at its most visible: Crime.

Scots love crime fiction. Can you blame us? After all, Arthur Conan Doyle was one of our lot, an Edinburgh boy who went to the city’s medical school but found greater satisfaction with the mysteries of the fictional realm (you can find the Conan Doyle statue just across the road from the Edinburgh Playhouse and adjacent gay district. There’s also a fabulous pub called the Conan Doyle I’ve been told does a top notch breakfast). We’re an absolute sucker as a nation for crime novels set in the country too, populated by familiar folks and dour detectives with secrets too shocking to reveal. If Scottish romance novels are for everyone else, Scottish crime is for the Scots.

That’s not to say it’s lacking in popularity outside of our borders. Mainstays of the genre like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Stuart MacBride have become household names to genre fans across the globe, and Rankin in particular remains an icon to the city of Edinburgh alongside literary masters like Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh (at least 10% of the reason I chose to attend university in the nation’s capital was due to my adolescent obsession with Rankin’s work). Yet there’s something inimitably local about these works, which Rankin has categorised as “tartan noir”. They seldom show Scotland at its best and brightest, but that’s probably why we like them so much.

The origins of the genre lie in some of the most beloved fiction of the country. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may be set in London but its theming and inspirations are decidedly local. Originally, Stevenson, born and raised in the city, had intended to write a play about Deacon William Brodie, a city councillor and respected tradesman who lived a secret double life as a burglar. Make your way up the Royal Mile and Brodie’s mark on the city is clear, from the pub that bears his name to the lovely cafe located in the eponymous close. He was eventually caught and hanged on the Old Tolbooth, and it’s easy to see how a man like Stevenson, raised in a strict Presbyterian household, would find such fascination of the concept of duelling personalities and the perpetual fight of good versus bad.

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But before Jekyll and Hyde, there was Robert Colwan, the unfortunate protagonist of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Colwan, the son of a fervent Calvinist, is so convinced that he is one of the Lord’s chosen people, predestined to enter Heaven from birth, that he chooses to lead a life of deviance and debauchery, as influenced by an enigmatic stranger named Gil-Martin, who may or may not be the devil. The first half of the novel is narrated by an editor, recounting what he believes to be the facts of the tale; the second is Robert’s own account, which, as you can imagine, doesn’t end well. This was a major influence for Stevenson and casts a major shadow over Scottish fiction. From the earliest point, Scottish fiction revelled in the conflicts of national pride: How does a country with a love of booze, partying and inspiring shenanigans cope with the Calvinist guilt and fear of eternal damnation?

The work we would now come to recognise under the tartan noir banner was pioneered in its modern form by William McIlvanney and his 1977 novel Laidlaw. The tale of the sardonic Glaswegian police chief investigating the murder of a teenager was considered a departure for the author, but it’s hard to imagine Scottish crime fiction without this as its foundations. The noir-tinted kitchen-sink drama is unflinching in its brutality and moodiness, and it doesn’t apologise for its Scottishness. Even today, there’s a freshness to the prose that defies its age. Alan Massie put it best: “Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.”

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We love a moody bastard in Scotland, but we also love them to have a heart. Inspector Rebus is more compassionate than he lets on; Lindsay Gordon is arrogant and cynical to a fault but fiercely loyal when called to task; DS Logan McRae’s sense of humour borders on upsetting but his sense of justice is firm. Heroes don’t do much for Scots; give us an anti-hero.

This new face of Scottish fiction came at a time when homegrown talents were making their name in film and TV with urban dramas that shunned Hollywood mandated stereotypes. Peter McDougall, one of Scotland’s greats, made his name in the 70s on BBC Scotland with TV dramas that tackled Sectarianism, like Just Another Saturday and Just Your Luck. Topics like the Orange Parade marches and the Protestant-Catholic divide in Glasgow remain contentious to this day; tackling them in 1975 was nervy beyond belief. McDougall’s 1981 work, A Sense of Freedom, tackled one of Glasgow’s most infamous criminals, Jimmy Boyle. Even by today’s standards, it’s brutal viewing and refuses to look away from how violence takes effect. You can’t talk Scottish crime and TV without getting into Taggart, the long-running series that basically every Scottish actor appeared in at least once (except for David Tennant, and he’s really annoyed about that).

If romance novels are the fantasy, crime is the reality, and for a lot of Scots, it ain’t pretty. Our crime fiction is heavy on social commentary, noting massive discrepancies between rich and poor in our biggest cities and the perpetual cycle of poverty that traps many in lives of illegal activity. Low-quality housing, unemployment, lack of government investment, gang culture, bad weather, and lower life-expectancy; Trainspotting contains the infamous line, “It’s shite being Scottish”, but it’s the crime fiction that delves into the why of it all.

Of course, if grit isn’t your thing, Scotland’s got plenty of rolling hills and cosy murder to make your evening complete. M.C. Beaton’s long-running Hamish Macbeth series brings a lighter touch to the genre, with its postcard perfect Northern Scotland setting and town of quaint but devious suspects. Imagine Agatha Christie with a gentle humour (this makes the TV series made from the books all the funnier for Scots when you remember the other role Robert Carlyle is best known for playing). Alexander McCall Smith, a highly prolific author and generally super nice guy, has the Isabel Dalhousie series, his contribution to the Edinburgh crime world. Isabel’s Edinburgh is the one of delightful frivolities, even with the occasional murder. It’s the version of the city where you’d be happy to bring your tourist friends to the crime scene. Pure fantasy, but it goes down so easily.

While our crime fiction isn’t as explicitly catered to a non-Scottish audience as something like romance, it’s not free from the inevitabilities of patriotic branding. Many critics have argued against the label of “tartan noir”, finding it both inaccurate and condescending: How do you encapsulate the array of layers the category has with such a twee label? Slapping a tartan sheen over the front page arouses suspicion in many Scots, who are all too used to seeing the markers of our culture decorated like a shortbread tin. Scottish crime fiction is defined by its full-throated depictions of the worst the country has to offer, so there’s something kind of hilarious about it being packaged as adorable to unsuspecting readers simply because they see Scotland as the sacred homeland of kilted lairds and haggis throwing.

I can’t say that I enjoy crime fiction more or less than romance because I’m an omnivorous reader who seldom discriminates. It is easier on the cringe-reflex to visit Scotland through crime, simply because it tends to be Scottish writers creating those worlds and they’ll forever feel more familiar to me than the heather-tinted alternative. Some work can delve a tad too giddily into unnecessary misery for my tastes, but the best crime reminds the reader that Scots are funny as fuck, and the true geniuses of the creative swear. If you want a good place to start off, go with Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel, Stuart MacBride’s Aberdeen set Cold Granite, or The Distant Echo by Val McDermid. The marketing may play a quainter tune, but the books are for us, and we’re not likely to forget that any time soon.