“Where were you last weekend?”“Bloody Scotland.”
Look of surprise. “I thought you liked your native land?”
“It’s a festival, not an epithet.”
Yes, that’s right. Scottish crime fiction—or tartan noir, as it has been dubbed—has come of age. There are now enough of us and a big enough body of work to sustain a festival whose core focus is the fictional murders committed by a nation of only 5 million.
The godfather of it all was there this weekend in the historic town of Stirling. In the shadow of the monument to William Wallace, we toasted another William, McIlvanney, to be precise, the man who set this show on the road in 1977 with Laidlaw. It was an extraordinary novel, vibrant, vernacular, a virtuoso performance straight off the blocks. Jack Laidlaw was a cop with a fractured marriage, a passion for justice, and a copy of Camus in his desk. The murder was a disaster for everyone touched by it. It’s as good a read today as it was then.
Before Laidlaw, there was no Scottish mystery tradition to speak of. There are fingerposts along the way that indicate what we had the potential to become: James Hogg’s 1824 experimental novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and, of course, the Sherlock Holmes canon of Arthur Conan Doyle. But really, this was a shallow soil to plant our roots in when you compare it to the English Golden Age or American Noir.
The great advantage of that lack of fertile ground is that we had a certain freedom to go our own way. We’re good at that, we Scots, the pioneers who built the empire and invented so many of the cornerstones of modern life.
It seems we’ve always had to do that from a position of being, in effect, second-class citizens. We’re not the masters of our own fate. We’ve been ruled by a foreign power for the last three hundred years, but it’s only been in the last forty or so that we’ve seriously started discussing what it would be like to be an independent nation again—in other words, the same length of time since William McIlvanney started writing Laidlaw. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
I think one of the reasons Scottish writers have turned to crime is that the genre offers a perfect jumping-off point for writing about the society we live in and asking the difficult questions about what kind of choices we make and why. A good crime novel is organic; it arises out of the universe it’s set in. And it’s also inclusive. The writer has a range of social strata to choose from because sudden, violent death touches a lot of different people, from the victim, friends, family, and colleagues, to witnesses, cops, forensic specialists, lawyers, the media, and, of course, the killer. We can set the focus as tightly or as widely as we choose. If you’re a writer who has political or social concerns, there is space for them in the crime novel. That’s not to say we start off with a “message”; it’s more that the matters concerning us as human beings always find their way into our writing, so long as we are honest with ourselves.
In the wake of Laidlaw, Ian Rankin in France and I in England started writing Scottish crime novels. We were not an overnight sensation. It took us about ten years for that to happen. But some people did take notice, and all that is necessary to start a movement is for a single trailblazer to breach the walls, then the rest of us follow behind, creating a wider and wider wake.
Hot on our heels came writers of the caliber of Denise Mina, Manda Scott, Christopher Brookmyre, and Louise Welsh. And then the floodgates opened. Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson, Gordon Ferris, Alex Gray, Caro Ramsay, Allan Guthrie, Aline Templeton, M.C. Beaton, Helen Fitzgerald, Catriona McPherson…the list goes on and on. The books are diverse in style, tone, and setting.
What unites these authors, somehow, is a certain sensibility. The nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid called it Caledonian anti-syzygy, which comes close to saying we’re schizophrenic. It literally means the yoking together of two opposing forces. And that seems to me to encapsulate the Scottish personality. On the one side, we have the serious, hard-working, strait-laced Presbyterian who believes in earning your pleasure and only taking it with the lights out. On the other side, there’s the passionate Gael, the dancer, the singer, the musician, the teller of tales, the one who indulges all the appetites whenever the opportunity arises. You can see how those two elements might argue a wee bit now and then.
That’s how it is with Scottish crime fiction. Even the coziest of those writers I mentioned shares a fascination with the darker side of the human psyche. We are driven by the desire to understand why people do the things they do, often with the lights out.
But our work is also shot through with shafts of humor, sometimes so black it makes you wince. And it’s those two elements that draw Scottish writers into a big tartan bag, like cats who like to fight as well as snuggle.
The tendency continues. At Bloody Scotland, the winner of the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year was Malcolm Mackay with his second novel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye. Mackay, who lives in Stornoway on the remote island of Lewis, writes hard-boiled, laconic, and gripping stories of a Glasgow hitman. His imagination is compelling, and, at age 31, to paraphrase Robert Frost, he has miles to go before he sleeps. Young Mackay is on the march with a tartan army in which I am proud to be a foot soldier.