“Too much black for the white.” That was the assessment of the Ayrshire novelist George Douglas Brown when asked what he thought of his novel, The House with the Green Shutters, over a century ago. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a very apt summary of a modern phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.
In both tone and theme, Shutters bares close familiarity to Scotland’s newest ‘Black’ novels. It’s a safe bet that this branch of the crime writing family tree is closer to Brown’s offspring than Agatha Christie’s cosy, drawing-room mysteries. Add Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychological explorations of seedy society, and the odds on a unique Tartan lineage become a racing certainty.
It’s no secret that Scottish crime fiction has undergone a boom in recent years, spearheaded by the soar-away success of the UK’s leading seller in the genre, Ian Rankin. So, perhaps a convenient marketing term was needed; but does Tartan Noir do it justice?
The man many regard as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, William McIlvanney has called the term ”ersatz” and distanced himself from the hype. But it was the Whitbread-winner who was first on the scene, with Laidlaw in 1977, clearly chalking a line around the corpse of familiarity.
“I’m a hung jury about the phrase,” says McIlvanney. “I suppose it works as an adman’s slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin and Tony Black.”
McIlvanney’s own crime tales were at once grim, dark, close to the knuckle and hugely influential. The Kilmarnock-born author took to the mat with the American Hardboiled school, and wasn’t found wanting. Laidlaw sent a shiver through Dame Agatha’s admirers that, to this day, sets cake-stands quivering on country lawns.
Ian Rankin, like so many of his contemporaries, pays due respect to the Godfather. “I owe McIlvanney a huge debt,” he says. “Rebus was an attempt at an east-coast Laidlaw.”
Rankin’s own Detective Rebus may not be everybody’s idea of a sympathetic protagonist but his singularly Scottish traits strike a resonant chord with the buying public.
“We Scottish writers have found that crime fiction is a good way to explore ‘place’, especially urban,” says Rankin. “We peer below the surface of the everyday city and show its complexity. Crime fiction is also often political, looking at the mess we are in and asking how we get out of it.”
Rankin too has his doubts about the Tartan Noir tag being used to pigeonhole Scotland’s crime writers; though many undoubtedly share the dark traits the term infers, he believes Scottish crime writers are now too many and too varied to group under one label.
“Tartan Noir maybe makes it sound as though we only write dark, twisted crime fiction in Scotland,” he says. “We are a broad church – McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, etc. If there is a broad connecting theme in a lot of Scottish crime fiction it is a sense of duality, of our ability to do bad as well as good.”
Rankin sees little geographical distinction between the country’s Tartan Noirists, but is puzzled why our largest city doesn’t feature more often. “It is curious that the majority of writers set their books outside Glasgow. Not sure why that is,” he says.
The Dear Green Place is the setting for Alex Gray’s crime fiction, however, she struggles with any idea of the traditional east-west dichotomy. The old claim that you can have a better time at a Glasgow stabbing than an Edinburgh wedding, she believes, is groundless.
“East versus west? Um, I was about to say the westerners swear more but that’s not true! Thinking of Allan Guthrie (mind you he is not an original east coaster) puts paid to that idea,” she says. “I’m not sure there is that much of a difference, really. Maybe Scotland is too wee for big differences in psyche?”
Theakston’s-winning author Allan Guthrie, originally from Orkney though now settled in Edinburgh – where he sets his fiction – offers a more simple assessment of the blurring boundaries.
“It’s more likely that we see success around us and we – as writers – are drawn towards it,” he says. “I became a crime writer through reading [Christopher] Brookmyre and Douglas Lindsay and feeling inspired to try my hand at a comedic non-police procedural crime novel too.”
A small nation sharing similar traits may embay its writers with a narrow spectrum of influence to choose from; add an established dichotomy of thought – the Caledonian Antisyzygy – the long dark nights, and the northern tendency towards depression and we begin to look like a dour lot. There are exceptions to this rule; but the rule remains, says Alex Gray. “Us crimos do tend to be a bit on the side of morbid curiosity, don’t we?”
Glasgow author Donna Moore runs a website for fans of Tartan Noir called The Big Beat from Badsville. Moore thinks Tartan Noirists are influenced by a mixture of gothic sensibilities dating back to James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner as well as Jekyll and Hyde and Burke and Hare. Throw in Scots’ infamous gallows humour – and the weather again – and a familiar story emerges.
“We’re never going to write sunny stories about how brilliant everything is. Most of the time it’s chucking with rain,” says Moore. “There’s also a lot of duality – you’ve got a mix of twitching net curtains in grand Georgian townhouses, just a stone’s throw away from run-down schemes.
“Scottish crime fiction tends to be curious about why crimes happen, and about the people who commit them. And Scotland has the second-highest murder rate in Europe (second only to Finland).”
Mean streets, grim weather, a history of violence, the dark literary vain … plenty, then, to keep our detectives – fictional or otherwise – occupied; whatever you call it.