“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.”
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