Life of crime: Val McDermid, pictured in 2004, has recently returned to Scotland
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Val McDermid: living the tartan noir in Edinburgh

The Scottish capital has a long tradition of crime fiction. Now one of the genre’s modern proponents comes home.

Two weeks ago, I took possession of a flat in Edinburgh. From the room where I will write, I can look across the Firth of Forth to Fife, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. I don’t need Alex Salmond to tell me this is the year of homecoming. In my heart, I know I have come home.

I have lived in England for twice as many years as I have in Scotland but I have never felt anything other than a Scot. That’s not just some jingoistic tartan-and-shortbread sentimentality speaking. It’s a bred-in-the-bone understanding that we have a different sensibility from our English neighbours. Our history is different. Our culture is different. Our class system is different. Our bread and our beer, those dietary staples, are different. As are the words we use to speak of them. A pint of eighty shilling. A pan loaf.

And I believe that’s why our crime fiction is different. The phenomenon of tartan noir that has sprung from the single seed of William McIlvanney’s 1977 novel, Laidlaw, encompasses a wide range of work, from apparent rural douceness to raw urban savagery. But it seems to me that all of us who write from that Scottish sensibility have common underpinnings that draw us together and distinguish us from our English, Welsh and Irish colleagues.

It begins at the beginning, in the very roots of what we’re doing. The Scots literary tradition is distinct and distinctive. For me, the crime novel’s first stirrings come with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), an experimental novel that features a dangerous but irresistible anti-hero and ventures into the Gothic, speculative realms of angels and devils. It wasn’t even mentioned on my Oxford English degree course.

The next figure in the landscape is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Already we can see a form emerging from the swirling fog. It takes clearer shape in the hands of Arthur Conan Doyle – and now we find the key characteristics of our lineage. Dark psychological exploration, obsession, the potential for sudden explosive violence, the importance of the intellect, and a persistent seam of black humour. The polar opposite of the English Golden Age crime novel, in fact.

I always enjoyed reading classic English detective novels but, as surely as I knew England wasn’t my home, I knew as a writer I’d never fit in to that tradition. Like many of my fellow Scots crime writers, I found myself more in tune with the American hard-boiled model. Like us, they prefer the dark night of the soul to tea with the vicar.

And so we come back to McIlvanney. Laidlaw was unlike any other novel I’d read. The language its characters spoke was the vernacular I heard in the streets around me. Their lives were working class, urban, difficult and, to me, as recognisable as my own family. It wasn’t the stuff of detective novels as I understood them. With this novel, McIlvanney cracked the door ajar. Ian Rankin and I kicked it open a bit further and then suddenly the room started to fill up and the party was in full swing.

Anyone who doubts the range and quality of what’s being done by Scottish crime writers now only needs to take a look at the programme for Bloody Scotland, the annual crime festival that focuses on our work. Although it’s widely divergent in setting, style and subject matter, I’d still contend that there is connective tissue that pulls us together.

But why now? Why has there been such an explosion of writing in this particular genre in this particular place at this particular time? The answer, I believe, lies in crime fiction’s unique ability to shine a light on its setting. By its very nature, murder touches a diverse range of lives. The victim. The victim’s friends, family, neighbours, lovers and colleagues. The police. The forensic experts. The witnesses. The journalists who cover the case. One crime can draw in the highest and the lowest in the land. Contemporary crime fiction is where the social historians of the future will look to see how we live now, just as Dickens provides us with an insight into Victorian England.

When McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw Scotland was having its first serious political engagement with the idea of devolution. A referendum was on its way and, for most Scots, this was the first time we’d sat down and considered what a devolved – or even independent – Scotland might look like. What did it mean to be Scottish? How would we define ourselves in the modern world? What did we believe in? What did we think was worth fighting for? In the end, whatever conclusions we came to were wiped out by Westminster’s moving of the goalposts. A majority voted for devolution, but not enough of a majority.

But we’d started something. And Scots have a terrier tendency. As the discussions around devolved government and independence have swirled around us in recent years, so the crime novel has emerged as the literary form that engages with who we are and what we might become. In fiction, we can explore the worst and the best of us. We can take ourselves seriously and take the piss. We can create alliances and oppositions. We can, perhaps, find who we are and who we would aspire to be. These are the questions that permeate our crime fiction.

So in one sense, I have come home. But in another sense, as a writer, I have never been away.

Val McDermid’s “Cross and Burn” is newly published in paperback by Sphere (£7.99). Her version of “Northanger Abbey” will be published next month

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.