Life of crime: Val McDermid, pictured in 2004, has recently returned to Scotland
Show Hide image

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

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis