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6 March 2014

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.

By Val McDermid

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.

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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