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5 March 2015

Criminally Caledonian: on the art of detective fiction and the glory of “tartan noir”

Leo Robson looks at the traditions underpinning Ian Rankin's The Beat Goes On and George Pelecanos' The Martini Shot and Other Stories.

By Leo Robson

The Beat Goes On: the Complete Rebus Short Stories
Ian Rankin
Orion, 464pp, £19.99

The Martini Shot and Other Stories
George Pelecanos
Orion, 296pp, £19.99

The detective novel is the creation of two countries, Scotland and the United States, with the occasional helping hand from France. It was Edgar Allan Poe who set the ball rolling with his stories about C Auguste Dupin, a detective with some resemblance to Eugène François Vidocq, the founder of both the Sûreté Nationale and – no less importantly, in literary terms – the first private detective agency, to which he gave the name Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le commerce et l’Industrie. (Crime-fighting language got terser.) Poe’s greatest champion was Charles Baudelaire, whose Dupin translations shot around Europe, and his greatest followers were Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson: having three names clearly helps in crime fiction. Conan Doyle, who used Dupin as the model for Sherlock Holmes, described Poe’s stories as the “root from which a whole literature has developed . . . Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

The intended answer presumably was “Nowhere”, but a more accurate answer would be “Edinburgh”, where both Doyle and Stevenson were born, and where crime fiction had been lying dormant for the best part of a century. In writing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was reviving a theme sometimes – though rarely out loud – called “the Caledonian antisyzygy”, the Scottish interest in duality shown by James Hogg’s “Strange Letter of a Lunatic” (1830) and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and recorded in Karl Miller’s emphatically Scottish “studies in literary history”, Doubles.

Later on, following the period of English activity that prompted Edmund Wilson’s 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, it was a French critic, Nino Frank, who identified film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain as examples of “noir”. That word took a journey back across the Atlantic when – though some dispute this – James Ellroy came up with the phrase “tartan noir” to characterise the work of Ian Rankin, the Edinburgh-based crime writer, whose many accolades include an award given by the Mystery Writers of America in honour of Poe, the Edgar, which he won in 2004 with Resurrection Men, his thirteenth book about Detective Inspector John Rebus.

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A near-century of American ubiquity has worked to obscure crime fiction’s Scottish heritage, and the phrase “tartan noir”, whose practitioners include Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina, carries a hint of irony that was altogether absent from “Caledonian antisyzygy”. The implication seems to be that Edinburgh and Glasgow, in contrast to, say, Los Angeles, are gritty but not seedy – tough in the wrong way. In reality, “tartan noir” is less an oxymoron than a tautology. When David Peace transposed Ellroy’s tone to Yorkshire in the time of Arthur Scargill and Peter Sutcliffe, it was a conscious exercise in juxtaposition. When Rankin invented Rebus, he was merely following on from where others had left off.

“I wasn’t interested in Rebus as a person,” he writes in a postscript to The Beat Goes On, a collection of 29 stories about the detective. Instead, the character provided “a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelgänger tradition”. But Rankin doesn’t see his project as a straightforward resumption of 19th-century business. Although he acknowledges Hogg and Stevenson (Doyle’s stories are mostly set in London), Rankin also says that when he started writing there was “no tradition of the crime novel in Scotland”. That’s where the American influence comes in, and particularly that of Raymond Chandler.

And it is an influence, not a model. Rankin uses hardboiled ingredients to enrich a Scottish formula and does not enslave himself to a foreign tradition. In one story, Rebus tosses a copy of Hammett’s The Dain Curse into the air. He can’t stand the “coincidences”. When he puts his feet up on a desk, he tries “to feel like Sam Spade”, Hammett’s detective, “but failed”. Later, sitting in his car, he reflects sourly that only for the “Hollywood private eye” did a stakeout last a few minutes. “Here, it was measured in a slow ticking of seconds . . . minutes . . . quarter-hours.” Los Angeles may have the edge in slickness, but it can’t touch Edinburgh for realism.

It is also possible to discern a larger message. Tartan noir isn’t some poor Scottish cousin, Chandler in a kilt. It’s an attempt to wrench the baton back from America. And what better time? The crime novel thrives on antisyzygy, social as well as individual; and various sites of Scottish division – oil riches/fried Mars bars, nationalist/unionist – supply a source of high stakes in much the same way as the subjects that powered Hammett and his successors: Prohibition, McCarthyism, the war on drugs.

If Rankin has yet to succeed in this endeavour, that isn’t due to his portrayal of Edinburgh, evoked as a “city the size of a town, a town with a village mentality”, or of the police force, plausibly torn between “technology” and “the old ways”. The big picture is where he excels. But he struggles with the little things, the genre flourishes. His plotting can be frantic, a problem exacerbated by the short form, and his des­criptions of a detective’s hunches either border on vague or overstep the border by a mile: “it just struck me as odd”, “a feeling was a feeling”.

There is also the problem of the competition, a new breed of crime writers at once self-consciously literary and scrupulously sociological who threaten to sustain the era of American dominance – among them Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. A writer-producer on the HBO series The Wire and Treme, Pelecanos has also published about 20 books, most of them set in Washington, DC, the latest of which is The Martini Shot and Other Stories. But Pelecanos and these writers face challenges of their own, not least an unshakeable and unavoidably self-conscious desire to be, as Updike said of Bellow, street-smart and book-smart with equal intensity. It is when engaged in this effort that Pelecanos displays the starkest shortcomings of contemporary Stars-and-Stripes noir.

Raymond Chandler once joked that any writer who has a character say “Yeah” was treated as a Hammett imitator. But it’s probably true to say that any writer who has an employer say “reasonable” on being told a private investigator’s daily rate “plus expenses” – as happens in both Pelecanos’s “When You’re Hungry” and The Big Sleep – is at the very least a Chandler fan. In certain moods, Pelecanos proves so much a devotee of the aesthetic that even a woman’s “pussy” is said to have a “five-o’clock shadow”.

Yet at other times it is Chandler’s poet­icism that Pelecanos pushes to extremes. While refusing to stint on the use of words such as “like” and “laughin”, he also wants his (often teenage) narrators to notice flurries of snow swirling in the glare of the street lamps, or ragged silver dollars drifting down through the light of the (yes) street lamps. One character explains that his “street name” is Sleepy on account of his “half-mast eyes”. The result shows a desire, traditionally Caledonian but these days just as American, to have it both ways, not by straddling “literary” and “genre” writing – Poe managed that – but by combining the lyric heights of William Wordsworth with the grammar of Wayne Rooney.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman

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