Monday, May 24, 2021

Scotland - the land of mist, mountain, midges - and murder

Ah, Scotland.

The land of mist and flood, of mountains and heather, of men in skirts and the mighty midge – a small creature that, like the Glasgow hardman, packs a powerful punch.

But behind the haggis and shortbread image so beloved of biscuit tins and soup cans, there was always another Scotland – and it’s one that has leapt to the fore with all the force of William Wallace despatching an English nobleman.

Tartan Noir, they call it, and it’s not a label I particularly like but it works as a handy marketing tool. According to lore, it was first coined during a conversation between our own (or oor ain) Ian Rankin and US legend James Ellroy. I’m not sure which of them came up with it but it stuck.

You can’t toss a caber these days without hitting some best-selling author delving into the dark side of Scottish life. Some credit William McIlvanney and Laidlaw for beginning this mini-industry. Mr McIlvanney, who knew his literary lore, always denied it.

The truth is that Scotland had a tradition in crime writing going back further than that.

Settle in, folks, because we're going to cover 200 years of history here.

James Hogg was known as The Ettrick Shepherd and his 1824 novel ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ is a precursor to serial killer novels like ‘Dexter’. Hogg’s character is a Calvinist who believes he is justified in killing those out of favour with his God.

The novel certainly influenced Robert Louis Stevenson, who was fascinated by the darker side of the psyche, most obviously in a wee book about a certain Dr Jekyll and his chum, Mr Hyde, but also in ‘The Master of Ballantrae’. The sickly boy from Edinburgh also wrote the short story ‘The Bodysnatchers’, inspired by the Burke and Hare case, and what is ‘Treasure Island’ but a story about vicious crooks?

And if you want to talk about a more obvious contribution to the crime canon, I’ve three names for you – Arthur, Conan and Doyle. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first fictional sleuth but he is, as sure as God made the little green things, the most famous and his deductive powers were inspired by Dr Joseph Bell, one of Doyle's professors in medical school in Edinburgh. Bell, as a pathologist, was involved in a number of celebrated real-life cases in Scotland's capital.

Which brings us to true crime and I give you William Roughead, a lawyer with a wicked sense of humour and a fine turn of phrase who detailed many famous cases from Scottish legal history. You may not know it from their lack of exposure on TV but Scotland does have a plethora of fascinating historical true crimes over and above the aforementioned Burke and Hare, a shadowy (alleged) serial killer nicknamed Bible John and Glasgow gangsters. But that’s a rant for another day.

Perhaps one of the most famous Scottish crime books is ‘No Mean City’, a blood-spattered tale first published in 1935 and still in print today. The storyline deals with the notorious razor gangs of Glasgow, who turned the dear green spot blood red in the 20s and 30s. Its author was Alexander McArthur, a baker in the Gorbals area of the city, but his rough-hewn wordsmithery had to be smoothed down by journalist H. Kingsley-Long in order to make it more reader-friendly. The City Fathers – then and now – deplored its content but there was no denying its power even though today it is quite a difficult read. It was McArthur’s only success and he died a sad death, a penniless alcoholic.

Perth-born John Buchan - the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, don't you know - is seen as one of the fathers of the modern thrillers. Alistair MacLean took it to new heights. It could be argued that all modern thrillers writers owe a debt of gratitude to this gruff former school teacher. Yet he set only one in his native land – When Eight Bells Toll, the film version of which is a favourite on afternoon TV.

His niece Shona, under the name SG MacLean, carries on the literary tradition with many fine historical thrillers and I recommend them to you.

And we should not – must not – forget Glasgow-born Helen MacInnes, who wrote many fine thrillers, a number of them filmed. Her early works concentrated on wartime thrills but later she turned her attention to the cold war. She may well have known quite a bit about that, for her husband, classics scholar Gilbert Highet, was an agent for MI6!

Their influence can be seen in other Scottish writers like Campbell Armstrong and the Late Jack Gerson, whose thrillers richly deserve a wider audience. He cut his teeth writing for TV on series such as Z Cars and was in the forefront of creating the three-part TV thriller which was in vogue for a time before these things had to extend to six episodes or even more, which someone had to invent padding. 

Gerson produced a number of cracking novels, including a Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller 'The Back of the Tiger' and the Ernst Lohmann thrillers set in Nazi Germany.

For TV, he created 'The Omega Factor' which is seen as many as the forerunner to 'The X Files', and his daughter Natasha, who featured in the original show, continues the tradition by penning original audibooks based on the series.

On a personal note, Jack was also very supportive of me when I worked on a local newspaper in the west end of Glasgow, where he lived. He was a funny, decent and knowledgable man.

Ayrshire-born Edward Boyd wrote predominantly for TV but also co-scripted the movie ‘Robbery’, directed by Peter Yates, which helped set the template for British crime series like ‘The Sweeney’.

But, for me, it was Boyd’s ‘The View from Daniel Pike’ that really put Scottish-set crime on the map.

It started off as a one-off drama in the BBC2 compendium series ‘Menace’ and spun off into a series.

Roddy McMillan played Daniel Pike, a down-at-heel Glasgow private eye with a no -nonsense approach to life, a fine line in snappy patter and, under a gruff exterior, a heart as wide as the Clyde. It was a hugely under-rated show but was incredibly influential on one young man living then in a new town near Glasgow.

That young man was, of course, me. Until then I would never have believed that a crime thriller could be set in my home city but Eddie Boyd and Daniel Pike opened my eyes.

Some of the scripts were later adapted by journalist and writer Bill Knox – himself no mean crime scribe with a host of ‘Thane and Moss’ cop procedurals to his name – and released as a book.

Boyd was so highly regarded that many of his scripts and plays are now part of the library at the University of Glasgow. He, like Pike, is waiting to be rediscovered and venerated.

While we're talking scriptwriting - Greenock's Alan Sharp wrote a number of notable scripts for Hollywood, including the crime thrillers 'The Last Run', which starred George C Scott, and the classic private eye movie 'Night Movies,' with Gene Hackman.

And Gordon Williams, born in Paisley, may have been of a literary bent but his potboiler 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' was filmed as - wait for it - 'Straw Dogs' and he also created London private eye Hazell with footballer Terry Venables.

Earlier, Hugh C. Rae issued a number of crime stories from his typewriter, beginning with ‘Skinner’, loosely based on the real-life serial killer Peter Manuel. The Glasgow author later abandoned the grit of the streets to pen, under a host of historical romances under a variety of pseudonyms (notably Jessica Stirling, originally with Peggy Coghlan). When Jessica was revealed to be a Hugh, he quipped 'a tall, dark, handsome fellow, suave as a yard og shantung - and a born liar to boot.'

And then along came ‘Laidlaw’ and, hot on its trail, TVs ‘Taggart’.

Like Boyd, William McIlvanney was from Ayrshire, in his case Kilmarnock. His book generated a great deal of heat and there were always rumours it would be filmed. One report said an American company wanted to shoot it – in New York. McIlvanney refused. To date, it’s not been adapted for the screen.

But a show called ‘Taggart’ did hit the tube and anyone who’d read McIlvanney’s book spotted similar themes. However, to be fair, it is a pretty universal theme – tough, street-wise, seen-it-all cop is partnered with a bright-eyed and enthusiastic young detective to investigate murder.

However, in Glasgow at the time there were two very large motor dealers in competition. One was Laidlaw’s. The other was Taggart’s.

File it under ‘Life’s full of coincidences.’

So from there it was straight to Rankin’s Rebus, right?


First there was Peter Turnbull. Okay, he’s a not a Scot but we won’t hold that against him. In 1981 he produced the first in his P Division thrillers, ‘Deep and Crisp and Even’. Police procedurals, with an ensemble of characters, set in Glasgow, they followed a direct line from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which is fitting as Glasgow is deemed the most American of British cities – and is even known as the 51st State. He produced 10 novels in the series, ending in 1998.

Turnbull has returned to his native Yorkshire and left P Division behind but the series is well due for rediscovery.

And then, in 1987, along came Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, both Fife born. That their fine work took Tartan Noir (there’s that label again) to new heights is a given and hot on their heels marched an army of writers who have littered the streets, alleys, fields, rivers, lochs and mountains with more bodies than any small country deserves.


Maggie Craig said...

Great post. Good to see Hugh C Rae in here. He was always so encouraging to beginning writers, a mentor to many. At the other end of the timeline, Hogg's Justified Sinner. I came to it late in life and was blown away by it. Friend who had to study it at uni hated it, which might reinforce me in the belief that books are not meant to be studied and dissected to bits. RLS too, of course, a master of sending shivers up and down a reader's spine.

Catherine Macdonald said...

Thanks for this wonderful survey of Scottish crime fiction. I've always loved books set in Scotland and you've given me several new-to-me writers to chase down.

Douglas Skelton said...

Glad to be of assistance and glad you enjoyed it. There are a few 'legacy authors' I've missed but I may cover them in a follow-up. However, you will know there are many MANY authors still active in Scottish crime writing.