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Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

I – Tartan Noir — From Crime Fiction to Thanatography / Tartan noir : du rompol à la thanatographie

The Heart of Tartan Noir

Lin Anderson

Texte intégral

1In 2012 Bloody Scotland, the first international festival which celebrated Scottish Crime Writing, took place mid September in Stirling. It was an auspicious year to launch such a festival being the 125th anniversary of the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes Story, A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, the 35th anniversary of William McIlvanney’s groundbreaking crime novel Laidlaw, and 25 years since we first met Rankin’s Rebus in Knots and Crosses. To complete the modern triumvirate that blazed the way for Tartan Noir and those of us who followed, we must add the name of Val McDermid whose first crime novel, Report for Murder was published on the 17th September 1987.

2In Scotland, McIlvanney, rather than Arthur Conan Doyle, is regarded as the father of the modern Scottish crime novel. Ian Rankin frequently pays tribute to Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw as his inspiration for the character of Rebus. When we first meet McIlvanney’s Glasgow based detective, it is easy to see how.

Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy. (McIlvanney, 5)

3Along with McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is often cited as influential among Scottish crime writers. In it Stevenson examines the heart of the human condition, namely that, each human being has the potential to do good and the potential to do evil, which is what the crime novel is essentially about.

4This is the starting point for Laidlaw when he says to Harkness, his young colleague, “Other people can afford to write ‘monster’ across this and consign it to limbo. I suppose society can’t afford to do anything else, or it wouldn’t work. They’ve got to pretend that things like this aren’t done by people. We can’t afford to do that. We’re the shitty urban machine humanised. That’s policemen.” (McIlvanney, 84)

5Ian Rankin says Knots and Crosses was to his mind a contemporary retelling of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, with Rebus set up as a possible murderer, but nobody realised that, much to Ian’s chagrin. He openly admits going into bookshops and switching Knots and Crosses from the crime section to the section on Scottish literary fiction next to McIlvanney, suggesting Rankin, an English graduate working on a PhD about Muriel Spark, did not initially regard himself as a crime writer. When Laidlaw was published, McIlvanney, a winner of a string of literary awards, was surprised by the reactions of some of his former admirers. McIlvanney recalls a tale of meeting his former English teacher in a pub. The teacher ticked him off for producing something “as worthless as a detective story” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume III, location 115). McIlvanney goes on to say, “The old assumed automatic distinction between detective stories and ‘literature’ tends to serve as a way for people whose reading habits have petrified to protect themselves from having to think afresh” (qtd. In ibid., 121). As any good crime writer knows, a crime novel is not about the crime, but about the character. As McIlvanney says of Laidlaw, he is a man who just happens to be a policeman.

6So it began with Stevenson, through Dr Jekyll’s quest for “the thorough and primitive duality of man” written in 1886. One year later saw the publication of A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes’s first outing. From my own experience, Scottish crime writers rarely reference Arthur Conan Doyle when discussing their own inspirations, preferring to cite Stevenson, and Hogg, whose novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner itself has been cited as inspiration for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Perhaps this is because the books featuring Holmes appear to be more about problem solving than about the duality of human nature.

7According to Rankin, there is no tradition of the crime novel in Scotland, although there has always been a dark undercurrent to our storytelling, illustrated by the Border Ballads, traditional songs of murder and mayhem on the Anglo-Scottish border, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. There is no particularly Scottish equivalent of Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler:

I wasn’t influenced by the English crime novel because I’d never read any. I’d never read any Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers but I’d read a lot of Muriel Spark, which is very dark, and I’d read William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, some John Buchan, Alistair MacLean.
Rankin, qtd. in Wanner, Dead Sharp, 4.

8He suggests that the non adherence to the English classic crime tradition among Scottish writers has resulted in “a huge Catholicism” (Rankin, qtd. in Wanner, Dead Sharp, 4). You can set your books anywhere in Scotland, in the present, past or future. They can be satirical, serious, or comic. You can choose anyone to be your detective, or approach from the perspective of the villain. Just looking at a very short list of names that are part of the current cohort illustrates this – Chris Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Tony Black, Craig Robertson, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Louise Welsh, Alex Gray.

9April 2013 saw the recent and welcome republication of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. Reviewed in The Skinny, April 22 2013, Bram E. Gieben said of it, “The DNA of Scottish Crime writing is here” (n.p.).

10If McIlvanney is the godfather of Tartan Noir, the term itself is attributed to an exchange between Rankin and American crime writer, James Ellroy. Ian met Ellroy at a crime fiction event in Nottingham many years ago. Ian explained that he, too, was a crime writer and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. He said, “you could call it ‘Tartan Noir’. Ellroy laughed and signed the book ‘To the King of Tartan Noir’” (qtd. in Wanner, Dead Sharp, 3). Tartan, although a universally recognised Scottish brand, has a dual role in the Scottish psyche. Often declared as ‘kitsch’, and used to denigrate in terms such as ‘tartan and shortbread’ images of Scotland, it has associations with the ‘kailyard’, offering Brigadoon sentiments. This is in direct opposition to McIlvanney’s desire to give a philosophical voice to “the people whose histories are parish registers, the unsung, the unheard, the uncelebrated” (Kelly, “A writer’s life” n.p.).

11McIlvanney gave frequent voice to the social and political thoughts which informed his writing, and which are shared by many of those who followed. In 1992, prior to Scottish devolution, McIlvanney said something that resonated deeply with a nation in the fourth term of a Westminster Tory government it had resolutely voted against: “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. It’s a mongrel tradition. If the new Scotland is not about Pakistani Scots, Irish Scots, German Scots, and whatever they are – it’s not worth having at all” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume II, 196). A mongrel tradition re-affirms a rich cross-pollination of ideas as to what constitutes a crime novel, but what of the ‘tartan’ thread that gives it its Scottishness? I would suggest that the common thread is a healthy disregard for those in power and a predisposition to be thrawn. What does thrawn mean? It means if Scots are told what to do, or what to think, we’ll go for the exact opposite. We’re perverse and bloody-minded and will always question the status quo, which suggests Bloody Scotland was an aptly chosen name for our crime festival.

12McIllvanney was a big Burns fan. He said, “Burns had a massive influence on me, and I think his poem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ is the most succinct demolition of titled status in the history of literature. He annihilated the concept of the importance of title in relation to humanity, and I think that’s a very Scottish thing. Take the Declaration of Arbroath where we said if the king’s not good enough, we’ll ditch him.” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume II, 170). Nothing there about the divine right of kings and queens. McIlvanney also said, “One of the things I love about the history of Scottish culture is that a continuing thread runs through it, one of equality that says: You will be judged as a person by the nature of your humanity, not by the quality of your name or the status you appear to have achieved.” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume II, 174).

13The final scene of Laidlaw sees the detective talking to the killer of a young woman. The boy killed in anger because he couldn’t deal with the fact that he was homosexual. The young man detests himself. The world detests him. He is the monster we all love to hate. The final scene encapsulates Laidlaw’s refusal to accept that any human is a monster, whatever they have done:

Laidlaw crossed and sat on the bed beside him.
‘Here, son, ’ he said.
The boy looked blindly at him.
‘I brought you a cup of tea, son.’
The boy looked at the cup and looked at Laidlaw, as if the two formed a
connection he could never understand.
‘For me?’ he said. He was watching Laidlaw solemnly. ‘Why?’
Laidlaw saw the countless flecks that swam in the boy’s eyes, a galaxy of
undiscovered stars.
‘You’ve got a mouth, haven’t you?’ Laidlaw said. (McIlvanney, 280)

14 The last line of this exchange is a very Scottish one, in that it is both tongue in cheek and an example of gallows humour. It also encompasses what McIlvanney believed his writing was really about. The critics have stressed the hard-man aspects, while he was proudest that a review called his work tender. ‘It’s always been about love’ (Kelly, n.p.).

15In June 2012 I was invited to give a keynote address to the Edinburgh Film festival on the similarities and differences between Nordic and Tartan Noir. During my research I was surprised to discover that Scotland is only 190 miles from Norway, although its capital city Edinburgh is some 345 miles from London. Like Norway and Sweden, Scotland stands on the edge of the Europe, and shares many similarities in remoteness, climate and landscape. More recently, Scandinavian crime has become a global favourite. As Rankin remarked at the launch of Bloody Scotland, Scandinavian writers are not better than their counterparts in Scotland, they just have better PR, something Bloody Scotland was designed to address. Although the two schools share many similarities, I concluded that the main difference was the absence of humour, in particular gallows humour in Nordic Noir. Chris Brookmyre has built his crime career on irreverent, Scottish gallows humour. The titles of his books are classic in that respect, and many originate in expressions commonly used in Scottish childhoods such as “All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye” and “A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away”.

16 Laidlaw was as much a tribute to Glasgow as Rankin’s novels have been to Edinburgh. Neither men were natives of the cities they chose to feature. Although Scotland’s two major cities are popular locations for crime novels, Aberdeen has joined the crime cities with Stuart MacBride’s highly successful series featuring Logan McRae. Crime fiction is not just confined to the cities. Aline Templeton writes a series of crime novels located in Dumfries and Galloway. My own Rhona MacLeod series, although based in Glasgow, sees its protagonist travel into the rural north and west, as well as visit Edinburgh, Orkney and the islands of Skye and Raasay. The next book, None But the Dead (2016) is set on Sanday, one of Orkney’s furthermost isles which incidentally doesn’t have a police station, CCTV or a mobile signal and is cut off from mainland Orkney when the wind blows, which it does more often than not, and the mist comes down.

17My first Rhona MacLeod novel Driftnet was written many years after Laidlaw. Like Rankin and McIlvanney before me, I didn’t regard it primarily as a crime novel. Nor did I believe it would become the forerunner of a long series. Driftnet is the story of forensic scientist, Dr Rhona MacLeod, who attends a murder scene to discover that the victim bears her a strong resemblance. Initially it appears he may be the son she gave up for adoption 17 years before. Guilt at her betrayal of her son fuels the search for the killer, a paedophile preying on young vulnerable teenagers.

18At first glance it doesn’t fit the Rebus / Laidlaw mould. The protagonist is a woman, troubled at times, single minded, but not morose or struggling with drink. However, Rhona, like Rebus and Laidlaw, could also be considered thrawn. Driftnet shines a light on the social context in which it occurs – the online grooming of vulnerable youngsters, with the compliance of those who wield power and influence in society. The book is not about the crime, but about the character and how she tries to understand and deal with the underworld she finds herself in. Rhona is a woman first, and a forensic scientist second. Just as Laidlaw is a man who happens to be a policeman.

19Present day Scottish crime writing continues to challenge title, tradition and the status quo, asking the question, ‘who is the true monster among us?’ Through this, it often delves deeply into the political and social conditions of the time. Classic crime novels, such as those featuring Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot rarely questioned why the society they worked within was structured as it was. In this model, the detective from Scotland Yard invariably comes from the lower classes. He is seen as stupid, and in need of a clever person from the upper class to solve the crime for him. In contrast, McIlvanney’s Laidlaw is working class, erudite and intelligent, a philosopher, who is also a man of the people.

20Crime fiction has become a dominant force in Scottish literary life. It sells most books, is borrowed most frequently from libraries, is internationally renowned. Despite the breadth of its church, the diversity of sub-genres, styles, settings, themes, politics, aesthetics and voices, it has a recognisable quality, a shared concern. It defies convention, it challenges assumptions. Despite this, the literary world often looks down on it, lumping it all together dismissively under genre fiction. That probably ensures that those who are thrawn, read even more of it.

21When Alex Gray and I came up with the idea of Bloody Scotland we were amazed no one had thought of it before. It seemed so obvious. We have currently over 40 book festivals in Scotland, yet not one of them celebrated this most popular genre. The reaction of people we approached about the festival was exactly the same as our own. Why had this never been done before? The name Bloody Scotland was coined by Alex. The location of the festival matches the name, based as it is in Stirling, on Castle Rock, overlooking the Wallace Monument, which in turn looks down on two of Scotland’s most decisive battlefields, Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, both of which have helped forge the nation that Scotland is today. But the name also fits that Wikipedia definition of Tartan Noir, “dark Scottish writing with a gallows humour” It’s the perfect title to play with:

‘Where are you going in September?’
‘Bloody Scotland of course.’

22As Ian Rankin said at the 2012 launch, “Scottish crime writing is firing on all cylinders, with new and exciting voices continuing to appear”.

23When fellow crime author Allan Guthrie was asked what makes Scottish crime writing so successful, he said, “McIlvanney made it sexy and Rankin and McDermid kept it sexy. Sexy equals internationally marketable”. We are, after all, in the entertainment business. But crime writing doesn’t just entertain. It does much more than that. It examines the human condition in extremis. In its contemporary context, it shines a light on current Scottish society, its values and its dark underbelly.

24Perhaps had the geography and history of Scotland been different, we might have been the ones to create ‘cosy classic’ crime, but Scotland’s political and social history, its landscape and location have created our ‘thrawn’ character, and in turn our crime fiction. Tony Black, born in Australia, raised in Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, whose father’s family is Lithuanian, says: “I’m this complete mongrel, but I’m 100 percent Scottish” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume II, 666).

25I would like to finish on a thought from McIlvanney. When presented with the idea by Val McDermid that he started it all, he replied in his characteristically modest and humorous manner. “Did I?” He said later. “I’ve been quite moved that folk regard me as a forerunner of Tartan Noir. In my old age, it’s like getting a pension of esteem you didn’t know you were going to get” (qtd. in Wanner, The Crime Interviews Volume II, 303). McIlvanney was the hit of Bloody Scotland 2012. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the great man. Long time fans brought original books for him to sign, delighted with the chance to meet him again. When he told a funny story featuring a former landlady he’d stayed with when young and broke, it turned out that she was present in the audience. Bloody Scotland was created to celebrate Scottish crime writing and to give pride of place to the man who began Tartan Noir, though he had no idea he had at the time. Such is the power of story. If Bloody Scotland achieved one good thing it was to give William McIlvanney his rightful place at the heart of contemporary Scottish Crime Fiction.



ANDERSON, Lin. Driftnet. Edinburgh, Luath Press, 2003.

– ––––, None But the Dead. London, Pan Macmillan, 2016.

DOYLE, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. London, Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 2001

GIEBEN, Bram E. “Laidlaw by William McIlvanney”. The Skinny, April 22nd 2013

HOGG, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, London, Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Edition 1997.

KELLY, Stuart. “A Writer’s Life: William McIlvanney.” The Telegraph. 27 Aug 2006.

McILVANNEY, William. Laidlaw. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

RANKIN, Ian. Knots and Crosses. London, Orion, 2008.

STEVENSON, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [Free Kindle Edition]: Amazon Media.

WANNER, Len. Dead Sharp, Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft. Isle of Lewis, Two Ravens Press, 2011.

— ——, The Crime Interviews Volume Two: Best-selling Authors Talk About Writing Crime Fiction [Kindle Edition]. Blasted Heath, 2012.

— ——, The Crime Interviews Volume Three: Best-selling Authors Talk About Writing Crime Fiction [Kindle Edition]. Blasted Heath, 2012.


Writer and guest speaker, Edinburgh.
A Tartan Noir crime novelist and screenwriter, Edinburgh, Scotland. Lin Anderson was the daughter of a detective in the Criminal Investigation Department. After spending five years in Nigeria in the 1980s she started writing short stories that were broadcast on BBC 4. She taught maths and computing at George Watson’s College before turning full-time to writing. The Rhona MacLeod series made her famous (from Driftnet (2003) to The Special Dead (2015). She is one of the founder members of Bloody Scotland, a Tartan Noir and Scottish crime writer’s festival, held in Stirling since 2012.
Lin Anderson did us the honour of being guest speaker at our conference in Toulouse and we are deeply grateful for her contribution to this project.

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