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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

Thrawn Characters on Converging Routes Leading to Thanatography: the Case of Paths of the Dead (2014) by Lin Anderson

Jean Berton

Texte intégral

  • 1 Lin Anderson, Paths of the Dead, London, Pan Books, 2014, 420 p. All quotations will be from this e (...)

1In her talk given at the “Crime, Punishment, and the Scots” conference organised by the French Society for Scottish Studies published in this book, Lin Anderson stated the notion of “thrawn”: “[W] hat of the ‘tartan’ thread that gives [the crime novel] 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 […]” It is this concept of “thrawnness” – turned into a characteristic of the Scots in their art of crime fiction – that this paper intends to explore in Lin Anderson’s Paths of the Dead.1

  • 2 Gill Plain, ‘Concept of Corruption: Crime Fiction and the Scottish ‘State’, ’ in Berthold Schoene ( (...)

2 “Thrawn” is a common adjective used in the Scots language. The Concise Scots Dictionary defines it as 1) twisted, crooked, distorted, misshapen; 2) (of the face or mouth) twisted with pain, rage etc, surly; 3) (of persons) perverse, obstinate, intractable; cross, in a dour, sullen mood; 4) (of the weather) disagreeable, inclement. (Robinson, 717). In Lin Anderson’s novel, the quality of ‘being thrawn’ applies, in diverse degrees, to the murderer, to his victims, to the members of the detective team, and to the landscapes; and, debatably enough, one may feel tempted to apply it to the author’s explorations in the crime fiction genre. The title of this paper is an attempt to mock the oxymoronic title in a reversed way, opposing the notions of “thrawnness” and convergence. The notion of converging routes implies that the threads of the web in which thrawn characters are entangled are meeting at the centre and that the threads running sidewise are viewed as divergence or meaningful digressions. In her chapter ‘Concept of Corruption: Crime Fiction and the Scottish ‘State’, ’2 Gill Plain tries to connect the alleged minor genre of crime fiction to the last phase of Scottish Renaissance in the wake of the failed referendum of 1979: “The alienated figure of the detective was a trope well suited to the articulation of opposition to Thatcherism, and from these polemical roots crime fiction developed into an ideal formula for investigating the state of Scotland.” (Schoene, 132) This highlights the idea that there is more than detective games in the not-so-minor genre of Scottish crime fiction.

3 Paths of the Dead (2014) is introduced to buyers as another “Rhona MacLeod novel”. This character is the actual heroine although she isn’t a detective – hence a feeling of thrawn, or ironical aim – but a forensic scientist working for the Glasgow police detectives, thus providing a warped angle of view on the police work. As her name of Celtic etymology indicates – ‘Rhona’ means power and might whereas the “leod” element in MacLeod implies fighting and brutality – it is a most fitting pseudonym for a heroine with brains. All the paths of the narrative must converge to her in the twisted routes devised by the author intent to produce pleasure for her readers. In this novel, Anderson has set a challenge for this female scientist necessarily with a clear logical mind whenever carrying out her duties. However, she is made to act in not so straightforward ways in her sentimental private life. She and the detective team have to face perverse murderers, and each time they have to win the game. In this story, they must deal with the overlapping worlds of law and order, addictions, power obsession, computer games, mediums, and druidism – yet those conflicting esoteric worlds have some common logic to be mastered. The team have to find out all the converging routes to the villain, while the reader is attracted to the heroine. Since the narrative is no more than a piece of fiction, all the characters are following the author’s directions to serve several purposes. And out of necessity those characters develop relationships which the reader is expected to enjoy. While the villain has built a complex web with straight and twisted lines leading to him, the members of the team are entangled in dramatic relationships. The author is playing with the thrawn killer, his victims, the champions of law and order, as well as with the reader.

4Len Wanner, in Tartan Noir, offers a study of four sub-genres in crime fiction – detective, police, serial killer, and noir (Wanner 6) – and since all four sub-genres happen to apply to Paths of the Dead, we will leave aside both the ideas of crime and punishment to discuss the variations of the concept of thrawnness as connected with the characters, somehow representing the Scots. Thrawnness appears in what connects characters, in the contrasts between straight logical (if not scientific) lines and twisted routes of the mind. Anderson suggests the metaphor of the “sacred pentagram” of Scotland allowing her readers to wonder how it actually fits in the complex map of the nation.

5In a text-context approach we will “identify and activate restricted contexts, while remaining conscious of the importance of the broad context so as to grasp the full meaning of the text under study” (Barry 24) while exploring three types of relationships leading to thanatography: rational explicit straight relationships, emotional often twisted relationships, and esoteric elusive relationships unless the author is trying her hand at thanatography

Thrawn direct relationships

  • 3 Philippe Lejeune’s essay develops the case of autobiography. Incidentally, the character of Rhona w (...)

6Rational explicit straight relationships belong to the genre of crime fiction and are the core of the routes set by the author to her detective team. Parodying Philippe Lejeune’s Le pacte autobiographique, although Lin Anderson never stated that Rhona was her own self,3 we must acknowledge the tacit covenant between the author and her reader. On buying this novel, readers of crime fiction presume their expectations to be met, such as an original crime-solving game, a Scottish background and landscape, a number of victims (thanatos causing melancholy) counterbalanced or enhanced by scenes of sex (eros arousing thrill), a shared set of addictions, and an enjoyable denunciation of institutions… Those will be common criteria to rate the quality of the piece of fiction: Anderson’s original game is the competing worlds of computer-led games of knowledge and of age-old irrational desire to meet with deceased persons through the help of a medium – a variation on the case of science and technology challenging beliefs about death and dying.

7A Rhona-MacLeod novel must be set in Scotland, a favourite topos. Rhona is based in Glasgow but she’s always given an excuse for travelling across the country before coming back to her flat in Glasgow: “Rhona stopped in her uphill climb and turned to look back. At 600 feet above sea level, Cathkin Braes Park was renowned for its panoramic views over the city of Glasgow, even as far as the craggy summit of Ben Lomond, clearly visible today under an azure sky.” (17) All the place-names corresponding to reality lure the reader into sensing the reality of the character, hence of the narrative.

  • 4 Andrew Grieg, Romanno Bridge, Quercus, 2008. See « ’Scotland’, literature, history, home, and melan (...)

8A similar crime scene to the one in Glasgow is an excuse to visit Orkney – where Rhona can visit her friend Magnus –; characters will then be travelling either physically or by proxy using maps. To the reader, this can be understood as a reference to Walter Scott’s Waverley, where the eponymous hero is driven about in Scotland by the author. The handling of maps by the team of detectives enables the author to introduce the puzzling ley lines running across the whole country. And through pinpointing crime scenes the image of the sacred pentagram is eventually imposed to the reader’s eyes. The druidic past of Scotland mixes with the use of modern technology, cell phones and computers, to provide some awareness of denseness. And the metaphor of the pentagram reaching into Orkney, however imperfectly, gives a sense of broadness to the narrative – it somehow brings to mind the geography of “greater Scotland” one feels when reading Andrew Grieg’s novel Romanno Bridge.4

  • 5 Tzvetan Todorov, « La typologie du roman policier »: « Le roman noir est un roman policier qui fusi (...)
  • 6 The structure was set by James Hogg in his The Confessions and Private memoirs of a Justified Sinne (...)

9The story of the murders initiates the story of the detective team’s action, and both stories coincide by the end of the novel, which enables critics to label the novel not only as a thriller but also as a noir novel, according to T. Todorov’s typology.5 The double narrative6 empowers the author to develop complex relationships between characters: the thrawn murderer and his private sphere (parents, lovers) and his victims; the thrawn detective team members both among themselves (irregular lovers, competitors, subordinates/superiors) and with outsiders; and eventually the villain and some detective team members. As a parody of real social life, the noir novel shows a large choice of social intercourse set in a gothic background: first, crime vs law and order in the world of criminals & murderers; second, the victims, either naïve or involved with crime and drug business; third, detective leaders & subordinates / superiors showing a caricatured milieu of the police institution. In Paths of the Dead, not-so-innocent victims are used to deliver messages from the author, such as the young female character whose “name was Iona Stewart.” (308) Both Christian and family names provide a Scottish stamp on the character offered to the reader’s criticism and comments.

10The usual route set by the author is from the identification of the victim (s) to their biography with a view to constructing the line of causation leading to their deaths. The agent is the detective fully supported by the omniscient narrator. Eventually, the biography of the victim (s) is expected to lead to that of the villain, thus to a way of identifying him/her/them. The aim in view is to reveal the full biography of the villain so as to expose the causes and the ways of murdering. Consequently, unveiling the logic accounting for the murder (s) is meant to restore law and order. Here Kearney started the murder game because, originally, he had been forced by his father to rape his mother: “‘I did what he asked. That night. I did what he told me.’ Rhona had no idea what he meant, but kept on, nonetheless. ‘You did it to save her, ’ she tried. ‘No, to please me.’” The deplorable life of the thrawn villain leads to ultimate horror, so unbearable to him that he’ll accuse the police of causing the suicide of his mother, his first victim. Thus the list of Kearney’s victims is actually a reversed crescendo.

  • 7 Gill Plain, ‘Concept of Corruption: Crime Fiction and the Scottish ‘State’, op. cit., 132.

11Lastly, belonging to the genre of crime fiction is the game – updated here as a computer game involving partly Scottish cultural knowledge: “Their avatars are all Druids in origin. Myrrdin, Caylum, Erwen, Morvan and Moonroth.” (162) The cat and mouse game is enhanced by some sort of corruption-fuelled competition among victims, murderers and police officers. Paths of the Dead develops a diversion from linear relationships to webs of connections. Gill Plain, in ‘Concepts of Corruption’, states that, as far as Scottish crime fiction is concerned, “crime fiction as a genre feeds upon concepts of corruption: to what extent, then, might a thriving national crime fiction find itself at odds with twenty-first-century visions of a brave new Scotland?”7 The relationship between author and reader is that of a law-free game: but if the narrative is a set of approved lies, the comments bear some elements of truth.

Thrawn emotional relationships

12Set in Glasgow, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, published in 1977, is considered the first Scottish detective novel. Matthew Wickman writes:

  • 8 Matthew Wickman, “Tartan Noir or, Hard-Boiled Heidegger”, (not paginated).

McIlvanney’s novel accentuates an ontology that is not ‘thrown’ as much as thrawn, a Scots term meaning twisted or perverse. As such, it converts Tartan Noir into a template of one of the most problematic features of modern being: the relationship of the unique to the generic, the individual to the stereotypical, the ‘authentic’ to the ‘recycled’, the one to the not-one.8

13What Wickman writes about Laidlaw by McIlvanney can be applied to Anderson: Love, lust, jealousy, hatred, friendship, betrayal, indifference are all embodied in the characters of Paths of the Dead. In crime fiction, human feelings are let loose and can hardly be expected to be controlled; and crime fiction is also about social relationships interfering with the aim of arresting the villain. As if in response to Ian Rankin’s statement, “There’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland but there is a great tradition of quite dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories.” (Wanner 4), Lin Anderson introduces, in Paths of the Dead, characters whose stories are dark enough to write a full novel on each of them. And some, like McNab, Iona, Rhona, or Pirie, are neurotic enough for rich developments.

14Scotland is a major recurrent character in Anderson’s Rhona MacLeod novels: we can even assert that the narratives are all about the present state of the nation. The broad culture of the nation, not limited to a district or a city, is involved in Paths of the Dead: “Orcadians were used to living among ancient ruins, but this particular discovery, believed to pre-date Stonehenge and the Pyramids, had placed Orkney at the centre of Neolithic history.” (89) Various items of culture are disseminated in the narrative, both to make the local reader feel at home and the foreign reader discover the cultural wealth of Scotland standing as a dense background to the thrawn characters: “Iona, a holy isle where St Columba first landed, bringing Christianity to Scotland. Iona, a nineteen-year-old, posing as older, eager and willing to bed a recently promoted DI” (27).

15Stress among the police force is an element common to most, if not all, crime novels – it helps strengthen a sense of realism in the narrative: it causes obstacles in the detective’s path, often generating mistakes that can lead to the detective’s (partial) failure or temporary withdrawal. In Tartan Noir, Wanner develops the issue in his section ‘the police novel’:

[…] it is in the failure to catch the criminal that we get to know the cop, for every time the cop fails, he or she has to deal with yet another critical news or progress report along with yet another attack from rivals or regrets. Worse still are the incompetent performances of the cop’s inferiors and the inflexible directives of his or her superiors, which is why the cop, who is often working multiple cases, is eventually tempted to break protocol by meeting force with force, and so grows the tension in the narrative arc, in the chain of command, and in the cop’s moral fibre.
Wanner, 83-84

16McNab is promoted to the rank of Chief Detective when the narrative of Paths of the Dead starts. He is demoted after the villain has been killed, for dangerous behaviour, for not sticking to the rules and endangering his own life (he was nearly killed on several occasions by Kearney). Bravery should not be confused with recklessness. Stress among the characters can generate addictions, such as alcohol, drug and/or tobacco – for McNab “giving up fags was harder than celibacy” (177) –, and sex and the three responses to stress fuel drama and breed thrilling action.

17Eros goes hand in hand with Thanatos in crime fiction: in Lin Anderson’s novel, eros is explored through the character of McNab who has to control relationships with no less than five female characters: Rhona, Iona, Helena, Megan, Janice; those characters are (easily) antagonised for the sake of jealousy. But McNab is not the novel’s hero. Rhona remembers an exceptional previous sexual relationship with McNab not to be renewed. Still, sex is an ordinary scene mostly meaning to release pressure and/or generate drama as in the case of McNab and Iona.

18The novel’s major hero is Rhona MacLeod who has three suitors in the narrative (Magnus Pirie from Orkney, Detective Inspector McNab from Glasgow, and Sean Maguire pub owner from Ireland), but she’ll surrender to none. Because Rhona is like a goddess never to be seduced for the sake of the series of the “Rhona MacLeod novels”, the chief detective, McNab, is turned into an over-Byronic hero in this Gothic atmosphere, which opens a connection with delectable exaggerations and the mysterious.

19The name of McNab, though not uncommon in Scotland, can be a favourite in literature as in John Buchan’s novel, John Macnab, since it is literally (son of the abbot) the name of someone who isn’t supposed to exist: Anderson’s Byronic hero is a Knight errant. Here CDI McNab has nearly died on a number of occasions. Just like the conventional Byronic hero, McNab is endowed with a high level of intelligence and perception, and cunning. He is an efficient detective and Rhona says to McNab: “You’re one of the best cops they have. Awkward, opinionated, self-centred, rude… but good.” (17). However, he is prone to self-analysis, self-criticism and introspection: “Rhona hadn’t said that [he wasn’t cut out to be a DI] in so many words, but he’d sensed it […]” (366). His past experience of near death has provided him with irrational abilities: “McNab had a sudden and startling out-of-body experience where he was part of that audience looking back at himself, standing up there, waiting to pontificate on something he knew fuck all about.” (211); even he can have premonitory powers: “McNab had an image of a wrecked room […]” (236) His power of seduction and sexual attraction is turned into a tautology; even Rhona is moved by him. His social and sexual dominance is obvious to the reader: he has just been promoted to the rank of CDI and he’s trying to seduce five female characters. But he is often assailed by emotional conflicts: “Whatever it was made him question whether he should ditch [Iona] quite so swiftly. Maybe he could string her along, call her when he felt like it. After all, that’s how Dr Rhona MacLeod dealt with him.” (28) As a Catholic in a Protestant environment, he experiences being an exile or outlaw – “McNab was a left footer in a right-footed establishment.” (175) –, which can lead him to be cynical: “It was shortly after Rhona had rejected McNab’s romantic overtures. Unabashed, he’d made directly for his more ardent fan.” (18) His disrespect of rank and privilege can reveal his thorough Scottishness: promoted to the rank of Chief Detective – “He’d confided to her in a drunken moment that, having reached this rank, he didn’t really want it.” (17) – he was then demoted – “‘I’m back where I belong, ’ he said.” (416) Anderson has constructed for him a troubled past somehow accounting for his self-destructive behaviour. “McNab’s need to visit a bar had diminished from the moment he’d been suspended, caffeine having taken the place of whisky as his drug of choice.” (354) Bravery and fearlessness are two appropriate qualities with him.

20In Paths of the Dead, the world of feelings aptly counterbalances the world of computer games: this world is made of dark channels connecting into webs of relationships that cannot be anticipated. Those webs somehow produce magnetism, that can be identified and explained through the author’s choice of words. Since crime fiction is not reality, the notion of neurosis with characters is better be replaced by that of thrawnness.

Thrawn esoteric relationships

21Esoteric elusive relationships are the major characteristic of Paths of the Dead. They are perceived by a limited number of characters through energy lines and magnetism, or vibes. At this level, we can sense Lin Anderson exploring the esoteric, which is likely to be understood or enjoyed by only a few people with a special knowledge or interest, and many more in quest for thrill. Nevertheless, this novel is not intended for readers specialised in either Neolithic archaeology or to experts in druidism. Those two aspects, however capital in the building of the drama, are left at a very shallow level of knowledge. Neither theme offers a secondary tragedy that could bring into the narrative any kind of mise en abyme. They essentially serve one purpose, which is to help develop a Gothic and fantastic atmosphere. Still, Neolithic and druidic connections are both topical in that they are involving science and luring enthusiastic students – too old to be lacking in responsibility, yet too young to be able to make out the dangers of their games.

  • 9 One can find no manifest excuse by the author for a postmodernist writing, as in John Herdman’s Gho (...)

22Science is necessarily linked to computers. And computers, in crime fiction, are connected with all sorts of computer applications: “Ollie had attached the mobile to a tracking device. McNab stared at the map on the screen with the small blinking dot.” (364, & ch. 63). In the narrative, computer games are closely related to the traditional game of detective fiction: the reader remembers Edgar Poe’s classic The purloined letter: “This particular stone circle wasn’t on any map that featured Neolithic sites, yet it was right under their noses. Buried in plain sight.” (391) The oxymoron highlights the parody of Poe’s narrative. And this comment by the narrator comes after the assertion, “If she was dead, [McNab] could still catch Kearney if he got him to play along with his game this time” (365): The game of the killer and that of the detective and converging with that of the crime genre. Realism mocking reality converges with the fantastic.9

23Sensation is coupled with intuition: Josh, the killer, and Helena catch the energy produced by the standing stones of the circle, “As they approached the circle he began to feel its energy.” (334), surprisingly enough, so does McNab: “McNab walked back inside the ring. The energy he’d felt the first time was even stronger now. A tingle ran up his spine.” (339) The reader is led to accept the policeman’s sensitiveness. This is meant to contradict the profiler and psychologist’s rationalistic stance: “‘There’s a lot about life and death we don’t understand. Premonition being one of them. People often know instinctively if a person close to them is in danger, or has just died [...]” (238) This obvious reference to second sight strengthens the link with the fantastic genre which the narrative of Paths of the Dead relates to.

24The first item belonging fully to the esoteric is the key role of the medium and his irrational, or thrawn, ability to communicate with the dead. Anderson takes great care to tell her readers that Mackenzie cannot and does not summon the spirits of dead people, but that those spirits use him as a channel to give messages. The medium scenes never become comedies, but are moments of tension and fear, as we realise that among those spirits, some victims can use the medium’s energy channel to voice their call for help. After reading the first chapter when the first victim is sending a message to his mother – “Alan has asked me to give you a message. (5) […] This is very difficult. I don’t want to alarm you, but Alan gave me clear instructions […] Alan told me to tell you to go to the police. I think your son may have had a violent death.” (7) – the optimal reader is allowed to be reminded of the opening scene of Hamlet with the hero’s father’s spirit calling for revenge. The dramatic urge of wreaking revenge is a powerful device to install tension in the first chapter of a piece of crime fiction. What’s more, the role of the medium scenes is to keep open whatever connection there might be between the world of the living and the world of the dead: “[McNab] wanted to see this place that purported to have a channel to the afterlife.” (43)

25In Scottish literature, we are allowed to expect any kind of thrawn show of second sight; this necessarily happens in the narrative, but it is not a major element. The character coming close to that category of people pretending to be able to see dramatic events about to happen, is the profiler. Magnus Pirie is a psychologist occasionally working with the police, but he isn’t endowed with any degree of magnetism – although Rhona is attracted to him, and conversely – but Magnus isn’t trusted by detectives. Profilers trying to identify serial killers can describe incidents likely to happen because of them, by using the help of their scientific knowledge and power of drawing appropriate conclusions to their analyses. But they can establish no connection with the deceased victims: “[Magnus] still didn’t understand how Patrick Menzies had known of Alan’s murder before anyone else. Nor how he was able to warn the police that those who played the online game with Alan were also in danger.” (418) In this instance, Magnus Pirie is acting as a straight man to Patrick Menzies, the medium.

  • 10 The points of the pentagram drawn on the map of Scotland also show the reader the places where char (...)

26Lin Anderson refers to those energy lines, that dowsers can spot so easily, also called ley lines – “[…] Ley lines appear to suggest an energy change in the earth’s surface […] These lines appear to link Neolithic sites.” (140) –, essentially because they enable the novelist to introduce the sacred pentagram of Scotland10 – “The points on the pentagram and the ley lines between were clearly marked in red.” (348) –, which is a major esoteric element concerning Scotland, and in the narrative the pentagram comes second to the medium. This is why the five victims were planned to die at the five points of the pentagram, but the villain’s plan is thwarted, for two victims die in Glasgow (and so does the killer, Josh Kearney), they cause the ‘pentagram game’ to fail; it is a way of paradoxically destroying it while celebrating it. This is clearly expressed by the narrator describing the heroine’s thoughts: “Approaching, Rhona encountered such a powerful force of energy that she was stopped in her tracks. As a scientist she had no evidence to believe in the energy lines that such places signalled or created, but she felt it now, or else her fear fuelled it.” (411)

27The killer’s plan to inflict death on his five victims on the five points of the pentagram is thwarted. It is a way to lead the reader out of the narrative, a way to come out of fiction and return to reality. Is this a deliberate act of debunking by the author?

Horrific fragments for a thanatography

28A last element in this part on esoteric relationships appears in the use of a metaphor: on several occasions, the heroine, Rhona MacLeod, has to travel by helicopter, which she thoroughly dislikes. Helicopters have the ability, among others, to fly upward: “Rhona concentrated on [the noise of the helicopter], her eyes half shut, not registering the rapid rise as Glasgow became the equivalent of a Google map below her.” (96) Here, Rhona doesn’t see her flight upwards from Glasgow because she’s not dead. As the police helicopters are used in connection with tragedies and death, their flights may be perceived as metaphors of the act of dying, if we are to trust people who had a near-death experience: “They rose, hovering briefly above the field.” (121); “She looked up, catching the drone of a police helicopter, hovering like a monstrous bluebottle above a corpse.” (18); “As they rose, the lights of the inn blinked back at them from what seemed to McNab to be an ocean of darkness.” (344) But the author doesn’t dwell on that and leaves her readers to interpret such scenes.

29When readers decide to make use of that possibility, they can expand it to map-reading scenes:

He led her into the dining room where a map of Scotland, including the Orkney Islands, had been spread out on the table.
‘A line directionally south runs close to the Ring on Cathlin Braes.’ He pointed to a marker. ‘That’s your Neolithic circle of five stones.’
He indicated a line drawn from the Ring of Brodgar heading south-east. ‘This one slices off a triangle just north of Aberdeen. Nothing significant on that line, as far as I know. However, the western one hits land here.’ He pointed to the Outer Hebrides. ‘Close to another major stone circle, Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis.’ (115-16)

30Views from actual or figurative ascending movement are applied to the game played by the killer and his victims:

‘There are five levels.’ [in the game]
‘Now there’s a surprise, ’McNab had said wearily.
‘When you reach the fifth, you attain a higher level of consciousness, become something else… ’
Ollie obviously didn’t do sarcasm. ‘I think you attain a new persona, get gold stars or something. (200)

31This novel is an enjoyable read, but if we join in the game of detection we can find further developments, as though we were carried along by those ley lines.

32Analysing the narrative like a pathologist or a scientist, from a distance, and feeling free to interpret, enhance and modify, we could imagine that Lin Anderson is hesitatingly exploring the fascinating gruesome genre of thanatography, a heritage from Gothic novels published in early nineteenth century.

33Thanatography being the antithesis of biography or autobiography, can we say that the author is mocking the genre of biography here applied to each of her characters? Indeed, a number of characters experience various ways of dying: among them the fearless detective, McNab, who was shot and was left in a coma for weeks before the narrative starts – “[…] he’d returned from the grave,” (52); “He thought (he had confessed he loved her) with his dying breath.” (52) –, then he nearly drowns in his car, he is drugged but saved, even he is crucified, although he is no Christ figure, but manages to free himself before letting the serial killer Rhona has stabbed in the neck bleed to death. As the readers’ expectations must be met a thanatography can be narrated by the dying person, as McNab does in chapter 54: “So, this is what it felt like to drown.” (317) or by some omniscient narrator. In this other instance, the reader can witness one of the victims in the process of dying:

A fly buzzed round her head, smelling her sweat and the trickle of blood from the scratch on her forehead. She felt a sharp pinprick in her neck (the fatal injection of drug). At first she thought the fly had bitten her and tried to slap it away, but he took both her hands and placed them on the ground. She smiled as a wave of euphoria claimed her. Her body felt as soft as a cloud. She knew if he let go of her she would float up above the tall grey stone. (222)

34If the narrative is urged on by the medium receiving the messages from dead people, the character never describes the pangs of death of the spirits getting in touch. Nevertheless, thanatography can be found in many aspects: Amy, whose son has been murdered feels her home like a grave (74); she’s depressed but won’t commit suicide. Post-mortem scenes and reports will tell a lot about the circumstances of the victim’s death (49). Heavy drinking bouts may be compared with suicide and following hang-over mornings with comatose between-life-and-death states.

  • 11 This figure of speech – here a hypallage highlighting ‘floor’ for ‘baby’ – reminds us that crime fi (...)

35Although the medium’s gentle words – “You must understand that Alan cannot rest until we help him.” (78) – remind us of Hamlet’s father’s request, the possibility of a parody is discarded. And the gory birth of the villain – “Josh Kearney was born at midnight on a kitchen floor that swam11 with his mother’s blood.” (296) – suggests a death in life oxymoron could operate as a fitful introduction to the biography or thanatography of the man chosen to become a cruel serial killer.

36The dream of sexual intercourse is a case of noir humour:

Just as that thought occurred […] His heart was a massive machine in his chest, pounding out pleasure. He was fast-fucking into ecstasy. He tried to scream, but the sound was sucked into the singing of his nerve ends. He saw a bright light at the end of a kaleidoscopic tunnel and raced towards it. When he emerged he knew he had reached heaven. (390)

37McNab has been drugged but is surviving the dose he received from the killer who then decides a second dose injected when at the stone circle will be deadly. In the meantime, the unconscious DI is enjoying a climax, which is paralleled with a sweet death.

38Thanatography is powerfully latent in this narrative which, however entertaining for its humour, detective game, character drawing, denunciation of over-drinking, folklore hints, archaeology references, is thrawn fiction: even the hypotyposis visit of the sunken wreck of the Tabarka – “[…] this particular spot was a giant underwater playground and first impressions suggested it was true. That and the promised image of a cathedral, light pouring in through the various openings like stained-glass windows” (172) – is ending with the discovery of a corpse. Another case of hypotyposis takes place when Rhona is quietly examining Alan’s body: “Rhona sat on a camp stool next to the body and wrote up her notes by the added light of an arc lamp. […] And communing with the dead brought a measure of peace. […] Studying the body in detail had produced a picture of a young healthy male […]” (24-26) The forensic pathologist’s report is a written account of the young man’s death, coming close to thanatography.

39Crime fiction needs thrawn characters set in unusual environments to reach its goal – produce thrill for the benefit of readers – and good, simple, happy, or wise characters simply cannot convey intricate relationships along converging routes to stirring deaths.



ANDERSON, Lin, Paths of the Dead, London, Pan Books, 2014.

BARRY, Peter, Literature in contexts, Manchester UP, 2007.

BUCHAN, John, John Macnab, Penguin, 1925.

GRIEG, Andrew, Romanno Bridge, London, Quercus, 2008.

LEJEUNE, Philippe, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Le Seuil, (1975) 1996.

ROBINSON, Mairi (ed.), The Concise Scots Dictionary, Aberdeen University Press, 1985.

SCHOENE, Berthold (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

WANNER, Len, Tartan Noir, Glasgow, Freightbooks, 2015.

WICKMAN, Matthew, “Tartan Noir or, Hard-Boiled Heidegger” (not paginated). Originally published in Scottish Literary Review 5/1, Spring/Summer 2013. Published in PDF by Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Glasgow, 2015.


1 Lin Anderson, Paths of the Dead, London, Pan Books, 2014, 420 p. All quotations will be from this edition.

2 Gill Plain, ‘Concept of Corruption: Crime Fiction and the Scottish ‘State’, ’ in Berthold Schoene (ed.), The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2007, ch. 15.

3 Philippe Lejeune’s essay develops the case of autobiography. Incidentally, the character of Rhona was invented after Lin Anderson had met by chance an old school friend who had become a forensic scientist. Rhona quickly developed a fiction life of her own to suit her creator’s needs and whims.

4 Andrew Grieg, Romanno Bridge, Quercus, 2008. See « ’Scotland’, literature, history, home, and melancholy in Andrew Grieg’s novel Romanno Bridge. », in Ian Brown & Jean Berton (dir.), Roots and Fruits of Scottish Culture, Glasgow, ASLS, 2014.

5 Tzvetan Todorov, « La typologie du roman policier »: « Le roman noir est un roman policier qui fusionne les deux histoires ou, en d’autres mots, supprime la première et donne vie à la seconde. Ce n’est plus un crime antérieur au moment du récit qu’on nous relate, le récit coïncide maintenant avec l’action. »:, 4. Retrieved 11 January 2017.

6 The structure was set by James Hogg in his The Confessions and Private memoirs of a Justified Sinner (1824).

7 Gill Plain, ‘Concept of Corruption: Crime Fiction and the Scottish ‘State’, op. cit., 132.

8 Matthew Wickman, “Tartan Noir or, Hard-Boiled Heidegger”, (not paginated).

9 One can find no manifest excuse by the author for a postmodernist writing, as in John Herdman’s Ghostwriting, 1996.

10 The points of the pentagram drawn on the map of Scotland also show the reader the places where characters will move to. This can be understood as a case of intertextuality as it parodies other texts, including Andrew Grieg’s Romanno Bridge; see note 4.

11 This figure of speech – here a hypallage highlighting ‘floor’ for ‘baby’ – reminds us that crime fiction authors are keen on rhetoric.


Université Jean Jaurès, CAS, Toulouse.
Université Jean Jaurès, CAS, Toulouse, France.
Professeur émérite en Études écossaises à l’Université Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès, est rattaché au laboratoire Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes. Il privilégie l’exploration des aspects des Hautes-Terres d’Écosse et des Hébrides dans une approche interdisciplinaire : littérature, civilisation et langues nationales. Ses travaux en littérature l’ont conduit à s’intéresser à la littérature policière surtout pour l’importance accordé au contexte dans lequel évolue le récit. Il publie, dans le n° 32 de la revue Coup de Théâtre de RADAC, « Dark Road, tragédie écossaise du doute ».

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