Russel D McLean is a critic, crime writer and former-bookseller from Scotland. He has written five books featuring Dundonian P.I. J. McNee. The latest in the series is Cry Uncle.

The P.I. novel has a long and illustrious history within the genre, even if recent trends seem to imply that, for just now, it is not the currently the most popular form of crime novel. But, as an author with five P.I. novels under his belt, I believe that as long as there are real private detectives, there will always be room for novels that reflect their profession (even if they do so inaccurately or with a great deal of dramatic license).

Many people think that P.I.’s are a thing of the past. It is not true. The Association of British Investigators has several hundred members (and there are many more who are not associated with this body), who provide a valuable and necessary service to both companies and private individuals. One of the most famous of American detective agencies, The Pinkertons – one of the first major real-life detective agencies established in the 1800s by a Scotsman who moved to the US – are still, perhaps surprisingly, in operation under the name “Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, Inc. d.b.a. Pinkerton Corporate Risk Management” having been brought under the umbrella of a Swedish business in 2003. In their hey-day, the Pinkertons were the inspiration for a great deal of crime fiction. Crime writer Dashiell Hammett even worked for them for a brief period, which is perhaps why his works – including the magnificent novel, The Maltese Falcon – have an authentic air to them that few other writers of the subgenre have managed to better.

I have always had a weakness for P.I. fiction. Even going back to childhood, some of my favourite books were Anthony Horowitz’s pun-tastic sequence of novels featuring “London’s worst detective” (and his far smarter younger brother, Nick) Timothy Diamond. I didn’t know it then, but reading The Falcon’s Maltesers, South by South East and Public Enemy Number Two (since then there have been a number of other titles in the series, but by their publication I was a little older) set me in good stead for the kind of crime fiction I’d encounter when I read Lawrence Block’s magnificent Matt Scuddder series in my later teens, and when I discovered the classics of the genre, such as the aforementioned Hammett and, of course, the great Raymond Chandler.

The Private Eye Writers of America define a P.I. as: any mystery protagonist who is a professional investigator, but not a police officer or government agent (as paraphrased by Kevin Burton Smith, webmaster of the magnificent Thrilling Detective Magazine website). It’s a good definition. And it speaks to my understanding of the P.I. in fiction.

By this definition it is clear that Miss Marple is not a P.I. even if she is a detective (she’s an amateur investigator) but Poirot operates a business and can thus be classed as one (if not of the hardboiled variety). Perry Mason is not a P.I. (he’s a defence lawyer and therefore counts as a Government Agent, if loosely) but he does retain the services of a P.I. in Paul Drake.

The eagle-eyed reader may already have noticed that many of my examples are from the last century (yes, even though Matt Scudder has returned in new books since the year 2000, he first appeared in the late 70s and early 80s). One of the recurring questions since the new millennium, for those of us who read and write within the P.I. genre has stemmed from this kind of thinking: is the P.I. novel dead? Are those of us still writing within the form simply ignoring that the world has changed and that readers are looking for something else?

I would argue that the genre is still alive and kicking, even if it is less in fashion than it used to be. In the era of the police procedural, we have come to trust authority figures more and more. The P.I. thrives in times of paranoia, when big Government can’t be trusted, when we are scared of authority figures and need to know there’s someone out there willing to bring them to account. In the standard P.I. novel the police are not necessarily incompetent or corrupt, but they are bound by rules that do not allow them to explore the places that a P.I. can go. But the image of the P.I. as the avenging lone wolf may need to be reshaped for the modern world. Part of the problem is that we define the P.I. through old images and ideas.

From around 2006 to 2009, Newcastle-born author Martyn Waites wrote a series of novels which were P.I. thrillers in all but name. The Joe Donovan series reinterpreted the idea of the professional investigative agency as “information brokers” (Donovan would insist throughout the books that they weren’t detectives) utilising computer skills as well as the more traditional methods associated with the P.I. to find people and secrets as instructed by their clients. It’s a series that deserved more entries, although readers seemed to prefer his forensic series – featuring a D.I. and a professional psychologist – written under the name Tania Carver. Perhaps one day, Waites will return to Joe and his team, but some might argue that the popularity of the Carver series perhaps indicates that the PI is no longer as mainstream – even under other names – as they once were within the genre.

On evidence, however, and despite the nay-sayers, the P.I. is still alive and kicking, even if they have ceded some ground to the police and forensic procedural. There are still several big names out there including Sue Grafton (whose alphabet series is nearing its conclusion with the latest book X disappointing only those who expected the title to be X is for Xylophone) and Sara Paretsky, whose V.I. Warshawski series still explores social issues in ways the police novel could never hope to (the nature of the police novel means that there is often a necessary professional distance between the protagonist and those they are investigating, where the P.I. novel can often be far more personal in its approach to criminal investigation). And when JK Rowling successfully enters the genre with a bestselling series such as her Cormoran Strike books, perhaps this points to the fact that readers are open to the idea of the P.I. after all; it’s just a matter of making sure readers find these protagonists and these stories.

Even looking beyond the most popular sellers, there are authors doing incredible things within the genre. Reed Farrel Coleman’s Moe Prager series is an exploration of personal guilt and redemption built around the structure of a P.I. series (the last book in the series, The Hollow Girl, is one of the best novels I’ve read in years and demonstrates a clash of the traditional P.I. values with the modern, online world). Dave White’s Jackson Donne novels bring a more youthful approach to the P.I. with a protagonist who is part of the modern world, avoiding the accusations that the typical protagonist of the genre often feels like a Rip Van Winkle type who just awoke in the modern world and doesn’t seem a part of it. Jay Stringer’s Ways to Die In Glasgow shows, in part, how the traditional self-employed P.I. faces a new kind of challenge in the modern world, while his earlier Eoin Miller novels show how the form is perfectly placed to explore social issues in settings where the police procedural can only skim the surface. Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series – recently adapted as a series of telemovies – is not the most realistic portrayal, but instead explores the turmoil of a character who simply can’t fit into normal society, no matter how hard he tries (giving a unique and impossible-to-ignore spin on the trope of the alcoholic P.I.).

With all of those authors out there – and many more – who are trying to do more with the genre than simply present a mystery to be solved, it’s clear that while the P.I. novel isn’t currently the most fashionable of crime subgenres, it is one with a great deal of life left in it. As long as there are stories to be told where the traditional authority figures cannot delve as deeply and efficiently as a private operator there will be P.I. fiction, whether it goes by that name or not.

To imagine a world without these protagonists is to me, a worrying thing. We need the P.I., to guide us through worlds the police cannot show. We need to have the uncertainty of how they will react (even a maverick cop like Rebus eventually comes up against legal and job-prescribed restrictions on his actions that wouldn’t matter to someone like Sam Spade or Moe Prager) and we need to know that when those in authority fail us, there will still be someone willing to take an hourly rate in order to find the disappeared or expose the dark truths that we know are being kept from us.

To delve into Russel D McLean’s own PI fiction, click here:


G. J. Brown lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the U.S.A. and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange. He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final. Gordon has been writing since his teens and has four books published – his latest, Meltdown, being the second in the Craig McIntyre series. He also helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.

Some time in the distant past, I picked up a Lee Child book, I can’t remember which one. I was on holiday in Florida with my family and sat, feet up one day and read the book cover to cover. I had just met Child’s main protagonist, Jack Reacher, for the first time.

Take some of my favourite authors over the years: Stephen King, Clive Cussler and James Patterson. All born in the USA. Its not my only choice of authors – I still have every book I’ve ever read sitting in my home and they range from 19th Century crime to 21st century philosophy – but I like something about the US thriller/horror/crime world. So when I set out to write my first book, called The Machine (I still have the borrowed note pad that the first chapter was written on, in my bedside drawer) I had this vision of a horror story with a nod to Stephen King.

When my first published novel came out, entitled Falling, it had no hint of America in it – being a crime thriller set in the heart of Glasgow. My second novel, 59 Minutes, is the story of a Glasgow lad that rises to the heights, and then the depths of the criminal world. No suggestion of the States in that one either.

Nor was there a whiff of Stars and Stripes when I started on my third novel – a story about a young man with a powerful and uncontrollable affliction: his mere presence removing people’s inhibitions, transforming their darkest thoughts into action. It was, once more, set in Glasgow.

I finished the first draft and sent it to Allan Guthrie (the well respected author and agent), who liked the idea but thought the story was too small. We bounced emails back and forth for a month or so – each exchange working on how to make the story bigger. Allan was fixated on getting the synopsis as sharp as possible. It’s a good piece of advice. If you can’t get the synopsis to grab you by the sensitive bits and shake you up then the ensuing novel will fall flat on its face.

Somewhere along the line our conversation moved the setting from Scotland to the USA and the main protagonist, Craig McIntyre, rose from the pages. Allan agreed that we had taken a step change in ambition and my job was to apply for a U.S. Green Card in writing American and try to bring the synopsis to life.

In doing so my only nod to my homeland was to make Craig’s mother Scottish – but he’s born and bred in the USA. He’s ex military and has the same affliction as my protagonist in the original Scottish book.

Craig has now appeared in two novels: The Catalyst and Meltdown. Both are written in first person, present tense and because Craig is an American I write as if I’m a native of the USA. I swap out my Mac spellchecker from UK English to the US English version. I struggle with where to use bathroom, restroom and washroom. I use words like ‘gubbed’ and ‘steaming’ and have to change them to ‘wasted’ and, well, ‘wasted’. The action is set in towns and cities that I‘ve visited while in America. The cultural references are lifted from the screens, radios and pages I’ve picked up as I have transited through restaurants, hotels, holiday homes and offices across the country. This year alone I’ve made the trip across the Atlantic and back seven times.

But, and there’s always a but, I get asked why a lot? Why write as an American. Well, let’s return to Mr Child to give some insight.

I had read five novels of Lee Child’s before I discovered that Lee had been born as Jim Grant in Coventry. He fooled me and I didn’t care – after all it’s fiction.

However, in preparing to write this article, I got to thinking about the differences between American and Scottish crime writing and whether I had succeeded in crossing the divide – or even if a divide exists?

To give me a little perspective I contacted a range of authors and publishers for their views. My goal was to elicit what they saw as the key differences between American crime fiction and Scottish crime fiction. To give these vox pops a little bit of gravitas I chose a good cross section of individuals to help me – an American author writing in Scotland, a Scottish author writing in America, an American publisher, a Scottish publisher, a Scottish author who writes books set in the US and two Scottish authors who write crime novels set in Scotland.

I’m not sure what I expected from this but to my surprise (or maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised) there was a fair degree of unanimity. But this finding needs to be tempered with the fact that this is not a formal piece of peer reviewed research that purports to do anything more than to playback the top line views of my contributors and myself. I’m aware that for every dissimilarity identified there could be as many exceptions as there are rules.

But, at the risk of appearing academically inept, the key feedback was quite stark in the way it highlighted the perceived differences between the two countries’ literary output.

For a start point the sheer volume of American crime fiction provides a broader church to operate within. In the U.S. they refer to mystery rather than crime fiction and the overall genre has sub genres which have spawned sub, sub genres – as an example you can find button shop mysteries, angling club mysteries and even haunted DIY mysteries – not as one off novels but as on-going genres with sizable pockets of fans. As one of my contributors said to me American crime fiction ranges from ‘the blackest of grim, dystopian slasher despair to the cozy (novel) where the cupcake solves the mystery.’ In Scotland we also have a range of genres but we are less prone to feel the need to pigeon hole them quite so exquisitely.

An obvious and almost universally agreed upon difference is the attitude to guns. In the U.S. it’s so the norm that omission has to be explained. In Scotland we choose weapons that tend to require closer contact to be effective. We have guns but they’re not treated as part of the novel’s core ‘must have’ architectural make up – they are usually the aberration at the heart of something dark.

In Scotland we love the procedural element of the formal investigation in a way that the US is less enamored with. We have a sea of DC’s, DCI’s and ancillary police staff on the go. This can be seen as sub set of the genre differences between the countries where the sheer number of publications in the US reduces the presence of procedural novels by dint of statistics. But when you consider the influence that Scotland’s crime fiction’s vanguard, William Mcllvanney, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and the likes, have had – it’s unsurprising that the fascination with the police procedural format is so wide spread in this country.

The debate on style is harder to pinpoint. My feeling, and that of my colleagues, sees American crime fiction in a ‘shorter, sharper, quick-fire’ regime. Scottish crime fiction is arguably denser, slower and more measured in its approach.

Americans have a tendency to paint on a geographical landscape born of their homeland. The vastness of the country gives rise to story-lines that feel more expansive. Patsy Gallant sang ‘From New York to LA’ and, if you take all that lies between these cities, this may provide U.S. writers with a greater want to wander and roam in their writing. Scotland produces work that can feel more local – even parochial.

At the core of both species of writing, the hero is ever present, but the U.S. seem to favour the hero as the good guy, even when he or she is the bad guy. And the American baddie is often real down and dirty with few redeeming features. Turn to Scotland and even the good guys have bad sides, sometimes the good guys are portrayed as more flawed than their nemeses.

All the above can be seen as hogwash in the face of picking up a novel from either side of the Atlantic at random. At its worst my cohorts and I are guilty of playing back a generalised perception that is clichéd and stereotyping. But at its best there is genuine insight in these views.

If I were to use these findings as a guide to whether I have succeeded in my endeavors I can note that my good guy is a good guy and my bad guy is a bastard. My sentences are short and my first Craig McIntyre novel flows from Iraq to LA and then by bus to Florida. There’s no procedural element in my book and you can place me in the very neat U.S. category of psychological thriller.

So does this mean I can really write like an American – well in as far as my publisher, Gallus Press, has just signed up my third Craig McIntyre book and the other books have sold copies here and in the U.S. I could argue that the answer might be yes. And why do I write in this way. Well the real answer to the conundrum is simple – I write what I like to read.

Will writing like an American really drive me to fame and fortune? I don’t know. But just in case it doesn’t I’m still wedded to the Scottish crime world. My first novel, Falling, has just been picked up for publication in the U.S. in February next year by Down and & Out Books and I’ve committed to writing a prequel short story and sequel novel as part of the deal. So just to mix things up a little more my Scottish crime novel will soon be available to a U.S. audience.

Confused – don’t worry. Sometimes, so am I.

(Thanks to Eric Campbell, Douglas Skelton, Allan Sneddon, Alex Sokoloff, Catriona McPherson, Mark Leggatt and Michael Malone for their help on this.)

To delve into GJ Brown’s work, click here:


Timothy Hallinan is an American thriller writer, based in Southern California and Southeast Asia. In the 1990s, Hallinan created the erudite private eye Simeon Grist, who appeared in a total of six novels, all set in Los Angeles. The series was widely and well reviewed, with some titles appearing on critics “Ten Best” lists for the year in which they appeared, such as that of the Drood Review of Mystery, but did not achieve widespread popularity. Hallinan returned to publication in 2007 with a second series, set in Bangkok, where he has lived off and on since the early 1980s. The new series features a rough-travel writer named Philip (“Poke”) Rafferty, who has settled in the Thai capital and is in the process of trying to cobble together a family comprising Rose, the former go-go dancer he loves, and a precocious street urchin named Miaow. The first book in the series is A Nail Through the Heart (William Morrow). In 2011 he launched a third series starring Junior Bender, private detective to Los Angeles’ underworld elite.

In his non-writing career, Hallinan served as a consultant to some of America’s top corporations, advising on issues of television sponsorship and audience-building. He also created a firm, Hallinan Consulting, that created educators’ websites on behalf of a number of public television programs, including “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” “Slavery in America,” and “The Supreme Court.” He now writes full-time.

One of the reasons crime fiction in various guises has been popular ever since “Oedipus Rex” is that it makes it possible for writers to explore the existence of evil, or even blind bad fortune, and find some kind of reconciliation or restoration of order at the story’s end.

People who read crime fiction, by and large, depend on that restoration of order. It’s reassuring to enter a realistically drawn world where good and evil both exist, as in real life, and where solutions and/or resolutions can be expected.

(I exempt much of noir from this statement because in noir, unlike in more conventional crime fiction, there’s often not enough moral gravity in the world to pull people and events back into their orbits; to extend the physical science metaphor, the darkest noir seems to me to take place in a universe undergoing a heat-death in which everything is slowly drifting farther and farther from everything else. This is not a criticism. I think some noir achieves the level of art.)

But this idea of the solution or the resolution that’s so essential to non-noir crime fiction is the bone that sticks in the throat of many critics. It’s the primary reason, I think, that crime fiction is consigned by some of the would-be gatekeepers of the really serious bookshelves—on which the classics reside in leather-bound, often-dusted splendor—to a sort of low-rent literary zip code, where the sunshine is the color of old floor wax and people park on the lawn. Real life, these arbiters of art sneer, and, by extension, real literature, isn’t about, ahem, happy endings.

And why isn’t it? Because of the human condition.

The term “human condition” means a lot of things, and its meaning varies in different cultural environments, but for purposes of this argument, we’re talking about a subset of the Judeo-Christian human condition, sharply focused on the fact that, whoever we are, whatever we do, we are doomed to die. As Shakespeare has it, in “Cymbeline”:

Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Or, in Macbeth:

. . . all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death.

Okay, that’s fairly somber. But, of course, that’s only a bit of it, and in fact, it’s the easy bit. The other part, the part that really stings, is that (unlike any other living species) we know it. But at my back, as Andrew Marvell put it, I always hear/time’s winged chariot drawing near. And yonder all before us lie/deserts of vast eternity.

Whoa. Happy endings? In the face of all that? Are you shitting me? Excuse me while I work up enough saliva to make a statement on the sidewalk.

No wonder so many of these people wear black.

To some of literature’s dark-clad gatekeepers, fiction isn’t “real” unless it ends with the missing child’s bright pink sneaker washing up on the beach as a lonely seagull wheels blindly through the fog, shrilling an e-flat. Because, of course, in a world where every door leads (eventually) to the boneyard, why fool ourselves? Why buy stock in “hope” if that particular market segment is guaranteed to crash? Why write fiction that turns its eyes from the truth? Why should crime fiction (usually) insist on solutions?

Well, here’s why.

Because in the real world, the one we actually live in, most of us have more happy endings than unhappy ones. Because most of the time, the child who’s four hours late shows up at the door with all her arms and legs intact, the x-ray comes back clean, the huge truck hurtling toward you doesn’t cross into your lane on the blind turn, you meet someone you can love (or at least like) or someone who loves (or at least likes) you, or pretends convincingly that he/she does. The sun rises the next morning. The sun rises the morning after that.

What’s “realistic,” in other words, is a world where human beings experience both happy and unhappy endings as milestones in their lives.

And one of the reasons crime fiction is important (to me, anyway) is that it sets us examples. It shows us how to face, with some grace, a world where both happy and unhappy outcomes are possible, a world where random bad fortune and human malice both exist. It makes it clear, I think, that it’s braver and more productive not to let the inevitability of death (and its uglier twin, disease) rob us of the ability—hell, the responsibilityto operate in the hope of good fortune for ourselves and others and to do what we can to make that good fortune more likely. We have a responsibility, I think, to find goodness in our world and, where possible, to share it.

Solving a murder, for example. When a detective solves a murder, he/she not only sorts good from bad, not only identifies and closes the window through which disorder blew into the room, but also demonstrates that murder is worth solving because human life matters. When Hamlet seeks his father’s murderer, it’s because his father’s life matters. When Poirot or Marlowe or Millhone solve a murder, it’s because the victim’s life mattered. (And that’s one reason we, as readers, are relieved and satisfied at the conclusion.) When the central characters in a well-written thriller pull through somehow, we readers sigh with relief. Because the characters matter, even if they’re “really” only ink on a page.

Yeah, it’s a temporary reprieve. Yeah, eventually the scythe will cut them down. But for now, they’re here, decorating the lives of those who love them, maybe even, on some tiny scale, making their part of the world a better place. I’m glad they’re here. It matters to me that they’re here.

And if death is coming implacably for them . . . well, so what? Life is here and now. Why should our knowledge of life’s inevitable end blind us to happiness, order, and even blessings? I think Epicurus had it right: “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”

Epicurus would have liked a good mystery.

To delve into one of Timothy Hallinan’s own mysteries, click here:


Mark Buckland was the founder and MD of Cargo Publishing from 2009 to 2014. He now works in television.

What were you doing Valentine’s Day 2014? I know, none of my business. No, stop it – I’m not talking about that. But me? I was getting angry: my girlfriend’s favourite restaurant had double booked us and we had no table. I planned to go on a walk with her to a high point in the west end of Glasgow where we could watch the stars; it poured with rain. I had ordered her two gifts, neither of which arrived. At the point where I was managing to look like the worst boyfriend in history, it all somehow got less romantic. We ended up eating southern barbecue takeaway watching an HBO drama about a brutal ritualistic murder in Louisiana. With my parents. See? There’s looking like the worst boyfriend in history and then actually being it.

But both of us were hooked – as were millions of people. The show in question was True Detective. It was bizarre noir – a mash of the weird fiction stylings of Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers (Yellow Kings included), southern Baptangelical gothic gospel, with the American hard-boiled dames-and-detectives drama the title alluded to. It starred one talented actor, prone to looking at pay checks ahead of the material (Woody Harrelson) and one rom-com star who had decided to reinvent himself as one of the most talented performers of his generation (Matthew McConnaughy). It was violent and dark; chock-full of what should have been hammy dialogue and featuring discussions of M-brane theory and Nietzsche-style philosophical despair. Continuing the long list of reasons-it-would-be-unlikely-to-succeed, the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, was a first time screenwriter, and the main director, Cary Fukunaga had made just a handful of films, including that gritty thriller, Jane Eyre.

Rather than all these unlikely elements dooming this big budget series, they came together spectacularly. True Detective cleaned up at every major award ceremony, won almost universal praise and effectively made the careers of the production’s rookies and bolstered the reputation of its main cast.

A short time later and collective anticipation built as huge billboards for season two sprung up: Colin Farrell’s bloodied knuckles tagged with the byline that “we get the world we deserve.”

So what did we deserve?

Let’s put it this way: I am writing a piece about season Two of True Detective and I only managed to make it three episodes in before turning in my badge and gun. I would rather deal with the social media consequences of killing a beloved lion than watch any further. I would prefer to have my eyes go the way of Caspare’s in the opening episode of this turgid mess than ever glimpse another frame.

Season one was not without its issues (we’ll come to that) but this season has been a spectacular failure. There are plenty of blow-by-blow accounts online of why the series doesn’t work, but I’m more interested than the why. And in explaining the why, I acknowledge that my running of a small Scottish publishing company, followed by a career in UK television is an absolute world away from the multi-million dollar conveyor belt of greatness that HBO is.

First, the c-word – collaboration. Cary Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto were reported early on to be at loggerheads over the creative direction of season one. On-set bust ups were played down by the PR department, but any doubt surrounding the bitterness was dispelled when Pizzolatto opted to create a character that bordered on libel: an Asian-American coke-addled, sex party-attending film director who pushed every boundary of being obnoxious. Having not just ditched his main collaborator, but also stomped his reputation, any sympathy I had for Pizzolatto and his burden of success evaporated. Collaboration is key to any artistic project. I’ve had to gently explain to debut authors that what they see as their masterpiece – one that they toiled over for ten years – still needs a lot of work. That’s an awkward conversation in anyone’s book. Presumably, with HBO paying their golden boy writer around $1 million a year to keep writing the series, nobody wanted to have that conversation. Instead, nodding to his every whim has backfired spectacularly. We can’t know Fukunaga and Pizzolatto’s working style, but it strikes me that the dazzling visuals of the first series – oozing yellows, greens and bleak cinematography – is absent from the latest. With nobody to tweak the scripts on set, a strong hand to alter the words when they’re heard from the actors’ mouths, all the fat and fluff is left in. If you’re doing anything creative, get yourself an editor (preferably one who cares).

This leads nicely to my second point, the two big beasts of making any film: the direction and the script. As showrunner, Pizzolatto had his pick of directors and, with ego unable to tolerate any Fukunaga style interference with his baby, he recruited some unbelievably uninspiring names for the main chair. Episode two opened with one of the most inexplicable transitions I’ve ever seen. The shot fades from a patch of damp on Vince Vaughn’s ceiling, to the burned out eyes of a corpse. I can’t have been the only one that burst out laughing. A shocking event where a main character is shot at the end of this episode was diluted with a bizarre cutaway to a tracking shot along the nicely-paved driveway outside, making it feel like a grim episode of Location, Location, Location. Dotted throughout the episode were baffling directorial decisions – long helicopter shots over freeways that added nothing to the story and cutaways to vaginal-esque geodes during an intimate discussion about sexuality with a psychiatrist played by Rick Springfield (the man who sang “Jessie’s Girl” for God’s sake). Come to think of it, that scene pretty much summed up everything wrong with this series. All these directorial flairs were the work of Justin Lin, whose previous work includes directing one of the Fast & Furious films. Most of the other directors in the series are jobbing European directors handling the odd episode of Game of Thrones here and there. These are skilled directors, but with rumours circulating prior to the series release that William Friedkin would be a guest director, it doesn’t half feel like a climbdown.

Friedkin is a notoriously temperamental auteur – firing shotguns above actor’s heads to generate reaction and staging car chases with no permits. Pizzolatto seemingly wasn’t comfortable working with the apparently sedate Fukunaga, so your head begins spinning at the thought of him working with The Exorcist’s director. In my experience, collaboration actually works best when people argue. I spent one night on the phone to an author till 5am debating what to do with a plot line; in the end, he convinced me and he was right. Yet from the argument sprang lots of other ideas for other parts and, in the end, it became a better book. Surrounding yourself with “yes men” does not work; surround yourself with challenging, interesting people. Sure, you won’t take much joy from them ripping apart your novel/screenplay/film, but what grows out of it will almost always be a better version. Another Friedkin Factor, as we’ll call it now, is learning from people who’ve been doing it a lot longer and a lot better than you. I’m lucky in my current TV post to be working with very talented people, some of whom who’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive. I try to listen best I can to those people and adapt my work based off this feedback. It does pay off.

On that note, let’s come to the script. Prior to production, the Hollywood rumour mill was talking up the season’s scripts as akin to Chinatown – a redemption-free labyrinthine plot of intrigue and complex characters. True Detective’s second season is more being lost in a maze made of faeces. The plot is unfathomable at every stage: throwaway lines turn out to be crucial plot elements, where the four strands of story that follow Vaughn, Farrell, McAdams and Kitsch seem to rest on half-mumbled musings spoken in the world’s most depressing bar. I began watching the fourth episode and that’s where I stopped. Something about toxic waste? And the Russians, what were they up to? What happened to the missing girl? And the commune that an Alan Watts-esque David Morse was at? And Rachel McAdams’ sister? The crow thing? Thankfully, someone wrote out the plot in a Q&A style over at Slate (with pictures of characters to boot) but even reading that is a mind-boggling experience.

But why does it feel you need to be a Mensa member to even attempt watching it? Let’s take Chinatown as its comparison then. The Polanski movie’s success rests upon one narrative, and that’s Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes. Every single development of the film, however complex, is seen through his narrative focus. We follow him, and when he knows something, we know it. If it happened off-screen, we discover it with Jake. He doesn’t understand what’s going on? The screenwriter has Gittes ask a question and thus the audience is back up to speed; it’s an inbuilt Greek chorus.

Funny enough, this is exactly what Pizzolatto used in the first season of True Detective. We discovered things at the pace of Rust and Marty. Yes, there was plenty of foreshadowing for the disintegration of their relationship, but we never felt that left out of the picture because none of that happened offscreen.

The second season, in complete contrast, lacks that tight focus that the first allowed for. Much of the actual plot seems to happen offscreen; fairly crucial backdrops for the characters are provided in polarising methods – choppy, incoherent backstory scenes or subtly-with-a-sledgehammer dialogue (McAdams’ line, “She became a detective” line from episode two stands out as a clanging example).

I suspect that the Chinatown comparison is not only unfair, but inaccurate. Pizzolatto has attempted what James Ellroy has been successfully doing his whole career. Ellroy’s structure is exactly the same in every book; three characters, one brawn, one brain/smooth Machiavellian character and one modelled on Ellroy himself – a little bit voyeur, a little bit odd. Ellroy is so comfortable in this model of plotting that the novel’s scope or scale doesn’t matter. United Fruit’s dealings in central America and the Cuban Missile crisis? Fine. Interlinked murders over a vast time frame in LA? No problem. Pizzolatto has set this season in Ellroy’s LA – it’s all dirty cops and deadly vendetta, almost always concerning money. But unlikely Ellroy, the characters themselves are never solid enough to make us care. They get so tangled in the weaving plot, most of which happens offscreen or in throwaways, that they never grow. And with the density of the plot, Pizzolatto can never pull the Chinatown trick and let the audience piece together the case on a journey with the characters.

Allowed through this lack of focus to wander over the page of the script, every character is unrelentingly world-weary. The detectives have such an unbelievable level of psychological damage that it’s surprising that crimes aren’t solved between interminable group therapy sessions. There were multiple criticisms of the first season’s ethics: the misogyny; the existence of Michelle Monaghan’s character as a one-note McGuffin; the white angst and grizzled machismo; the ending which seemed to morph into a less-funny Lethal Weapon buddy-cop drama. With season two Pizzolatto has attempted to answer all of them simultaneously. Now, there are no buddies in the cop world. Taylor Kitsch is gay, Rachel McAdams is a caricatured “strong-woman” character and Colin Farrell hates everyone. There we go, that will shut every critic up.

Except it won’t. Every character is brutally bleak but surprisingly shallow – because Pizzolatto telegraphs their angst and issues so early, we have nothing to uncover. We know Farrell’s wife was raped, we know Rachel McAdams was raped, we know that Taylor Kitsch has committed some crimes in Iraq – thanks for spelling it out for us, Nick, now I know why the characters enjoy the soothing sounds of a bar singer who’s debut album is presumably a big hit in euthanasia circles. It also seems odd to me that Pizzolatto has picked some of the more “current affairs issues” in society (the fallout of Iraq, PTSD, child abuse) to structure his characters. The entire staging feels like saying to your critics “See, I can be sensitive” while also giving them a massive two fingers.

Then there’s the script editing. (I have a cheek to say that considering my preceding 2,000 word babelogue on this show. Incidentally, if you’ve made it this far in this meandering, pretentious article, well done. You’re now prepped to handle the second series of this show.)

Check the first scene of episode two. It begins with a monologue from Vince Vaughn prompted by damp in his roof. It’s refreshing to find gangsters are concerned with the possibility of dry rot, particularly after losing $5 million. While watching this scene for the first time, I was editing in my head. Ditch that line, ditch that, take that out, shorten that, snap that together. The monologue could be half the length but with twice the emotional impact. True Detective has 16 producers. Not one of them suggested taking another revise on the script? Valeria Migliassi Collins is the script supervisor, having previously overseen the writing and editing on sprawling ensemble films, Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Why couldn’t she pull this into a tighter mould?

That’s partly Ellroy’s secret. That’s partly Chester Himes, Raymond Chandler, and any noir author’s secret. Pace. This season deals with big plot points in single sentences and then stretches out scenes of dull dialogue to Shakespearean length, set to a soundtrack that makes Grouper sound like the Beach Boys. You don’t like the characters of many of these author’s novels; they’re nasty and brutish. But they’re also short; by that, I mean the dialogue is so rapid-fire that the pace pulls you along. Hanging around the characters of this season’s True Detective is so languorous, it gives you enough time to process how unlikeable they are.

There’s also the problem of medium. I can’t be the only one that feels that, while this season doesn’t work for television, its sprawl of stories would have better suited a novel – the format that Pizzolatto started in. The stifling depressing nature of the show demonstrates how remarkably one-note it is. I used to do consulting editing, once with an author with a grimy crime drama. I suggested it needed a few jokes. “You can’t have jokes in a crime book,” was their stern reaction. When we finally added some punchlines and a little knock-around humour, the book stopped being a one-note dirge and felt more like real-life. Consequently, every brutal act in it was more chilling because I actually believed this might happen. Real-life, no matter how bad it gets, does have shades. True Detective could do with some levity, some brightness, anything, anything, to stop that fucking bar singer making me think of all the terrible things that have happened to me in my life.

And so we come to the cast. Having transformed the careers of the two stars of season one, there must have been a queue of A-list talent at Pizzolatto’s door. Instead, he plumped for Vince Vaughn, an actor whose performance in this show suggests that Dodgeball may have been the maxim of his thespian range. McAdams is like a boulder in a river; every event in the show seems to break around her with no reaction or glimmer of emotion. Taylor Kitsch looks brooding enough to fit in, but lacks the chops to flesh out a one-dimensional character. Colin Farrell is passable, but nowhere near his barnstorming best that the likes of Tigerland and In Bruges showcase. And the supporting cast? Rick Springfield and a group of sub-soap opera actors who were brought in from their usual gigs playing “Sleazy Henchman #1” in Days of Our Lives. Every single player outwith the main cast is dripping in a peeping-tom sweat. If this is the world of California in Pizzolatto’s eyes, the Big One can’t come soon enough.

Pizzolatto set his stall out with this one, and yet it has all fallen apart. But hold on. Yes, he’s clearly someone with ego issues. Yes, writers get lucky with one spectacular strike of the ball and then whiff at air the rest of their careers. Yet, I have to ask – is this really all his fault?

He had all the time in the world to write season one. There was no pressure, no agent calls at 3am, no coffee-fuelled morning crises over that crucial scene. There was no showrunning, no 16 producers, no million dollar contracts – just him and a laptop. For series two, he had six months and the weight of five Emmy wins for one of the most acclaimed TV series in the last few decades. That level of pressure is unimaginable. I feel for him. I’ve watched this happen a lot (trust me, that “difficult second album” thing is truer than you think).

So, final tip: never ever, ever, ever become successful at the first time of trying. Buy yourself time with a back catalogue. Experiment, try it out, let it fail, learn. In my experience, when artists get successful with their first shot do one of three things: begin project two and implode under a lack of confidence; begin project two and believe that the midas touch is all theirs and collaborators were incidental to the success; begin project two, keep the same team that made number one work so well and ditch the hubris. Can you guess which one works?

An aside for a moment, because I never pass up a chance to have a pop at the ignorance of the current Tory government. Jeremy Hunt, among others, lamented that the BBC needed to be more like HBO. “Why can’t you all just make amazing series like Game of Thrones?”

For several reasons. One – HBO, Sony, Starz and plenty of other American networks follow this model; they make TV in the way they do for incremental increases in their subscribers. Even a half percent increase is mega-money. The BBC et al can’t because they’re getting less money and their ‘subscribers’ never change in number. And two (as we see with True Detective) – it’s bloody difficult. HBO might appear to be an endless procession of massive critical and commercial successes, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. It’s very, very hard to make compelling television. Nobody gets it right every time and some problems need to be chalked up to experience.

Hence, this season of True Detective.

Pizzolatto is clearly a terrific talent despite the accusations of plagiarism and the pointed dismissals of some critics.

But where to go from here? Still contracted for two more series of this show, I’m hoping the answer is “keep it simple”: return to the tight narrative structure; bring in good partners and listen to them; accept that maybe everything you do isn’t gold, and lose the ego. These points are key elements for any good storyteller, but I can’t stress the importance of the last. Ego kills everything creative. It pushes away those who want to help you, damns you with a feeling of infallibility, and seals off channels to better stories.

Know what you’re good at. Heed the words of Rust Cohle:

“I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that.”

To delve into True Detective – Season 1, click here:

Helen FitzGerald

Helen FitzGerald is the bestselling author of Dead Lovely and several other adult and young adult thrillers, including My Last Confession, Bloody Women, The Donor, The Exit, and The Cry, which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Helen has worked as a criminal justice social worker for over ten years. She is one of thirteen children and grew up in Victoria, Australia. She now lives in Glasgow with her husband and two children.

In what way is your style related to your fascination with deviance?

My style is important to me. I almost sing a chapter. That sounds wanky, doesn’t it? But I can feel the rhythm of it. I usually go full circle. It usually starts with a bang, then slows down and twists and undulates in the middle, and then comes back to a bang – that’s the way crime happens – so I think my style suits what I’m writing about. But I don’t sit down before writing and think: “What is my style going to be?” I recently looked over stuff I’d written when I was 20. I’d done some short stories, and then just given up to do social work for years, and the stories were exactly the same style, and my daughter has the same style. I write with breathless urgency. I don’t waste any words, and it’s suited to the material. It always ends up dark.

I’m fascinated by deviance. Everybody I meet, I’m wondering: “What’s happened in your past?” And I’m very analytical of myself. My husband is constantly saying to me: “Can you stop analysing things all the time?” I don’t, and that’s probably why I did social work, specialising in criminal justice. So my writing is all my about deviance: People who for some reason are not following the straight line, who have strayed off… I see myself a little bit like that. I remember a friend saying to me when I was young: “You’re like the Nullarbor Plain; you go straight for a thousand kilometres, and then – phew – off into the ocean.” I think that’s true. I like writing about characters who you can imagine living next door to, being married to. Then something happens, and they go off on one. Their lives change completely. If I had to label my writing it would be deviance fiction.

Speaking of genres, how do you feel about your books being marketed as both crime fiction and chick lit?

I didn’t expect to be on either a crime fiction or chick lit shelf. When I’d written my first chapter of my first book, Dead Lovely, I was working in Barlinnie. I had a very clever friend working there with me, and I said to her: “Read this!” I thought it was like Tolstoy. She said: “Yeah, that’s really good. It’s chick lit.” Even when you said ‘chick lit’ then I had a sinking feeling, because I don’t love chick lit. I’ve never read it really except for a couple of guilty Marian Keyes on holiday. So I was really surprised to be labelled that, but at the same time I don’t care. The book is the book, and I didn’t write it aiming for a particular market. As long as it doesn’t put people off, I don’t care what it’s called. The thing that worries me is that I wouldn’t buy a book that was marketed as chick lit, and I think most men wouldn’t either. But men like my books. I wasn’t sure if they would, and some of the initial reviews said: “Men are going to be terrified of these badass women who kill men.” But some of the best reviewers and biggest fans – if I can say that word – have been men. So the chick lit label bothers me, and it doesn’t bother me.

The mixed genre thing has definitely been an issue; much more than I thought it would be. When I started off writing film scripts, I always thought I was a comedy writer. That’s what I became known as with producers. They’d let me go off on my own and I would kill people half way through a romantic comedy. They weren’t very happy about that: “You can’t bring a serial killer into a Rom-Com.” I think my frustration with this rigid ‘we-have-to-know-what-this-film-is’ attitude made me write a book. I thought: “I don’t care what I’m writing. I’m just going to write what I want.” Dead Lovely was a freeing experience. It had started off as a screenplay, and I didn’t care how the book would be labelled.

How did that work out for you and your publisher?

I wanted it to be about a woman who I would find appealing as a friend. She’s funny, she’s naughty, and if you went on a night out with her you would have stories to tell the next day. I suppose that all feels a bit chick lit, but I wanted to do a third of the book just about her, setting up her life, because when the awful thing happens it’s much more powerful. You know her. But the mixed genre thing has been a real issue. At first, Faber bought it, saying: “Great! We don’t mind what this is. We just like the book.” But then it did get marketed as crime, though the cover was quite chick lit. Looking at it, I don’t think you know what it is, and I think that has been an issue for marketing. I’ve noticed that Polygon went much more for crime fiction with the other two books. That wasn’t quite right either. People can get pissed off when they read something that’s not what they expected. So it’s an ongoing issue. Faber has just published The Donor, marketing it as contemporary fiction. It’s not on the crime shelves, though it’s no different from the other books in terms of tone and content. It definitely did better… The next one will be more along the lines of moral dilemma fiction.

When he felt obliged to choose between complaint and comedy, Saul Bellow said he chose comedy. Has that been your choice as well?

I think comedy can highlight difficult issues more than anything. As soon as something terrible happens, you watch Twitter, waiting for the first joke. Comedy is hard-hitting. I’ve been told by Faber not to say my books are “funny” because people like to decide whether something is funny themselves. Also, my humour is really dark. I think that’s partly due to my having grown up in a really big family where comedy was the currency. We often communicated and criticised through humour.  Glasgow is like that, too. And the humour in Barlinnie was the blackest of black.

Does your analytical impulse stop short of your own writing?

Yeah, I probably don’t analyse it enough. I’m not a perfectionist. There’s a real difference between how my husband Sergio and I work. He will spend a few days thinking about the title before he starts, and then work for hours on a scene, getting it perfect. I’m manic. I’m a coffee drinking nutcase, and that’s where the energy in my writing comes from. This might sound stupid, but if I don’t finish a book and feel very emotional about the ending, actually quite upset, then I know it’s wrong. I usually cry at the last sentence. When I realise I’ve finished it I just burst into tears.

Is that exhaustion?

It could be that, yeah. But a few times it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen because I didn’t care enough. So it was wrong and I needed to go back to the very beginning. If there’s something wrong with the last act, there’s something wrong with the first act. So I went back and asked: “What haven’t I done? Why is this character not fully formed? Why am I not upset?” It doesn’t mean that I want a sad ending – just an emotionally fulfilling one. I’ll be thinking about that all the time, mainly in terms of character, so I suppose I do analyse my writing a lot: “What’s wrong, why is that wrong, what happened to her, what effect has that had on her, what is she looking for?”

Does a writer have to have a feeling for writing or can it be taught?

I think you have to have a feeling for it. I can see with my kids, nephews, nieces – people who say they love to write – you can spot it a mile away if they’ve got it. It’s a way of thinking, a feeling for the rhythm of words, an interest in language and in people. I think empathy is a massive thing for a writer to have, and being nonjudgmental is another thing that makes a good writer – being able to see the flaws of your characters, but also being able to understand them. It’s not just about being a reader. It’s about being interested in behaviour.

I recently saw the film Eat, Pray, Love. It was awful, but the woman who wrote the book, Elizabeth Gilbert, gave this speech about genius: “Why do writers have to be so angst-ridden?” She was talking about how they dealt with that in ancient Greece where writers would not take responsibility for their work. Any success or failure was down to that little fairy, who either turned up or didn’t. I like that. It does sound completely ridiculous, but I feel that sometimes it’s not me writing. I’ll come out of a three hour session at the computer and something’s just happened. There are whole books I can’t remember writing.

Stephen King said something very similar. Then he joined Narcotics Anonymous.

Ha! It might be the caffeine, yeah. I was in Italy last week, wrote 20.000 words, and it just flew. It was just happening. It’s an amazing feeling.

How about 2010’s low word count? Does that feeling come and go?

Well, last year was just a bad year. I had a midlife-crisis. So that’s why I didn’t write much.

You’re hardly old enough for that yet, are you?

I’m 107. And I have a teenage daughter. Suddenly I went from having little kids and feeling part of one generation to having somebody who’s becoming a woman and acting like a typical teenager. The eye-rolling makes you feel really old. So last year I was just unhappy, and I have to feel reasonably okay to write well. I did write a book, but it’s one that will always be in my bottom drawer. It wasn’t very good. And I did finish The Donor, so stuff happened. Perhaps the low word count was mostly because I’d written so much in the previous four years – seven books – which is stupid. I probably needed a rest.

I remember thinking at the start of 2010 that I wasn’t writing very much because everything was a bit too settled. Dead Lovely was very much about my experiences of child birth and being a mother in Scotland without my family. My Last Confession was based on a close friend’s story and my experience of working in Barlinnie because I’d just left that job… I’d run out of experiences. I remember thinking that and then almost immediately embarking on a pretty hectic, bad year.

Is self-discovery the central theme of your writing to date?

I think my protagonists find themselves much more easily than I do. Bronny, in The Devil’s Staircase, is running away from death because she has a fifty-fifty chance of having Huntington’s disease. I always let my characters find themselves as much as they can. I think that’s why it’s fiction, because I certainly haven’t, and I don’t think I ever will. My dad had eight kids with his first wife and five with my mum, so there are 13 children all together. My parents and all my siblings are still alive and well. The relationships are all different, but I’d never thought about my family very much until I left Australia at 23. I came over here, and my mum said: “So you left Australia to get attention, did you, darling?” Ha! I probably did, maybe even in doing what I do: writing.

Has your relationship with your only younger sibling played an important role in all that?

Yeah, Ria is my best friend. She’s probably the biggest inspiration for Krissie in Dead Lovely, although she’s very stable, happily married. But she’s the fun part of Krissie. I miss the stories of her single life. Her reasons for chucking boyfriends were always hilarious. She’d be going out with someone and next thing she’d say: “He’s gone.” – “Why?” – “Because he did an inappropriate standing ovation.”

I think my relationships with my sisters, and Ria in particular, has made me lazy about being friends with other women. If you’re very close to your sisters, you know they’ll always, always be there for you. I’ve never had to work at female friendship. I get teary just thinking about Ria.

Time for a technical question: Would you say that your novels have their point of origin in a situation, rather than a character? 

Usually it starts when I think to myself: “Wouldn’t it be terrible if…” For instance, the Lindy Chamberlain case really angered me. She went to prison and was slaughtered in the press when no one believed that a dingo hat taken her baby. She didn’t break down the way she was meant to break down, she didn’t behave the way she was meant to behave, and she seemed very unwomanly. That informed Bloody Women a huge amount in the way Catriona was spoken of as a cold-hearted, brutal, unwomanly woman – even by her feminist biographer.

The book I’m writing now is about a couple on a long haul flight to Australia who accidentally overdose their baby, and the story is told from their point of view. I’ve done that flight many times, with young children, and understand how stressful it is. This situation – and the many real cases where mothers are accused of killing their own children – inspired the next book. It’s always a situation I’ve been in, come close to, or seen on the news, and if it’s a question that plays on my mind for long enough, it will find its way into a book.

Having been described as ‘Allan Guthrie with ovaries’, how do you feel about writing violence? 

Ha! That was a great quote, wasn’t it? I like writing about violence, which is not to say I enjoy violence. I think it’s important to my stories. As a social worker I was working with sex offenders, rapists, and murderers. I got used to reading files full of horrible details, blow by blow descriptions of the offences. The thing about the job was that you had to know those details. You had to confront the guy and talk to him about it. A lot of the work we were doing to help rehabilitate these guys was victim empathy, and for them to come to terms with the consequences of their actions you had to be clear about the details: “This is what you did. This is what happened.”

Violence is essential to any book about violent crime. How could it be otherwise? I have to write about it, and I never feel that I should hold back, but I never feel that I’ve done that because it’s titillating or because I like it. I do it because unless you really know what this guy has done, and how the victim has felt about it, it’s meaningless. Why are we talking about it then? That’s certainly the way my work was. I would be sitting there with a guy: “So you got a razor and cut her. Where did you cut her?” It’s a shocking thing to ask, but he did it, and for him to accept that and come to terms with it, it has to be spoken about.

To read the rest of this interview, click here:


Douglas Skelton has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written 11 true crime and Scottish criminal history books but now concentrates on fiction. By his own admission, that doesn’t mean he won’t, some day, come up with another factual piece – there are a couple of old cases he’d love to get into – but for now he’s making stuff up and spending a lot of time on the telly, which is a scary experience, especially, as he’s quick to concede, for the viewer. 

Years ago, I suggested to Bill Campbell at Mainstream Publishing that he form a special crime imprint for Scottish crime writers and call it Tartan Noir.

This was before the explosion of titles we have now but obviously after Ian Rankin got James Ellroy to scribble it on a book title page, because I certainly didn’t come up with the tag.

Bill didn’t take me up on my suggestion, which was probably very wise because the term doesn’t half annoy some writers.

It is, though, merely a label, a catch-all for Scottish crime fiction, and encompasses ‘police procedurals’ (itself a catch-all for anything with police officers in central roles probing dark doings), ‘domestic noir’ (anything that involves ordinary people becoming ensnared in dark doings) and, of course, ‘noir’ (anything that involves dodgy people with shaky moral compasses involved in dark – eh – doings).

But then, if you’ve read Len’s book you know all this. And more.

I like to think my books are ‘noir’, although I’m sure there will be people out there who would disagree. I’ve got crooks as protagonists, I’ve got corrupt cops. Hell, I’ve even got rain swept streets. Although, in the latest, they’re snow-swept.

My mate Michael J. Malone has switched from ‘police procedural’ to ‘noir’ with ‘Beyond the Rage’. I also argue that Craig Robertson has done the same with ‘The Last Refuge’. Doug Johnstone’s books, to me, can also fall into the category.

This is not an original thought but Scotland has a fine ‘noir’ tradition. James Hogg, Robert Louis Stephenson, even a bit of Conan Doyle, have all contributed.

What else is ‘No Mean City’ but ‘noir’? It has the streets, it has the dodgy morals, it has crime. Ron McKay’s belated follow-up, ‘Mean City’, brought us more of the same.

For me, though, the father of our modern ‘tartan noir’ is not William McIlvanney, although he rightly deserves all the praise he gets because he made us all what we are.

‘Laidlaw’ was gritty, certainly, but a cop protagonist can seldom be ‘noir’ – unless he’s filmed in black and white and is beating up a suspect.

No, the true godfather has to be Hugh C. Rae. Allan Guthrie – himself no slouch in the genre – called him ‘the forgotten man of tartan noir.’

He started writing his crime books in the late 50s with ‘Skinner’, inspired by the Peter Manuel case, but went on to provide masterpieces such as ‘The Marksman’ and ‘The Shooting Gallery,’ although the latter falls roughly under the label ‘police procedural’.

He was a writing machine in his lifetime, producing novels under a variety of pen names and watering down his noirish credentials with adventure stories and romantic fiction.

Bill Knox, like Rae a former journalist, was also churning out an impressive catalogue of crime books at this time, but none of them what you’d really call ‘noir.’ I’ll bet someone now is formulating an email to tell me how wrong I am, though.

And on telly, another former journo, Bill Craig, created the downbeat anti-hero Scobie, played by Maurice Roeves, and Edward Boyd gave us the sublime ‘The View from Daniel Pike’, with Roddy McMillan as a down-at-heel private eye in full Chandler mode.

All of these served as my introduction to the murky world of crime fiction – in fact, I dedicated the first of my thrillers to Edward Boyd and Roddy McMillan.

However, my true training ground was in first researching and writing true crime and then investigating actual crime. Now, there’s real noir – dodgy characters and dubious decisions, But aren’t we all complex, multi-faceted individuals, all creatures of Janus? Aren’t we all capable of being kind and considerate but also mean-spirited and downright despicable?

Cynical? Maybe, but definitely noirish.

That’s the world I’m walking in for now. I’m three books into a quartet filled with violence and death and double-dealing. I’ve got crooks who are – hopefully – sympathetic and at least one cop who is not. I’ve got friendships undermined by greed and suspicion. I’ve got corruption and I’ve got murder.

But there is a soft side to this hard-boiled world and perhaps that’s what smooths its noirish edges. True ‘noir’ is bleak and harsh and without hope. My anti-hero Davie McCall feels trapped by his violent ability. He wants out. But a happy ending may never be on the cards for him – and right away we’re back to ‘noir’ again.

To see just how bleak and harsh it may get you’ll have to wait until next year.

Or maybe all this is just misdirection.

There’s that ‘noir’ thing again, because sometimes not everything is as it seems.

And after the fourth one, what then?

Time to get a bit lighter, I think. The Davie McCall series has humour – I believe humour is important – but it is pretty dark, so it’s time to lighten the mood somewhat, although knowing me it’ll have its bleak moments. I can’t help my dark Celtic sensibilities, sorry.

So, would I still call a crime imprint Tartan Noir? Probably not. For one thing the phrase suffers from over-exposure now and anyway, it doesn’t really exist. It’s all just crime, whether it’s Scottish, English, Irish, Welsh or from any other part of the globe. Books we want to read and those we don’t. Stories that work, stories that need some work.

So, no ‘Tartan Noir’ imprint for me. Although I am toying with the idea of ‘Scotia Nostra…’

To delve into Douglas Skelton’s fiction, click here:


Will Jordan was born in Fife, Scotland. After graduating high school, he moved on to university, gaining an Honors Degree in Information Technology. To support himself during his degree he worked a number of part time jobs, one of which was as an extra in television and feature films. Cast as a World War Two soldier, he was put through military boot camp in preparation for the role.

The experience piqued his interest in military history, and encouraged him to learn more about conflicts past and present. Having always enjoyed writing, he has used this research as the basis for a bestselling series of espionage thrillers about Ryan Drake, a covert CIA ‘Shepherd’ tasked to locate missing agents.

Take a look at global events over the past couple of years. Not a pretty picture, is it?

In Afghanistan, conflict and insurgency continues to rumble on years after the official withdrawal of Coalition forces. In Iraq and Syria, the ominous spectacle of ISIS has risen seemingly from nowhere and seized control of vast swathes of territory, effectively forming its own country defended by an army tens of thousands strong. In Libya, so recently freed from the shackles of dictatorship, generations of simmering resentment and tribal grudges have boiled over into outright civil war. In the Ukraine, Russian-backed guerrillas continue to battle and gain ground against an increasingly demoralised government army. Relations between a Putin-dominated Russia and America are at their lowest ebb since the dark days of the Cold War. And with the West still struggling to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis, plus two long and costly wars, there is neither the political will nor the military resources to get involved in another major conflict. Meanwhile, rogue states like North Korea and Iran edge ever closer to developing their own long range nuclear weapons.

In short, the world we live in today is more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable than at any other time in living memory.

So why do people like me choose to write about it? What are we hoping to achieve? And why should people like you care what we have to say?

Well, I guess the answer comes in three parts:

Part 1 – Who the hell am I?

Well, at least that’s an easy one to answer. My name is Will Jordan. I was born on April 30th 1983 in Fife, Scotland. I’m married with two children. I’m also the author of the Ryan Drake series, currently published in a dozen different countries, translated into foreign languages, and with a movie deal in the works. And for pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write.

To be fair, I didn’t always know what I wanted to write about. As a kid, my head was filled with stories of science fiction and fantasy escapism. As a teenager, it was all about dark and moody drama. Teenagers are like that, I guess.

But no matter what the style or setting, the simple act of telling a story always fascinated me. The notion that you could take something – a simple idea that comes almost from nowhere – develop it and expand it and write about it, share it with other people and have them become invested in it too. You were literally creating something from nothing.

I wanted to do that. I could do that, except for two minor problems – I’d never written a book in my life, and I was painfully shy and self-conscious about my interest in writing. I’d told nobody that I wanted to be an author some day, wary of being mocked or even pitied – just another self-deluded wannabe. The thought of labouring away for months or even years on a book, only to submit it and have it torn to shreds, terrified me. Where was I even supposed to start? People who wrote books lived on some other plane of existence, didn’t they? Their minds were filled with prose rhythms, character arcs, plot devices, Macguffins, red herrings and a hundred other terms that scared the crap out of normal people like me. No, I didn’t have what it took to be an author.

The coming of the internet in the late 90’s changed things for me. For the first time, I could submit stories and ideas anonymously on message boards, without anyone ever having to know who’d created them. If they hated my work, so be it. At least I could put it behind me. So I got to work and posted my first chunk of fiction online.

Then something strange happened. People liked what I wrote. They enjoyed what I wrote. In some cases, they apparently loved what I wrote.

I couldn’t believe it. It was like a drug, all this praise and encouragement suddenly coming my way for a little piece of writing. I’d created characters and a story from nothing more than little scraps of ideas, and suddenly up sprang an entire world that other people were invested in, believed in, cared about. I’d created a story, and I loved it.

I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but that was the start of it for me. The start of the journey that would lead to becoming a published author. And for the next couple of years, my writing flourished as I gained experience and confidence. But I still hadn’t found what I really wanted to write about.

I won’t bore you with the details of where I was and what I was doing the day I saw those planes fly into the World Trade Centre back in 2001. But like countless people all over the globe, it changed my appreciation and understanding of the world we live in forever. And more than that, it made me ask questions.

Who was this group called al-Qaeda? Who was Osama Bin Laden? Why did people from Afghanistan want to kill American civilians? Where had all of this started, and more importantly where was it going?

The more I read and researched and learned, the more I came to understand that the immensely complex legacy of forgotten wars, dirty deals, lies, betrayals, revenge and greed playing out right in front of our eyes was all the backdrop any storyteller could ever wish for. This was the world, the real world, that I could weave into a fictional narrative.

Pretty soon I knew I’d found my genre.

Part 2 – What the hell do I write about?

As a Scottish author, there’s almost an assumption that I should be writing crime dramas about hard-bitten detectives tracking murderers through the streets of Edinburgh or Glasgow, that I should stick to places and situations I know and can describe first-hand. That makes sense, right? Write what you know.

Instead, I chose to write globe-trotting thrillers about a former British soldier working as a ‘deniable operative’ for the CIA. He’s the kind of guy who gets sent in where most agents would never take the risk. He’s a man trying to do the right thing while wrestling with past mistakes, faced with situations where there’s no clear right or wrong, driven to make greater and greater sacrifices.

Drake’s adventures have taken him from the streets of Washington to the icy wastes of Siberia, the burning deserts of Iraq and Libya, the barren mountains of Afghanistan, the war-torn villages of Chechnya, the boulevards of Paris and London and countless other places in between.

And to balance him out, there’s his counterpart Anya – a disgraced former CIA agent out for revenge against those who wronged her. She’s someone who walked the same path as Drake, but fell foul of those willing to sacrifice anything for their own gain. Her experiences have left her hard and determined, but also bitter and cynical, and at times she serves as Drake’s mentor, companion and even adversary.

Why did I do all of this? Because this series and its world offer me the freedom to tackle the questions and issues I really want to talk about. I’ve written on topics ranging from the Iraq and Afghan wars, to the business of Private Military Contractors, to corruption in the Russian government, to computer hacking, terrorism and nation building.

At times, my choice of genre leaves me feeling like the odd man out amongst the Scottish crime writing community. I’m not part of the tartan noir club, my books don’t fit neatly into the genre of crime like so many others. But you know what? That’s fine with me, because I’m writing about exactly what interests me most.

The moment you start trying to fit with what you think other people expect, you’re on a downward slope as a writer.

Part 3 – Why the hell do I do this?

My journey to being published was, I suppose, similar to that of most authors. There were the same frustrations and disappointments, the same long hours labouring away in isolation, the same hopes and fears, and eventually the triumphs of securing a literary agent, and at last that elusive publishing deal.

It’s hard to put into words how it felt to finally take that call from my agent, to know that for now at least I’d made it, that all the hard work had paid off. All I can say is that my main emotion was one of relief. Relief that I hadn’t wasted my time, that I hadn’t wasted my agent’s time, that all those people who encouraged me to keep writing had been right. It was very much the end of one journey and the start of another. Now I had a series to write.

So what keeps me going? Well, first and foremost the fact that I love doing it. I was writing long before people paid me for my efforts, and who knows? Maybe I’ll be doing it long after. But for now, I’m having the time of my life.

So far, I’ve written five books in the Ryan Drake series. The fourth, Black List, will be published on August 10th, and the fifth will be along in the new year, with more to come after that.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world visiting many of the places I’ve written about in my novels. I’ve fired the same weapons used by my characters, learned the same drills, interviewed men who have served in some of the most hostile countries on earth. I’ve been privileged to do all of these things, because what I do means more to me than any other job I’ve ever had.

In each case, I’ve tried to always focus on the very same thing that so attracted me to this setting in the first place – the grey area. These stories aren’t about good versus evil; they’re about people trying to survive and make sense of the decisions they’re faced with. Even when it means dealing with sensitive issues, I’ve always tried to show both sides of any conflict, to explore the reasons that drive people to do what they do, to show that no one is completely good or completely bad – even the ‘hero’ of the series.

Perhaps, in a way, it even helps me make sense of this world we’re all part of.

To delve into Will Jordan’s fiction, click here:


Len Wanner is the author of Tartan Noir, ‘a ground-breaking book’ according to no less an authority on Scottish crime fiction than the ‘godfather of Tartan Noir’, William McIlvanney. Wanner is also the author of three volumes of literary interviews, a freelance editor, a German translator, and the editor of this online journal.

Typically, the noir novel avoids both length and judgment as it tells the story of an outsider with little or no agency who is – or soon will be – alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating. The author of such a novel typically tells his or her story with little exposition and no resolution, but with a lot of fragmentation and disorientation, and thus breaks up any residual sense of cause and consequence with a non-linear narrative, the narrator’s limited perspective, and his or her questionable reliability.

Stereotypically, the noir novel focuses on how the five attributes listed above lead to the disintegration of the outsider’s sense of self as he – for the noir protagonist is stereotypically a man – doggedly makes his way through a dark world that has been the ruin of many a poor man, a world of jive-talking cynics, wise-cracking criminals, and tired salesmen still trying to sell non-noir futures under neon signs advertising 24-hour liquor stores as silent strangers form faceless night-time crowds in silhouetted asphalt jungles forever obscured by clouds and rain, jungles in which anonymous men float in and out of late-night bars wreathed in thick cigarette smoke, vainly hoping to bed some sultry femme fatale sheathed in a thin cocktail dress which will later inevitably be discarded among another man’s sweaty bed sheets while down in the dimly lit streets of this eternal purgatory shots ring out and broken human beings die like vermin – pointlessly, instantly forgotten, and never to be mourned.

What is mourned is a past which never was, and what that soon leads to is existential dread, inarticulate resentment, radical disengagement, desperate self-annihilation, and rapacious eroticism, none of which in turn leads anywhere near a happy end. That, of course, should come as no surprise, since the noir novel with a happy end has never been written, nor can it be, because it is about life’s losers – people who lose, lose repeatedly, and lose big. Some do so because their authors decide to defeat their best efforts by setting their stories in a negatively predetermined universe, others because they make their own decisions yet are denied either the intelligence or the independence they would need to make good ones, and since they are all driven by an ever-increasing desperation, they make one bad decision after another in a life which is little more than a struggle for survival. In both cases, then, things start bad and end worse.

Now, if this quick run-through of noir stereotypes seems as well-worn as a highlight reel of Hollywood pictures from the mid-20th century, it does so for an interesting reason. Literary noir has a shared history with film noir, and though these days the two art forms have little more in common than their name, over the years enough writers have filled their pages with the clichés developed on screen to create a superficial association even in the minds of otherwise educated audiences. This goes back as far as the 1940s, when a fertile, cross-Atlantic discourse started which was to span several decades. As the preeminent scholar of film noir, James Naremore, recaps, “The discourse on American film noir was initiated by two generations of Parisian intellectuals, most of whom declared the form extinct soon after they invented it… Eventually, as old movies became increasingly available on television or in retrospectives, a European image of America was internalised by the Americans themselves. By the 1990s, noir had acquired the aura of art and had evolved into what Dennis Hopper describes as ‘every director’s favourite genre’.” In the meantime, enough writers had borrowed from the dramatic motifs and narrative techniques of those directors for literary noir to be both re-popularised – and in many places re-marketed en masse – as a literary version of film noir, its very own brain child to which it had given birth all those years ago by providing material for movie adaptations.

As a result of this retrospective focus on the halcyon days of film noir, countless cinematic images have been projected on to the term ‘noir’, so much so that two historical facts have often been overlooked: one, as indicated above, most literary noir looks nothing like those cinematic images, and two, most of the material which was eventually adapted and re-adapted in noir’s cross-fertilisation process was created a long way from the silver screen. As the author and critic Barry Graham points out, “Even while Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his Sherlock Holmes cozies in the 19th Century… his brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, was writing the dark tales of Raffles, Victorian gentleman and cricket star who moonlights as a burglar. Raffles seems to be a gentleman of leisure, but it’s all about surface appearance and desperate avoidance of losing his upper crust status… he is always one theft away from destitution.” This border state – noir’s raison d’être, its belief that those worth writing about are only ever one step away from the abyss – has become both a popular aesthetic attitude and a counter-cultural space for the most subversive of minds.

Buoyed by the surge of sensational American pulp fiction – which was primarily addressed to working-class men and popularised in the 1920s – and buoyed further by the surge of the literary crime novel – which was promoted by middle-class book clubs and popularised in the 1930s – tough guy writers like Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett pioneered a prose style in those early decades of the 20th century which soon became known as ‘hard-boiled’. Throughout the remainder of that century, this heightened passion for literary toughness was channelled into books and screenplays about the lowest reaches of human nature by such notable writers as James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, W.R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich, Erskine Caldwell, Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, James Hadley Chase, Chester Himes, Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, David Goodis, Charles Willeford, Patricia Highsmith, Peter Rabe, Gil Brewer, James McKimmey, Elmore Leonard, Derek Raymond, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Ted Lewis, and James Ellroy. Together, these noirists paved the way for 21st century noir by processing a growing awareness of violence in the period around World War II, a return to consumer economies, a rise in crime rates, the ideological tensions of both the Red Scare and the Cold War, and a widespread popularisation of psychoanalysis.

Before I go on, however, I ought to clarify something. Though it is occasionally useful for reference purposes, and often inevitable for practical reasons, it is also potentially misleading to discuss noir as though it was a specific cycle of films or fictions associated with a particular aesthetic period or national tradition, i.e. one readily defined and easily agreed creative and critical concept. In truth, the only thing which is not debatable about noir is that it is the French word for ‘black’. Everything else, from its chief influences to its generic conventions, has been debated ad nauseam, often with the laudable intention of saving arguably underrated work from obscurity, but just as often with a lamentable tendency towards antiquarianism. The problem, as Naremore explains, is this: “a concept that was generated ex post facto has become part of a worldwide mass memory.” So, as the noir writer Joe Lansdale concludes, “You can’t point at noir and call it one thing.”

This, of course, does not mean that the term should not be used to describe or discuss art which is identifiably noir. It simply means that we need to think of noir in broader terms. “Noir,” as Naremore reminds us, “functions rather like big words such as romantic or classic. An ideological concept with a history all its own, it can be used to describe a period, a movement, and a recurrent style.” And as this broadening of the term suggests, the on-going discussions about how to define such ‘big words’ arises from an old confusion about the way in which all generic concepts are formed. To be clear, people do not form them by grouping things objectively. They create extensive networks of relationship between things which are often produced in different periods and places by using their subjective forms of association. Thus, over time, several more or less authoritative definitions enter our cultural discourse.

In Scotland, rather confusingly, the noir novel did not start, nor did it reach its pinnacle, with ‘the King of Tartan Noir’, Ian Rankin. Saying so, I hasten to add, betrays neither a literary value judgment nor an attempt to court controversy. It is simply a statement of fact. Rankin does not write noir. Rankin writes police novels based on the far from noir premise that the legal, political, and social systems which govern Scotland are, ultimately, worth defending. So, although his cops have to bend or break the occasional law to preserve order, preserve it they do, and although they have the odd minor flaw, they manage it like the heroes they are. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his cops would not be bending or breaking any laws to preserve order, because there would be no order. If Rankin wrote noir novels, his heroes would not have any flaws, because he would have no heroes, just protagonists. And finally, if Rankin wrote noir novels, his protagonists would not care anywhere near as much about laws or flaws. They would be far too preoccupied with their noir fate of being alone, afraid, angry, amoral, and alienating.

So, how has somebody who does not even write noir come to be known as the King of Tartan Noir? As Rankin was happy to explain when I asked him that very question, he was given this unofficial title by James Ellroy, the notorious American noirist, before Ellroy had even read any of his writing:

“I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well, and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, ‘You could call it Tartan Noir.’ He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down.”

After Rankin told a version of this story in public – minus the final admission, which he added only recently – people started parroting Ellroy and using his authority to lend credibility to a literary movement which Rankin had invented in jest, ‘Tartan Noir’.

Within a few years, Rankin had become the form’s internationally recognised figurehead, and this has had some rather long-lasting consequences. On the one hand, it has moved some actual noir from the margins of Scottish literature to the mainstream, because, along with Rankin’s popularity, the demand for Tartan Noir has risen dramatically. In response, the market has been flooded with literature promoted as such, and this has included some actual noir. On the other hand, however, it has also included some falsely labelled literature, the kind which merely gets labelled noir because it is a bit dark, not because it is noir in the aesthetic meaning of the word. Rankin’s false promotion as a noirist is one such example. Other examples – similarly famous and similarly false – are the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Douglas Brown, whose occasionally dark-ish detective fiction and social realism is often cited in an attempt at locating the earliest – or worthiest – starting point of noir in Scottish literature. Yet while this may seem like a harmless vanity project, such false genre genealogies can have unfortunate consequences. Whenever they remain uncontested, they offer muddled minds models for even more mislabelling, so it is time to look at a few examples of actual, Scottish Noir…

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Louise Welsh is an award-winning writer living and working in Glasgow, Scotland.

She is the author of six novels: The Cutting Room (2002), Tamburlaine Must Die (2004), The Bullet Trick (2006), Naming the Bones (2010), The Girl on the Stairs (2012), A Lovely Way to Burn (2014), and Death is a Welcome Guest (2015). She’s also produced many short stories and articles and written for radio and the stage including a libretto for opera.

Her awards to date include a Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award, a Corine Internationaler Buchpreis: Rolf Heyne Debutpreis (Germany), a Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, a Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, and a Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger.

Seeing as your novels are enjoyed by readers who wouldn’t usually share a taste in literature, can you say what brought you to crime fiction?

Yeah, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I never really know how well I sit within the genre. I’m really happy to be put in the genre; I think it’s done me a lot of good. When I started to write my first novel,The Cutting Room, I thought I was writing a Gothic book, and I was very conscious of the Gothic conventions and tropes in it. I didn’t want to write a horror novel, but I did want to draw on that Gothic tradition which has always been allied to crime – the idea of exploring the victim, the way that we portray the victim, but also the urge to have a strong narrative and not to concentrate on these things but somehow have them as part of a strong story, which crime lends itself very much to.

At that point, I was very conscious of the portrayal of women’s bodies, and I think it’s something crime fiction often does quite badly, quite offensively – the use of the naked female form to turn the plot often lacks respect for victims, which is perhaps more to the fore in television adaptations where you see this prone naked female body. I wanted to explore that. Maybe it’s quite naive in some ways, but in that book the use of photographs is an attempt to somehow distance us from the body and to ask the questions: “Is somebody dead? How do we know they’re dead?”

The thing to remember about first novels is that you never know anyone’s going to read them. So you have this huge amount of freedom. You can go for it and should go for it. I wanted this to be published – I actively pursued publication – but I wasn’t ever sure that it would be published. There wasn’t a commercial angle to it. I actually thought it wouldn’t be sellable because of the location, because it’s very firmly set in Glasgow, and you can’t really imagine that other people are that interested in the city you live in. Also the sexuality: Having a strong gay character at the centre, I could imagine gay men reading it, I could imagine some women reading it, but I couldn’t really imagine straight men reading it. So it wouldn’t be commercial for those reasons. I was really pleasantly surprised when it came out. I was astounded, actually.

Ian Rankin said he felt he was writing in a Scottish literary tradition, so he personally moved Knots and Crosses out of a book shop’s crime fiction section. Are similar feelings at the heart of your refusal to write body-in-the-drawing-room crime fiction?

Ha! That’s funny. When I started The Cutting Room, I was reading Elaine Showalter, who has written some really interesting Feminist history, and I was conscious that I did not want to reproduce that kind of sexualised female body in my book. I think this connection between Eros and Thanatos is human nature: the attraction of the woman once she’s quiet – you get it all the time in advertising, these passive women in perfume ads – and what could be more quiet than being dead?

I wanted people to see the body. I wanted them at points to be disgusted or to be worried or scared, but I didn’t want this sexualised form. Although I often write in a male voice, I consider myself a Feminist, and I think the body is often absent from the books. In Tamburlaine Must Die, we do have a death, but really it’s Marlowe’s death we’re waiting for, and we don’t see that death. We know it’s going to happen, but we don’t actually see it. I was very interested in G.W. Pabst’s movie Pandora’s Box, based on Frank Wedekind’s plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora. There’s a very beautiful, lively dancer: She makes love to men, she makes love to women, and she seems completely amoral – she lives for fun. She commits a murder by mistake, and in the end she goes to London. It’s very atmospheric, and she’s murdered by Jack the Ripper, because she has to be killed in the end.

For the sake of poetic justice?

Yes, exactly! So in The Bullet Trick I wanted to play with that and have that supposed death, but there isn’t a death. There’s a resurrection, and it’s all part of some illusion. In this book, Naming the Bones, there is a death, but we’re not sure how that came about. There are several deaths, but they’re not conventional murders.

Have you always been intrigued by the unconventional or why do you seem so comfortable in the Scottish literary tradition?

That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t think this is peculiar to Scotland, but I do think we have a tradition of working class intellectualism. You can have a good and inquiring conversation with somebody you met 10 minutes ago in a pub, somebody who wouldn’t necessarily have gone on to further education but will nevertheless be informed through their own reading. When I had a bookshop, we couldn’t keep philosophy books on the shelves, and it wasn’t purely students we were selling them to. We were selling them to guys in overalls, to guys who were going to the pub, looking for something to read. There’s still a respect for learning. That is a strong part of a Scottish tradition I respect, that I’m pleased by.

Alcohol, of course, is a big part of it. I myself am labouring under a slight hangover at the moment. Ha! There’s this idea that we’re often looked down on as a country because of how much we drink, yet I think we should be compared to the Scandinavians, because a lot of that has to do with the weather.

Aren’t they also celebrating a literary renaissance in their crime fiction?

Yeah! I was going to ask you about that, actually.

Is it fair to say that the worse the weather gets, the better writers drink and drinkers write?

Ha! I just wonder – we’re natural allies in that way. The further North you get, you get shared behaviour and a shared sense of humour. I find them a lot of fun anyway.

Have you noticed the mileage they’re getting out of the reverend Robert Louis Stevenson?

Yeah, the thing about the light and the dark, the Jekyll and Hyde – I actually worry a little bit about that. Maybe it exists, but maybe we talk about it too much.

Might the actual commonality be your sideways reflections of extremes?

Might well be, actually. I guess it’s true: We are drawn to extremes. This idea of extremes is a very good one. Obviously, as writers you don’t get much say in how you’re marketed or what goes on your jacket, but I think that’s a very nice plus point of somehow being identified as this genre of extremes. With this new book, Naming the Bones, I kept the tone quiet for quite a long way through. I wanted to experiment with that – a little bit like the actor coming on stage and seeing how long they could hold the silence for. Part of what enables that is the idea that the reader has this foreknowledge that something is going to come. I think we’re on page 300 or somewhere pretty far in before we get a body. That’s fun, and it’s quite delicious to be able to do that.

How important is humour to crime writing?

It’s really necessary, I think.

How important is humour to character development in The Bullet Trick?

Part of what I wanted was for William to go to a place that isn’t actually so different from home. I think we have a lot of shared culture between Germany and Scotland, and yet there are differences, so there’s just that light wrong-footedness you get when you think you’re on solid ground and suddenly realise: “Oh, I just got that wrong. I got that completely wrong.” Maybe humour is a part of that, because it’s also him as an individual. He’s not a confident person, and his lack of confidence makes him a bit unattractive to people at points.

Also, the cabaret scene is genuinely active in Berlin; it’s not frozen-in-aspic. There are actually some quite fun, quite interesting avant-garde things going on there. So that place was where William could operate as a professional. There’s a straightforwardness about things that is very attractive to us, because we don’t have it.

Does this deep structure tend to be on your mind when you write or when you edit?

Gosh! It all becomes the same, especially a few years on, because inevitably you’re working on something else. I’m thinking about starting a new novel just now, and I start very much with notebooks – trying not to recognise what a big task it is, not to scare yourself, to take lots of little notes, and to read around things. The Pabst thing in The Bullet Trick was very conscious. I’d wanted to write about that for quite a long time. The Gothic was very conscious in The Cutting Room.

Were you conscious of the cultural context of Tamburlaine Must Die?

That’s probably the most researched book, just necessarily because it was about Marlowe.

Were you conscious of the controversy about Marlowe and his death when you started Tamburlaine Must Die?

No, no, not at all. I didn’t study English literature, and this is going to sound really ridiculous: I wanted to write about Marlowe because I’d shared a flat with somebody who was doing theatre studies, and they’d been very interested in Marlowe. We talked a lot about Marlowe, and then I went to see just about every version of Doctor Faustus I could see in Glasgow. I really, really loved it. That was part of my life, and I’d moved on, and when I came to think about writing about Marlowe, I didn’t realise how interested lots of other people were.

I didn’t know that, for instance, there was a Marlowe society, although I did know there were people who said that Marlowe had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I didn’t realise they had the society and were so serious about it. If I had, who knows, it might have put me off – it might not have.

In the end, you showed how crime fiction can defy genre scepticism with cultural consciousness. Were you at all politically motivated?

Aw, that’s a nice thing to say. You know, I was conscious of being political in that book. What is the point in writing something historical if it doesn’t somehow pertain to our times? At that point, I was interested in Dungavel prison, an asylum seekers prison. There were children being locked up and all sorts of awful things going on. That was very much part of my consciousness when I was writing Tamburlaine Must Die, that and the Elizabethan period and its hatred, fear, and distrust of outsiders and immigrants. That was the idea, but it’s very much embedded. It’s not at the forefront of the book, but nevertheless that concern is there.

Perhaps, if I’d realised how brilliant he is, I possibly wouldn’t have written this book in his voice. I think I found out a lot as I was doing it, and I still have a huge affection for Marlowe. I was very worried about writing a false history, because I studied history at university, and I was a really bad student, but I thought: “No, if I add a bibliography it suggests that this is a learned book.” So I said: “I got a lot of information from this book and that book.” I mentioned two or three books that had been good sources for me, but I didn’t put in a bibliography, because I thought it would be showing off. All we have to give interested readers is three books. They’ll find their own bibliography.

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Born in the Kingdom of Fife in 1960, Ian Rankin graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, and then spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.

After university and before his success with his Rebus novels, Ian had a number of jobs including working as a grape-picker, a swineherd, a journalist for a hi-fi magazine, and a taxman. Following his marriage in 1986, he lived briefly in London where he worked at the National Folktale Centre, followed by a short time living in France, before returning to Edinburgh.

Ian’s first novel Summer Rites remains in his bottom drawer, but his second novel, The Flood, was published in 1986, while his first Rebus novel, Knots & Crosses, was published in 1987. The Rebus series is now translated into twenty-two languages and the books are bestsellers on several continents. In addition to his Rebus and Malcolm Fox novels, he has also written standalone novels including Doors Open, which was televised in 2012, short stories, a graphic novel – Dark Entries, and a play (with Mark Thomson, the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Artistic Director) Dark Road, which premiered at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, in September 2013. There are also a number of novels under the pseudonym ‘Jack Harvey’ and in 2005 he collaborated with singer Jackie Leven on a CD. His non-fiction book Rebus’s Scotland was published in 2005.

Ian has been elected a Hawthornden Fellow, and is also a past winner of the Chandler-Fulbright Award. He is the recipient of four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards including the prestigious Diamond Dagger in 2005. In 2004, Ian won America’s celebrated Edgar Award for Resurrection Men. He has also been shortlisted for the Edgar and Anthony Awards in the USA, and won Denmark’s Palle Rosenkrantz prize, the French Grand Prix du Roman Noir and Germany’s Deutscher Krimipreis. Ian is also the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Hull, Abertay, St Andrews and Edinburgh as well as The Open University, and he has received an OBE for services to literature, opting to receive the prize in his home city of Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

‘Tartan Noir’ – was that your idea?

Ha! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term I’m confident I invented, but I gave it to James Ellroy. I met him at a crime fiction convention in Nottingham many years ago and I wanted to get him to sign a book for me. I was explaining to him that I was a crime writer as well and wrote about Edinburgh and the darker side of Scottish life. I said, “You could call it Tartan Noir.” He laughed and signed the book to ‘the King of Tartan Noir’. So then I pretended that he’d invented it. But in fact, I told him and then he wrote it down. Chris Brookmyre nicked it after that and started using it.

Didn’t he call it chromatically impossible?

Yeah! Well, it is. It’s an oxymoron. Tartan can’t just be black otherwise it’s not a tartan. Anyway, I’ve still got my James Ellroy book upstairs so I can prove he wrote that on the book. Or somebody wrote it on the book… I can’t prove it was him.

Can you say what it means to you?

Tartan Noir – there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland, but there is a great tradition of dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in ‘70s Glasgow, there was a move towards a realistic school of writing about working class life, writing about hard men, writing about hard lives, and writing about urban experience. So it was a move away from the ‘kaleyard’, which was this romanticised view of Scotland. I think crime fiction tapped into that very nicely, and because there was no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland it had a completely level playing field. Nobody had to be worried about writing in a certain tradition, and most of us weren’t influenced by the English.

I’d better speak for myself and not for anybody else: I certainly wasn’t influenced by the English crime novel, because I’d never read one. I’d never read any Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, or 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, and Alistair MacLean, a Scottish thriller writer, very famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But because there was no Agatha Christie figure, you didn’t feel you were looking over your shoulder and had to write a certain kind of book.

So there’s a huge catholicism to Scottish crime fiction. If you look at the stuff Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, and Alanna Knight are writing, and if you then look at the really dark stuff people like Stuart MacBride are writing, it seems to me there’s somebody writing in every sub-genre of crime fiction. When Paul Johnston started, he was writing crime novels set in a futuristic Edinburgh, so you have sci-fi crime fiction, historical crime fiction, you have comic crime fiction like Chris Brookmyre’s, psychological crime fiction like Denise Mina’s, cop novels like I’m writing… Other people are writing about private eyes, Allan Guthrie came along and seemed to enjoy writing about criminals rather than cops…

It just seemed there was room for all of that because we weren’t expected to write any particular kind of crime novel. But the balance has swung towards noir, quite dark fiction and I think that comes out of the fact that the current generation of crime writers has grown up with things like Hannibal Lecter, slasher movies, and Hollywood serial killers who are exaggerated in their means and motives. We’ve grown up with American cop shows on the television. We find crime fiction a very good way of writing about urban experience and society, about current affairs and politics, so we’re doing a lot more than just trying to tell a good story that will keep you engaged until the end of a train journey where you’ll go: “Ach, that’s who the killer was.” I think quite a lot of writers in Scotland aren’t that interested in the traditional notion of the English detective story, the structured novel that’s full of red herrings and in which the detective gets all the possible suspects together in the penultimate chapter to explain who did it and who didn’t do it.

There don’t seem to be many novels like that coming out of Scotland. They seem to be quite dark. They seem to be close to the Scandinavian model of crime fiction. When I read Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, however you pronounce their names, writing in Sweden and about Swedish society in the ‘60s, it seems very modern, and it seems to me very much like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Scotland at the moment. It’s not a school, because there are other writers who don’t fit that, but they’re still writing crime fiction, whether they like it or not.

Given the similarities between Scandinavian and Scottish crime fiction, is your shared popularity the product of Anglo-Saxon coolness and Northern innocence?

What I find about a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction is that it’s quite politically engaged. Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall were Marxists who were trying to write about what they felt was a decline in standards and civilisation in their country. I think there are several crime writers out there who are trying to do something similar to that, writers who are saying: “Look at the terrible mess we’re in. How the hell did we get here?”

These are also introspective countries where the people are quite inward looking. If you watch Kenneth Branagh doing Wallander on television you get a sense of that. This guy is just angsty. We do like a good angsty detective, and we think of Scandinavia as a place where you can do Angst well. By the same token, I think you can do it very well in Scotland because the Scots have this Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. We can be lovely one minute, but give us some alcohol and suddenly we turn into monsters. We hide our feelings a lot of the time. It’s weird, isn’t it? We’re all supposed to be Celts, but you look at Ireland where everybody’s so chatty and friendly. Glaswegians are, but you go elsewhere in Scotland and everybody’s reserved. They’d rather say nothing than say the wrong thing.

Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses?

It’s hilarious. I used to see it in tutorials all the time. All the students from Scottish working-class comprehensive school backgrounds would sit there and say nothing for the whole course of a tutorial. Then there’d be all these really chatty English folk who were very self-confident and self-aware, and even if they didn’t know the answer they would say something. And then all the wee working class Scots would be writing everything down that they said. It was about two and a half years before I spoke in a tutorial, but once I started you couldn’t shut me up.

Why didn’t it take you as long to find your narrative voice?

I was writing from a very young age. I was trying to do comics and strip cartoons and song lyrics from before I was a teenager, and then in my mid-teens I was writing song lyrics and poetry, so when I came to Edinburgh University, I was a poet. I’d had one poem published. I’d won second prize in a competition, so I’d been published in a magazine. That was me. I thought: “This is what I’m doing.” But the poems were telling stories. The poems were not emotion recollected in tranquillity. They were narratives. So when a short story competition was announced, I went in for it and won second prize, and then the next year I won a short story competition and thought: “Oh, I can do this!” So I moved away from poetry into short stories, and then that smoothed the way for a transition to the novel.

After a couple of novels, one of which was never published, I came up with Rebus without having really read any crime fiction at all, with the possible exception of William McIlvanney and some film tie-ins, things like Shaft and maybe The French Connection and The Godfather. I’d read those because they were films, but McIlvanney was important because of Laidlaw which came along just as I was getting an inkling of writing a dark, contemporary take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. All the way through Knots And Crosses, you’re supposed to think Rebus, the detective, is potentially the killer – he just doesn’t know it.

Hard to fool people with that these days, when they know there are 17 Rebus novels. He’s probably not the bad guy in the first book, but it was never meant to be a series, and I was reluctant to even see it as crime fiction. At that time, crime fiction was very much the poor relation. You’d go into a book shop and struggle to find a crime section. It was tucked away at the back of the shop somewhere.

Is it true that when you first saw Knots And Crosses in a bookshop, you moved a copy from the crime section to where you thought it should be shelved?

Yeah. I wanted it to be in Scottish literature at the front of the shop beside Spark and Stevenson and McIlvanney. I went back the next day and they’d moved it back to the crime section. This is going back to 1987, so it’s going back quite some time.

After all those years, are you tired of being seen as the guy who writes Rebus?

Well, I’m not the guy who writes Rebus anymore. I wrote the last Rebus novel about three years ago. Of course, every time I do a gig I get asked if I’m going to bring back Rebus: “When are we going to see him again?” I get emails from people saying: “I like your books post-Rebus, but when are we going to get another Rebus book?”

Rebus was, and remains, a useful character. He’s a useful means of looking at society. He’s a useful prism through which you can show all the different aspects of human life, because a detective, unlike almost any other character in fiction, has access to every area, every layer of society. So if you want to write about politicians, big business, backhanders, and corruption, but you also want to write about the dispossessed and disenfranchised folk living on the edge, folk living on housing benefit, and folk with drug problems, you can do all of that with this one character, because he can explore all of that and everybody’s got to open their door to him.

So I do think a detective is a very good tool for opening up the world and exploring it. That’s what I think I try to do in the books. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of modern Scotland. Whether it’s local politics, national politics, the economy, the country’s history and possible future, racism, or religious bigotry, all these things can very easily be tackled in crime fiction. The slightly frustrating thing is that you can’t show that the world is also a very nice place, because your detective tends not to be dealing with happy shiny people. Your detective is dealing with suspects and grieving relatives, which is frustrating when you live in Edinburgh. I mean, look at how nice it is.

Having written about those happy shiny people in a couple of successful short story collections, would you write more of them if there was a bigger market?

Probably. The short story is a nice form. It’s like a little jewel. You can hold the shape of it in your head – you can’t with a novel – and they’re really good to read. I enjoy reading short stories or listening to them in the car, and I enjoy writing them, but I don’t know whether I could ever get enough ideas to be a fulltime short story writer. You’d want to get a story published every single week. You’d have to have 52 good ideas, whereas writing a novel you only have to have one good idea a year – maybe two: plot and subplot.

Then, at the end of two or three days’ work, you’ve got something you’ve physically made that nobody’s made before. That’s one of the wonderful things about writing. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are only so many words in the language, and yet everybody can write a sentence that’s never been written before. Think how incredible that is. You can sit and write a sentence that nobody in the entire history of human existence has written before. That’s the great challenge as well: trying to write something different – do something that’s not been done before.

Doing English at University, you’re told there are seven basic plots, and you go: “Well, I’m fucked then. I can do seven books and that’ll be it.” But then you learn that these seven plots are actually completely malleable and interchangeable. There might only be seven basic plots but the well of stories is inexhaustible. When I was younger, plots were flying at me. I was very receptive to them. I’d walk down the street and I’d get an idea for a story because I would hear or see something. In the end, I tried to switch off because I was getting more ideas than I could possibly use. It’s hard to sort them out and decide which ones to write and which ones not to write.

Early in his career, James Ellroy noticed he could execute anything he could envisage. Can you?

Yes, but he hit a wall. Well, did he hit a wall? He told me once that when he wrote White Jazz, the linguistic experimentation in that book was so extreme, he actually lost readers. People weren’t buying it because it was too hard to read, so he back-pedalled a wee bit after that. The narrative became more fluid and the language became slightly less opaque. But yeah, there’s no doubt that he gets big ideas and is able to execute them. I’ve got storylines upstairs that I’ve not used yet because I can’t think how the hell to do it.

Like what?

Things like, you want to write from an eight-year old boy’s point of view and I’m going: “Well, can I? Would it be realistic? Could I make it realistic? That’s awfully hard, I’ll try something else.”

Does such professionalism come with a risk?

I think you can fall into a trap. If you’ve got a very successful career in one genre with one character, it’s very easy just to keep on writing stories that are slightly different from previous stories but just different enough so they don’t put off your publisher or your reader. I’m sure every crime fan in the world can name writers who probably should have stopped by now or tried something new.

Do you regret making Rebus old when the series was young?

Ha! Limiting the life span of the series… Well, he had to be 40 in the first book, because he had to have had a previous life that he’d managed to block out. Time had to have passed. Young man, training for the SAS, something terrible happens, and he’s able to push it to the back of his mind or stick it into a compartment and not think about it again. So I thought: “How long would have passed? Probably the best part of 15 or 20 years.” I totalled that up and thought: “That makes him about 40.”

When I thought it was only going to be one book, that decision didn’t matter, but then about three or four books into the series, I decided: “He’s actually going to age in real time. He’s not going to be preserved in aspic the way a lot of detectives are in fiction.” That way I could realistically show the changing nature of Edinburgh. Some time has passed from his first adventure set in ’87,  so we get the parliament, we get the G8 coming to town, and you can show the changes that are taking place in Edinburgh and in Scottish society, but then you come up against that eventual problem: “When does he have to retire?”

I thought he’d probably have to retire at 65. It was a cop who told me: “No, it’s 60 for detectives: mandatory retirement.” So I totalled it up and thought: “Hang on, in ’87 he’s 40. That means in 2007 he’s 60. So 2007’s book has to be his retirement book.” It was as straightforward as that. I’d given myself a problem, but the answer to the problem was for him to retire. It doesn’t mean he’d stop being a cop. I know what he’s doing. He’s working in the cold case unit at Fettes Police Head Quarters in a team of four: one serving police officer and three retired detectives who look at old unsolved murders. Perfect for Rebus…

Read the remaining 10,000 words of this interview here:

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