Books / Culture / Editor's Own

Nordic Noir’s Scottish Rival: Tartan Noir

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Nowadays it seems you can add a “noir” label to just about anything. So far, though, none have got close to challenging the unrivaled respect commanded by “Nordic Noir”. But if last week’s Edinburgh Book Festival is anything to go by, Scotland’s “Tartan Noir” may be on the way up.


Alexander Brett

Nowadays it seems you can add a “noir” label to just about anything: French cop shows are “Euro Noir”, Hinterland is “Welsh Noir”, James Ellroy’s LA novels are “American Noir”. So far, though, none of these labels have got close to challenging the respect commanded by “Nordic Noir”. But if the Edinburgh Book Festival last week is anything to go by, Scotland’s “Tartan Noir” may be on the way up.

“It has an inescapably condescending tinge,” says Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, “suggesting there’s something quaint about hard-boiled crime fiction that comes from a land of kilts and haggis.”

“Total ersatz,” says the William McIlvanney, the author whose Laidlaw novel, published in 1977, is generally considered the genre’s starting post. Inspector Jack Laidlaw effortlessly combines humour and kindness with the deprivation, violence and cruelty of Glasgow’s criminal underworld.

McIlvanney had won the Whitbread prize the previous year for Docherty, a historical novel set in a small mining community, and built a loyal fanbase who presumably expected more of the same. Laidlaw, therefore, came as a surprise. Some, dismayed, deserted. Others stayed loyal, and McIlvanney published a second Laidlaw novel, The Papers of Tony Veitch in 1983, and a third, Strange Loyalties, in 1991.

Journalist and novelist Allan Massie writing in The Spectator, calls the Laidlaw books “unconventional”. “McIlvanney,” he says, “did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles: he gave the city its fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.”


“McIlvanney did for Glasgow what Chandler had done for Los Angeles: he gave the city its fictional identity. Hemingway used to say that all American literature came out of Huckleberry Finn; all Scottish crime writing — ‘tartan noir’ — comes out of Laidlaw.”


The bestselling author Ian Rankin, whose novels now form the backbone of Tartan Noir, claims McIlvanney was the inspiration for his first Rebus novel of 1987: Knots and Crosses. It was Rankin who was the first to write officially under the label of Tartan Noir. While he was writing Knots and Crosses, Rankin went to a book signing given by James Ellroy. Ellroy wrote in Rankin’s book: “To Ian, writer of Tartan Noir”.

The Rebus novels now total twenty, with the most recent published in 2016. They have been translated into twenty six different languages, adapted into a long-running early noughties series starring John Hannah and Ken Stott, and routinely sell more than a million copies during the first month of publication in the UK, accounting for more than 10 per cent of crime book sales. They are also inspiration to increasingly important Tartan Noirists Stuart McBride and Val McDermid.

If McIlvanney is the grandfather of Tartan Noir, Ian Rankin is surely its father, says Stuart McBride. “ But while McIlvanney is rightly hailed as the grandfather of Tartan Noir”, he says, “the great-grandfather must be Robert Louis Stevenson. His Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Body Snatcher are as Noir as a Scotsman is thrawn. Flawed protagonists doomed not by fate or outside influences, but by their own weaknesses and desires.”

While they may certainly owe much to historical Scottish fiction, Laidlaw is still considered the start of Tartan Noir, given its pioneering combination of humanism and police procedure. As Doug Johnson of The Guardian says: “His books read like a cliché now, but only because he was the first to do it.” Crime fiction south of the border was still obsessed with a “Golden Age” of traditional, Agatha Christie-style whodunits. McIlvanney, who in the first Laidlaw novel gives the murderer’s identity on page one, calls his books more whydunits than whodunits.

Laidlaw, at that time, was comparable only to American crime literature; specifically the procedural novels of Ed McBain. Of course this is ground McIlvanney shares with Sjöwall and Wahlöö, also fascinated by McBain. Both Jack Laidlaw and Martin Beck are fiercely independent, but both are driven by a strong sense of socialist justice. They are, as Stuart McBride says, “both individuals battling against the system, who can only see the world in terms of black and white when it suits them.”

Both, too, share a strong sense of place, in particular a duality of place. As tourists in The Man on the Balcony enjoy Stockholm’s “Summer of Love”, Beck and his team hunt down a child murderer; similarly, in Knots and Crosses, as thousands of tourists gather for the Edinburgh Festival, Rebus is netting members of the city’s unseen underworld.


 

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