Len Wanner, Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft (Two Ravens Press, 2011)
Review and Extracts
In these intelligent, perceptive, fascinating interviews, Len Wanner reveals both the diversity and the shared concerns of contemporary Scottish crime fiction. His questions probe writers’ creative processes and their views of the genre. On the one hand he focuses in on personal aims, quirks, opinions and writing habits; on the other, he broadens out to engage with such issues as the nature of noir, the turn towards dark crime fiction, the political and moral issues raised by the genre, the Scottishness of Scottish crime fiction.
The collection opens with an extended interview with “the King of Tartan Noir”, Ian Rankin, reflecting on the origins of the label (“Hah! ‘Tartan Noir’ is a term that I’m confident I invented but I gave it to James Ellroy…”) and on why it is so appropriate to the late twentieth-century emergence of some distinctively Scottish variants of crime fiction:
“Tartan Noir – well, there’s no tradition of crime fiction in Scotland but there is a great tradition of quite dark, psychological, Gothic horror stories. Specifically in the ‘70s, I think in Glasgow, there was a move towards a kind of 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 meant 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.”
It is by no means a unified tradition, and Wanner astutely explores the variety apparent in the work of his nine chosen writers: Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Karen Campbell, Neil Forsyth, Christopher Brookmyre, Paul Johnston, Alice Thompson, Allan Guthrie and Louise Welsh. As MacBride says, “Tartan Noir doesn’t exist…You can’t pick up a ‘Tartan Noir novel’ and expect to get the same thing every time. They are just going to be incredibly different” (interview extracts in our featured review).
With the author’s permission, Crimeculture is delighted to present extracts from three of Wanner’s interviews, which we hope will convey something of the liveliness and insightfulness of this excellent collection, available from Amazon. For extracts from numerous other reviews, see Len Wanner’s website, The Crime of it All.
…Do foreign readers expect every Scottish writer to write like Ian Rankin seeing as he’s exported a certain notion of Scottishness?
God bless him.
Sure, why not. But does his success mean that the rest of Scottish crime fiction is marketed according to the terms of ‘Tartan Noir’, whatever that may be?
Tartan Noir doesn’t exist. It’s a very convenient umbrella under which to promote crime fiction that is written in Scotland. It’s another “God bless” – this time James Ellroy for coming up with it. Scottish crime fiction is incredibly varied. You can’t look at it and say it’s all of a ‘type’, because it’s not. It’s all over the genre. It’s a huge spread from very gritty hardboiled stuff like Ray Banks and Allan Guthrie to much gentler styles of crime writing like Alexander McCall Smith and Aline Templeton. You can’t pick up a ‘Tartan Noir novel’ and expect to get the same thing every time. They are just going to be incredibly different. But it’s a wonderful marketing tool to sell the books outside Scotland.
If you read a novel that came without a cover, title or name, do you think you might be able to recognise the writer if he or she were Scottish?
Some writers yes, other writers no.
Well, there are some key parts of the Scottish psyche… They’re not universal, by any means, but there’s quite a black sense of humour that runs through a lot of Scottish life – possibly to do with the weather. We have an extremely healthy disrespect for authority, which probably comes down to our political nationhood over the past 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 or 100 years, possible longer. We are incredibly “thrawn” as a culture. It’s a Scottish word that means that if you tell us to do something we will do exactly the opposite, given the opportunity. That is how we are….