Len Wanner interviews Scottish Crime Writers
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 below).
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.
An excellent example of that is every time England gets into the world cup or the Rugby final or whatever, there’s this big thing where we’re all told by the BBC that the entire nation is behind England and we all have to support them and how great England’s chances are… And because we’re all thrawn in
Scotland, we go, “Who are they playing against? Brazil? Ah, we like Brazil.” We just don’t like to be told what to do. We like to push back.
I think that comes out a lot in the kind of crime fiction that I could identify easily as Scottish crime fiction.
Does that mentality predispose Scots to crime fiction seeing as the genre is all about the tension between constitutional justice and the protagonist’s sense of right and wrong – how a guy like Rankin’s Rebus will put his career and more on the line…
…because he likes to push back? – Rebus is a perfect example. I mean, there are books that I’ve read and thought, “Rebus is really just being shit because he thinks he’s right.” It’s not because he’s going out to save person A or because he’s on this big crusade – it’s because, as far as he’s concerned, he is right, and he refuses to be proven wrong. Not in all the books, but in some of them it feels to me as if what he’s doing is he’s proving that he’s better and that he’s right: that he’s the man. It’s what makes him so identifiably Scottish.
I probably shouldn’t have said that – I will also say that I do very much admire Ian Rankin’s work.
Don’t we all?
We don’t want the Edinburgh mafia coming after us.
Funny you should mention organised crime. At a recent “Intelligence Squared” debate Stephen Fry was opposing the motion of ‘the Church as a force for good in the world’. He was rejecting the very concept of infallibility and...
…a God given right, perhaps?
If so, isn’t it ironic how pop culture has replaced religious authority only to champion the cause of an individual’s higher sense of what is ethically right?
I don’t know if it’s even connected, to be honest. But of course I’m speaking from an Aberdeen perspective which, according to census records, is the most secular city in Scotland. It has the lowest percentage of people in the UK who proclaim themselves to belong to one religion or another. There are loads of churches, but as a city it’s incredibly unreligious, and has been for a long time. So I possibly have a different perspective on it, having grown up there, than you might do in another part of the UK.
Is there a noun for “thrawn”?
I don’t know, I’ve never really thought too much about… thrawnity?
Pardon me, did you say thrawnitude? That makes it sound like a virtue.
It does. Let’s call it “thrawnitude”!
You know, possibly the difference is between organised religion – which personally I don’t feel is generally a force for good – and disorganised religion which is much more appealing, and which is where the characters like Rebus sit. It’s not part of an organised belief structure; it’s an individual belief structure. I think that might be what makes it more appealing.
We have to trademark “thrawnitude”; that’s a good word.
Whose books can you still enjoy?
Definitely Allan Guthrie. I absolutely love his work. – Zoe Sharp, I like her stuff, even though I picked up one of her books, I think it was Second Shot, and within about 6 or 7 pages she’s introduced this whiny American teenager and I thought, “Ach, Christ, I don’t think I can face reading an entire book about this whingeing little git. Oh well, let’s have a go.” Within 2 chapters I actually cared whether that character lived or died, and I think she does that incredibly well. – Val McDermid. Yeah, I like her. Do your reading preferences reflect a shared writing style?
No. Allan is very much steeped in Noir, he is a proper Noir author. I write Police Thrillers.
How do you define Noir?
I think in Noir your protagonist is doomed from the start, and although there may be the hope of redemption it is small and it’s very rarely realised. It is a rollercoaster to hell and everybody is getting fucked on the way, and not it a good way… They’re not making love on the rollercoaster.
If I were to write a proper Noir novel with Logan I couldn’t write a follow up to it, because he would be dead or he would be irredeemably screwed. That’s the ultimate Noir ending – your point of view character cops it. I think Logan isn’t a doomed character, because he has always been an everyman. He’s just meant to be a normal guy, and the events that he gets drawn into are larger than life and the stakes tend to escalate. That is basically the pattern for a thriller.
He’s not James Bond at the start of it, and he’s not James Bond at the end of it. He is a policeman. In between the books time always passes and things always occur but those aren’t the bits that we want to have a book about. Logan arresting 17 people for car theft or not returning their library books isn’t a novel – it’s just his day job. It’s only when the extraordinary stuff happens that the camera starts rolling.
To what extent do genre conventions constrict you?
To me it’s a battle with the procedure and reality of police investigation. Unless people are killing themselves in the desert and there’s no social structure, there are things you can’t just ignore. So in many ways these generic conventions are actually extra-generic; they’re social. In the end it comes down to the same thing: how much you want to subvert these conventions or stay within them. I’m obviously a member of the subversive faculty but I dare say most writers in this country are not.
The PI tradition, simply because it is rooted in fact, gives you an inherent opportunity to be anti-establishment and individualistic. I certainly try to subvert as many conventions as I can. What you do run up against then is the basic fact that there are only so many stories, plots and ways of telling them. All you’re ever doing really is providing a variation on a theme.
Whose work do you read? Can you say who has most influenced your writing?
Well, it started off with Conan Doyle. Although he’s a Tory and all the rest of it, he possibly unknowingly problematised the darker aspects of Victorian and Edwardian society. Of course there were the opium dens but also some issues about the way women were treated, and his writing is certainly underrated in terms of its darkness and subversion.
Then there were people like Hammett and Chandler. If you’re even vaguely interested in Noir you can’t afford not to pay attention to them. Jim Thompson was a great writer but his view of humanity is such that you’d never want to read more than one of his novels. I like a lot of contemporary Americans, like James Ellroy and James Lee Burke with their curious blend of lyrical violence.
It seems like you might have a shared concern that goes beyond similarities in style andsubject matter, wouldn’t
That might well be the case. I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature. I broadly go along with the traditional Noir position on that, which is that in a certain situation anyone would behave in an illegal way.But, again, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that crime fiction is a recreation for the vast majority of readers. They want a good story with interesting characters.
When you give your readers both, are you allowing them to sound out their own experiences by going through alternative ways of dealing with violence and crime?
I think that process does go on, whether consciously or not. There has been a gradual change over the last 3 decades in terms of how readers view authority figures like police men, judges, politicians and so on. There is a lot less respect for them in a social sense than there used to be and that is obviously reflected in fiction where people accept far greater flaws in their characters as long as they’re seen to be achieving a degree of justice.
I tend to leave a lot hanging because I don’t believe that certain things are susceptible to solutions. A man whose wife is multiply raped and murdered in real life is very unlikely ever to recover from that. In fiction one tends not to find that very often at the end of a novel. That’s where Noir is much more convincing in its conclusions of broken lives that will continue although there may not even be a temporary solution.
I’m broadly sympathetic with that position, which is why I have tried to bring in significant issues rather than providing an easy ride that doesn’t push readers’ ideas of the social and political structures they live in. I think that after the collapse of one’s old-fashioned values, the only way to validate your own existence is by attempting to construct some kind of accessory identity that is within the globalised world and at the same time something personal. I think it’s also true that the genre often offers false solutions to that problem.
To some extent the big questions are being devalued by the fact that they’re asked so often. They’re not shocking anymore, which is another reason to describe violence and be hard-hitting about motivation in order to deal with almost taboo subjects like child abuse or organised sex industries, which are beyond most people’s everyday lives. I think crime fiction can make people face up to that but I do worry about the conservative nature of a lot of it by the end of the story.
It seems like that might explain the post-democratic setting of your Edinburgh series.
Yes, that’s certainly true.
Did you draw on the tension between authoritarian and libertarian societies to highlight conflicts between cultural attitudes to crime?
I did it because those ideas interest me, and because they’re part of the tension in such stories. A lot of people like to think that they are more tolerant of those who bend the rules than they would probably be in real life.
How does that affect the way you write?
You can write about bureaucrats but to make them interesting you have to make them rule benders. That’s actually rather absurd when you’ve got a novel which is about the reacquisition of justice by someone who behaves in many ways that are not on the side of justice. You’ve got two issues there: One is that
the story has to make sense as a story within the confines of what the characters are likely to do, and the other one is the issue of what people want to read.
It may be that people just accept that society is fucked and the world is fucked but it’s still possible to be heroic. I think a lot of people want to find something gold underneath the layers of shit that are modern society. That’s also one of the things that worry me about crime fiction though: the effect it can have on the reader… if it all works in a fantasy world then I feel better about the real world. I mean, I love the genre and am fascinated by
it, but there’s much more to life than that.
Isn’t it interesting, though, that your concern has an old tradition in Scotland?
I see where you’re heading with that, but one thing that you have to bear in mind is that lots of Scottish crime fiction doesn’t particularly provide social analysis. A lot of it is traditional crime fiction seen through Scottish lenses if you like, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would argue that there are more Scottish crime writers who are interested in social issues than maybe in, well, I’m not going to say Britain, because it would sound anti-English, but you know what I mean.
How about the cultural context of Tamburlaine Must Die?
That’s probably the most researched book just necessarily because it was about Marlowe.
Were you aware of the literary controversy that surrounds Marlowe and his death when you started out?
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 had been very interested in Marlowe. We talked a lot about Marlowe and then I went to see just about every version of Doctor Faustus that I could see in Glasgow… really, really loved it and that was a 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 that there were people who said that Marlowe had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I didn’t realise they actually had the society and were so serious about it. If I had, who knows, it might have put me off, it might not have.
Instead you wrote Tamburlaine Must Die, a novel that has become a perfect example of how crime fiction can raise awareness of a cultural phenomenon that few even know about and most would say is beyond the genre’s reach. Were you politically motivated at all?
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, distrust – whatever you want to call it – of outsiders, of immigrants… that was the idea but it’s very much embedded; it’s not at the front of the book but nevertheless that concern that I had and still have I think is there somehow.
I was very worried about writing a false history, as well, because I studied history at university and I was a really bad student. I think this is where the little essay at the end… because I thought, “No, if I put a bibliography in it suggests that this is a learned book.” So I said, “I got a lot of information from this book and this 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. Any interested reader, all we have to give them is three books; they’ll find their own bibliography.
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.
It seems that your modest approach of enthusiastic discovery makes your subject matter a lot more accessible. Seeing as you engage readers with this time and place you also give it greater relevance than the abstract value previously arrogated to Marlowe’s legacy. On a separate note, the underdog Marlowe seems like an authentic voice for a Scot writing about English literature. As someone who has made it into the public square and the university campus, how do you feel about your shared role of the literary underdog?
In a way I quite like it actually. Obviously I want to sell books and I’ve been really lucky. But if there’s an outsider in literature I’d rather be with that outsider, I’d rather be with the person in the street, and I think maybe that’s why there’s a little snobbishness about crime fiction because it is the books that, as you say, everybody hopefully feels empowered to pick up. It doesn’t mean that they’re not well written; it doesn’t mean that they don’t have intelligent points. But everybody seems empowered to lift them off the shelf, and that’s where I want to be; I’m much more comfortable there. I wouldn’t want to put myself in opposition to literary fiction, but I don’t want to write books where nothing happens.
What kind of books do you want to write?
I want to make people feel something. Yeah, I want to give my reader an experience. But I don’t have a writing manifesto. I don’t think there’s a right way to do it and that I’ve found the right way.
That experience you want to give your reader, is that partly an experience of where the author is from, the home you have known in your life outside the books?
I think a strong sense of place is really, really important in my fiction. I think it’s important for me as the writer to get there, to experience it and to feel it, and hopefully it enhances the reader’s experience as well. And I live in Scotland and it’s the country that I know best. I do still think that I’ll set things elsewhere.
Tamburlaine Must Die is set in London. In The Bullet Trick, as we said, he goes to Berlin. The next book that I’m thinking of writing I’m not sure it’ll be set in Scotland; I might just turn my back on it for a book.
Do you think you could turn your back on more than just the place?
I think as Scots we’ve always travelled widely. Maybe a Scotsman abroad is more identifiable than a Scottish person at home… So I’m not sure about that.
Given the number and variety of Scottish crime writers, are you comfortable in their company?
Oh yeah. I’m really happy with that both in person and on the shelf. I think people are actually pretty nice to each other. Within Scotland and that crime community – if you can call it that – it’s not like you see people terribly often but when you do it’s really nice. I get a real feeling that people want to pull somebody else up with them. If they can help someone out, especially a new person, then they will. That’s certainly been my experience; people have always been very welcoming, very nice – and fun. I don’t know if other genres are like that but I’m very happy to be included in all of that.