BLOODY SCOTLAND - a report

Written by Calum MacLeod

 

SCOTLAND’S first home grown festival of crime writing started off with a spot of play acting from Lin Anderson and Alex Gray, the godmothers of this particularly friendly criminal gang.

Somewhere in England, multiple train changes away from home, they cast their eyes around and saw a small colony of Scottish crime writers and wondered why they always had to head south of the Border for conventions. After all, if Scottish exile Val McDermid had made a success of Harrogate, couldn’t they do the same a little closer to home?

“It could be the Harrogate of the North.”

“Harrogate is in the North.”

Yes, but Stirling is even further north, diplomatically situated between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on the very faultline that separates Highlands from Lowlands. And with an appropriately bloody history to boot, the battlefields of Bannockburn and Stirling Bridge on its doorstep.

As in Kevin Costner’s film “Field of Dreams” with its promise “if you build it, they will come”, Anderson, Gray and the committee they quickly co-opted built a festival and so they came. Scottish crime writers by the dozen, headlined by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Stuart MacBride, Christopher Brookmyre, Quintin Jardine and Anne Perry (OK, born in England but a long time resident of the eastern Highlands).

Perhaps most significant of all was William McIlvanney, whose novel “Laidlaw” is the cornerstone of Scotland’s crime boom and whose 35th birthday was one of three anniversaries being celebrated at the first Bloody Scotland — 125 years of Sherlock Holmes and 25 of Rebus were the others.

Without “Laidlaw” there would be no Rebus — “the Edinburgh Laidlaw” as he wrote in a dedication to a young would-be writer called Ian Rankin — and without the success of Rankin, publishers would be less inclined to take a chance on Scottish crime writers, so no Scottish crime boom, no Tartan Noir. Simple as that.

Which made it all the more fitting that the two most welcome items of news out of the weekend were that McIlvanney’s books were being re-issued and that he was considering writing a new Laidlaw book.

It was not an exclusively Scottish party, however. Along with Scots living outside Scotland, like the French based Peter May, or non-Scots writing about England, like Ann Cleeves, other star guests included Brighton’s Peter James, Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Norway’s Karen Fossum.

The writers were not the only ones who had travelled far to be there. At the Sherlock Holmes Dinner on Saturday evening my table alone featured crime fans from Alberta and South Carolina.

It was Rankin, back in that opening event, who was tasked to answer that question: “Why Bloody Scotland?”

“Scottish crime fiction is different because there is no tradition of crime writing in Scotland,” he suggested.

“There’s Conan Doyle, but he chose to set books outside Scotland with a detective not recognisably Scottish. even though he was based on one of his lecturers at Edinburgh University.

“We did have thriller writers like John Buchan and Alastair MacLean. I grew up reading Alastair MacLean’s books as a wee boy, but it was 30 years before I realised he was Scottish. You’d think the name might have given it away.”

 

 

The lack of that crime writing tradition — no Miss Marples or Lord Peter Wimseys here — has meant a generation of Scottish writers could create their own crime writing tradition.

“We are catholic with a small ‘c’,” Rankin said.

“We can write about police or private eyes, books set in the past, books set in the future — every type of crime book you can imagine is being written in Scotland and hopefully published.”

By using crime as a backdrop, writers could tackle the big moral questions, but because they were commercial writers they had to be entertaining — and accessible, he continued.

“That’s one of the reasons I wrote my first crime novel, because my father was reading Alistair MacLean,” he said.

“I didn’t want to write Dubliners. I wanted to write something he would read.”

The issue of “sock puppetry” — where certain authors have confessed to using secret identities or “sock puppets” to give themselves glowing reviews and demean their rivals on-line — has been a hot topic in the crime community of late and it was no surprise that it cropped up over the weekend.

Rankin seemed more disappointed than angry that an author would go onto Amazon and write one star reviews of fellow writers he had even appeared beside on festival panels.

“I always thought we were collegiate. We’re a gang. We are the ones the literary establishment don’t want in the room,” he said.

“So when one of your own stabs you in the back it’s so much worse.”

Saturday was Bloody Scotland’s busy day, starting so early that Denise Mina coyly stopped reading an extract from her latest novel ahead of a sexy scene in case there were any children present — yet within minutes she and Peter James were graphically discussing the definition of rape and James regaling his audience with a description of a particularly gory murder scene, entrails and all.

Their session was called “Touching Evil”, but Mina, whose partner is a forensic psychiatrist was sceptical that evil even existed.

“It’s shorthand for something so repulsive we can’t empathise with,” she said and suggested it is not the psychopaths ion the streets we should really be afraid of, but the ones in the boardrooms.

“They can take out hundreds,” Mina warned.

“They shorten lives.”

With three panels simultaneously, two in the Stirling Highland Hotel and one down the hill in the Albert Halls, some tough choices had to be made, so while the main venue paid tribute to Tartan Noir’s founding father McIlvanney, I checked out those at the other end of their career in the Fresh Blood panel, itself a healthily diverse snapshot of Scottish crime with police procedural (Frank Muir), investigative reporter (Anna Smith), historical “cosy-noir” (Sara Sheridan) and political thriller (John Gordon Sinclair) all represented.

 

From new author Sinclair, who is better known as an actor, came a new word.

Deciding to hide a former Irish paramilitary in the USA, he opted for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on the grounds that no-one goes there. Which presented a bit of an issue when it came to research. Rather than opt for becoming “the only tourist in Tuscaloosa”, he opted to do his research via Google Earth.

“I invented a word for it — stroogling, going for a stoll on Google,” he explained.

“My wife would ask me what I’m up to and I’d say: ‘I’m going for a stroogle’.”

Setting her book in the 1950s, Sheridan had other research issues.

“People drank immense amounts, they smoked an awful lot more and were really sexist and really racist,” she pointed out.

“It’s the same world we inhabit, but like a parallel one. It’s like going to a home that we know that’s been re-decorated.”

“Scotland’s Bloody Past” covered three centuries in the space of an hour and suggested that if you want to write Scottish historical crime it helps to be called Mac. Pat McIntosh (15th century), Shirley McKay (16th century) and Shona MacLean (17th century) were hailed by event chair Alan Riach, professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, not just for their attention to period detail, but as “three potential Booker Prize winners”.

Not according to the debate at the Albert Halls, “Would you kill to win the Man Bloody Booker?”, where Rankin and James debated with critic Stuart Kelly and academic Willy Maley on the chances of a crime thriller scooping literature’s best known prize.

By the end of the debate the number of audience members reckoning that couldn’t or shouldn’t happen had actually risen from three to 20.

In “Meet My Alter Ego” where authors were interviewed in the guise of their characters, even the writers admitted they found it was hard keeping a track of who they were or at supposed to be.

But asked how they got on with their creators, former  journalist Tony Black (in the guise of Edinburgh DI Rob Brennan) let out a groan.

“I’m pretty furious with this writer,” he said.

“My marriage is on the skids, I’m living in a bedsit on the most burgled street in Edinburgh. No wonder I’m thinking about going back on the bottle.”

On the other hand, while Borders detective Marjory Fleming could not understand her author Aline Templeton -  a woman who would rather settle down with a book than tramp across the countryside - Detective Sergeant Alice Rice had no complaints about her creator, Gillian Galbraith.

“I think she’s just wonderful,” she gushed.

If being called Mac helps with historical mysteries, then having a beard seems a prerequisite of private eye writers.

Bloody Scotland’s sample featured two authors with characters who pound the mean streets of post-war Glasgow.  “Exactly the sort of environment in which to unleash a lone hero to clear up the mess,” suggested Gordon Ferris, whose 1940s set Brodie books pre-date by a few years Craig Russell’s Lennox series.

Russel D. MacLean, completing the trio, sets his J. McNee books in contemporary Dundee, but maybe he also has an eye to the Golden Age of private eye writing in the mid-20th century.

“It’s almost meant to be a joke — Hammett in Dundee. It doesn’t work,” he said.

“Then I discovered with the protagonist being outside the law you can get to places and do things police can’t.”

And while his colleagues’ decision to set their stories in the past avoided the dangers of a mobile phone, DNA or a computer search making things too easy for their heroes to solve crimes or get out of trouble, MacLean reckons the modern day is challenging enough.

“The modern world is not easier. It’s different,” he said.

Peter May, writing about Lewis, and Ann Cleeves, writing about Orkney, had different challenges in the “Island Crime” session, May pointing out the obvious difficulty in creating an island set crime series when publishers pressed him to follow up the success of “The Blackhouse”,

“On Lewis there’s an average of one murder every 100 years,” May said.

Cleeves’ patch of Orkney is hardly more crime ridden, but as someone who chooses to set her books on Fair Isle (population 70), she commented: “I think readers are prepared to go along with the traditions of crime fiction. Even in a city you would never get as many murders as we write about.”

It was also Cleeves who came up with what might have been the mission statement for the weekend, a statement met with a spontaneous burst of applause.

“I don’t feeldemeaned by being called a crime writer,” she declared.

“I’m a crime writer and I’m proud.”

There was more to come on Sunday: Val McDermid, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Barry Forshaw predicting the “Next Big Thing”, while the would be authors in the “Perfect Pitch” session tried to persuade a panel of publishers and Scotland’s top agent Jenny Brown that's what they might be; supersellers Anne Perry and Quintin Jardine going head to head and Gillian Philip, Cathy MacPhail and Helen FitzGerald catching crime readers young and more.

 

It wound up with (in a reversal of John Gordon Sinclair’s career path) crime writers turning actors for a dramatised reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red Headed League” with Aberdeen's Stuart MacBride taking the Holmes role and a couple of award presentations, including the award for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year, going to spy writer Charles Cumming.

So was Bloody Scotland 2012 to be, as the programme optimistically promised, just the first in an annual celebration of Scottish crime?

Definitely, judging by the well attended sessions and happy participants, both readers and authors.

Some of the latter called it the best run convention they had been to. Even if committee member Gordon Brown (no, not that one) admitted to a certain amount of “swanage — all calm on the surface and frantic splashing underneath.”

As people started to drift away, with three days of intelligent, funny, informative and sometimes downright chilling debate behind them, plans were already being formed for next year.

And it is not as though we have exhausted our supply of crime writers: no  Louise Welsh, Alexander McCall Smith, Paul Johnston, Ray Banks or Edinburgh based Kate Atkinson  this year. The international guest list might also see some writers from further away.

 

However, out of all those taking part this year, it was perhaps Frank (or T.F. to his UK publisher) Muir who impressed most with his determination to become a published crime writer.

“I stopped counting rejection slips when I got to 400,” he announced.

“In the end it was something like 750.”

So don't get downhearted, aspiring authors. You too might be a Bloody Scotland panelist one day.

All picures © Iain McLean   

1. Godfather of Tartan Noir William McIlvanney

2. Ian Rankin, Alex Gray and Lin Anderson spy out some questions from the audience at Friday's opening event

3. Debut author  John Gordon Sinclair (centre) reveals the definition of "stroogle" to chairman Gordon Brown and "cosy-noir" author Sara Sheridan.

4.Cumberbatch and Downey look out: Stuart MacBride is the Great Detective in Bloody Scotland's version of "The Red Headed League".

5. The Perfect Pitchers

Calum Macleod



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