By Lloyd Sachs
10:18 PM EDT, April 26, 2013
As proudly reported in Scottish Life magazine, a British think tank called the New Economics Foundation recently determined that the Scots are the happiest people in Britain, boasting some of the most impressive "wellbeing" scores anywhere. Exactly why this is, no one seems sure. Does Scotland's rugged natural beauty make people feel better, as the magazine suggested? Is it the sound of the bagpipes? The freedom men experience wearing skirts?
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Whatever the reason, if Scots are so "chirpy," as Edinburgh's Scotsman newspaper put it, why is there such grisly violence and deep psychological distress in their crime fiction? And why is crime fiction this bonnie land's favorite genre to begin with?
With the release of new books by four of the top practitioners of "Tartan Noir," the best school of detective fiction of recent years, there may be no better time to ask these questions.
Psychological thrillers don't get any darker than those of Denise Mina, a onetime criminology teacher who made her reputation a dozen years ago with the harrowing "Garnethill" trilogy and sets a new personal standard with the quietly unsettling "Gods and Beasts." Her third book featuring female Detective Sergeant Alex Morrow, it deals with the aftermath of an oddly played out post office robbery in which an elderly bystander is perforated with an AK-47.
Ian Rankin's John Rebus, the most popular of Scottish investigators, is back after a brief retirement of three novels — not as a detective, but a civilian cold case consultant — connecting the dots between missing young women in "Standing in Another Man's Grave."
Stuart MacBride, a lesser-known talent in the U.S., is seeking to raise his profile here with two new books. In "Birthdays for the Dead," his first featuring Detective Constable Ash Henderson, a psychopath kidnaps girls on the eve of their 13th birthday and marks the occasion every year by sending increasingly horrific photos of them to their fathers. The first of those girls to get snatched was Henderson's. And "Close to the Bone," MacBride's eighth Logan McRae novel (out next month), gets off to a cheery start when a man is "necklaced": chained to a stake, wedged into a tire (they spell it tyre) and set on fire.
And then there's the prolific Val McDermid, whose "The Retribution," her latest thriller featuring profilers Dr. Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan, was published last year. It boasts a sicko serial killer from their past who makes their lives miserable again: "Vance dragged the knife across his throat and at once there was blood everywhere. He stepped back and flipped the man on his back. The blood sprayed and foamed and fountained from the carotid arteries, driven higher and faster by...."
Well, you get the idea.
The rub is, the grimmer these novels get, the edgier the gallows humor in them becomes, and the more the fiercely independent investigators thumb their noses at authority. The alcoholic, chain-smoking, chronically insubordinate Rebus is the king of incorrigibility. The bantering McRae, rising above a chattering ensemble, suffers no fools. Alex Morrow processes the violence and corruption around her with a finely honed cynicism. And the perpetually tormented Tony Hill copes by existing in his own eccentric world.
Maybe any attempt to figure out why the Scots are so chirpy should begin here: When you can deflect the worst that life has to offer with a wisecrack or a sneer — like the 60-year-old man who won a 2012 Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award for refusing to vacate his land so Donald Trump could build a golf course on it — how can you not be happier than ordinary folk?
"We always find a way to laugh, even if it's sick or dark," said McDermid. "That's what happens when Presbyterian guilt and shame is crossed with Gaelic song and dance, which happens in our culture."
"We have a word here, thrawn," said MacBride. "We're desperately thrawn people. It means obstinate, contrary. It's a guiding principle in the Scot psyche that if you tell us to do one thing, we'll do another. We don't react well to authority."
The Scots' piss and vinegar, manifested in brash street language, contrasts with the sobriety of the Scandinavian crime writers who have dominated the genre since the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. When you think of Swedish mystery legend Henning Mankell's Wallander, acclaimed Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur or any number of imitators, you think of dour, isolated individuals struggling to get through the day. (Not that this bridge is uncrossable for Mina, a onetime resident of Norway who is working on a graphic novel adaptation of the "Dragon Tattoo" novels.)
As close-knit as the Scottish crime writers are, though, it would be a mistake to stereotype them. Rebus' Old Testament morality — "Once you've sinned, you are ever a sinner in his view," said Rankin — is very different from the pragmatic code Morrow follows, having a gangster for a half-brother. And the books strongly reflect the particularities of their settings.
Rankin's Edinburgh is a smallish city with no guns, a low murder rate and a personality split between old urban sprawl and new geometrically designed downtown. Mina's Glasgow is, like Chicago, a broad-shouldered onetime industrial center with shady politics. MacBride's Aberdeen, in northeast Scotland, is defined by its granite composition and frequent changes in weather. "On sunny days, the place sparkles and the people are uplifted," he said. "When it's gray and overcast, the place just sinks."
The Oxford-educated McDermid, who grew up in the town of Kirkcaldy on Scotland's east coast, now divides her time between Manchester, England, where she worked as a reporter, and a small seaside town in Northumbria. (She crossed over into England, she said, when it became impossible for her to live as an open lesbian in Scotland.)
Strongly influenced by Chicago mystery writer Sara Paretsky, she has written three series: one featuring Glasgow reporter Lindsay Gordon, a lesbian; one with wisecracking Manchester detective Kate Brannigan, and the Tony Hill novels, which are set in the fictional West Yorkshire city of Bradfield. "A Place of Execution," her standalone 1999 masterpiece about a missing 13-year-old girl, is set in an isolated hamlet in Derbyshire.
In Scotland, as in the U.S., crime fiction has struggled for respect. In America, it got a momentous boost in 1971 when revered Southern writer Eudora Welty, in the lead review in the New York Times Book Review, praised Ross Macdonald's "The Underground Man" as "exhilaratingly well done" and "very moving." In Scotland, novelist William McIlvanney changed people's attitudes toward the genre when he moved from writing "serious" prize-winning literary fiction with a blue-collar bent to crime novels that dealt with moral and social issues, beginning with "Laidlaw" (1971).
"He made it 'all right' for me to try writing crime fiction," said Rankin. "If Willie wrote it, then it was literature and not the child of a lesser god."
While the Scots were reinventing crime fiction in their own terms, the Brits were largely confining themselves to village mysteries and police procedurals. The sheer range of Scottish mysteries is pretty overwhelming. Among the books Rankin singled out were Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, set in Botswana; Christopher Brookmyre's satirical Glaswegian thrillers (and more recent procedurals with drama student turned private eye Jasmine Sharp), and British-born Edinburghian Kate Atkinson's series with P.I. Jackson Brodie.
Three other contemporary writers leaving a deep personal imprint on Scottish crime fiction are Edinburgh noir specialist Allan Guthrie ("Kiss Her Goodbye," "Slammer"), whose deadpan intensity and rat-a-tat dialogue could have been influenced by American master Elmore Leonard; Louise Welsh, whose quietly nasty, attention-grabbing 2002 debut, "The Cutting Room," winkingly describes Edinburgh as ''a peaceful wee haven," and Peter May, whose new Isle of Lewis trilogy featuring Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is set in the Outer Hebrides.
For Mina, political passion is the glue that bonds all the writers together. "To be taken seriously, you have to be politically engaged," she said. Paddy Meehan, the girl reporter who comes of age in "The Field of Blood" (2005), "The Dead Hour" (2006) and "Slip of the Knife" (2007), is a study in empowerment. Alex Morrow makes a political statement in "The End of the Wasp Season" (2010), the middle novel of the series, by remaining in pursuit of brutal killer while seriously pregnant with twins, neither using it as an excuse to slow down nor letting it hamper her work.
"In Scotland, we had lots of discussions about identity, about what kind of country we wanted to be as we moved forward," said McDermid. "The crime novel was a way to talk about society." Her 2003 novel, "The Distant Echo," in which a Scottish town is torn apart by an investigation into an unsolved murder, dissects the tribalism created by class distinctions.
"Crime fiction is received differently, read differently, than other kinds of fiction," said Mina. Judging by the national mood in Scotland, it's being read in the best way possible.
Lloyd Sachs, a regular contributor to Printers Row Journal, blogs at jazzespress.com.
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