Capsule Reviews

So you say you want to find out something about Scottish crime writing? Are you sure? Well, you know, there’s quite a lot of it about for a small, miserable country with a population of around 5 million sados wandering about in the dark for seven months of the year. With a rich history of murder and mayhem, it’s a wonder there’s even as many folk as that still alive in the country.

Scottish crime writing is dark but also comical. Douglas Lindsay and his tales of the murdering barber, Barney Thomson, is a particular favourite of mine. Crime writing as dark as the black, black oil that flows from the North Sea is Scotland’s speciality dish, and it’s visceral, warm, thick and sticky with blood running through your fingers as you reach into its dark heart.

There is a commonality of being ‘real’ that links together so many great contemporary Scottish crime writers—Tony Black, Allan Guthrie, Doug Johnstone, to name a few. They all provide great stories and characters but also, and most importantly, social commentary. They draw the reader’s attention to social ills, they turn your face directly to that place that you don’t want to look at, that you’d rather cross the street and ignore. Scottish crime writers point out the dog crap on the street and then rub your nose in it. And although that’s not pretty, it’s good for you.

So who are these wonderful people, what are the books you shouldn’t miss? Well, luckily for you a definitive guide, Tartan Noir by Len Wanner has just been published. It’s so new, I would recommend you don’t eat it all straight away as you’ll definitely end up with heartburn and you’ll never get to sleep without an antacid.

Wanner has a great track record. There isn’t anything this guy doesn’t know about Scottish crime writers as he’s spent the last few years wheedling interviews out of the great and the good and has thrust his pen into the dark heart of this golden age of writing in Scotland.

If you are serious about crime writing, do the right thing and tell Len I sent you.

What does Scottish crime writing have to offer that’s different? If you are a lover of the crime genre then you will have read your fair share of the formulaic, seen it, read it, alcoholic, cigarette eating slouch of a cop. Crap relationship with his ex wife and hasn’t spoken to his children in years. He’s probably having an on/off affair with a divorced woman he works with who wants to ‘emotionally connect’ with him. He only wants a quick shag after another day of no leads and dead ends. Sound familiar? You bet!

If you’re searching for that fresh voice in crime with a mixture of cheeky wit, social realism and dare I say it, political comment, then grab yourself some of David Ross whose debut novel, The Last Days of Disco has just hit the shelves in Bonnie Scotland.

The year’s 1982, and in a dead-end and dying West of Scotland town Bobby Cassidy and his pal Joey think that school’s for mugs and decide that their future lies in starting up a mobile disco that will be sought after for anything from birthday parties to weddings. The fact that they have no money, no equipment and no experience doesn’t deter them, and they set off to ply their trade in the hot spots of Kilmarnock. However, they hadn’t anticipated that they would be standing on the toes of a powerful local gangster who thinks he already has the mobile disco scene sewn up.

That’s enough about the story because if I didn’t like it, I would be pitching it at you. So take my word for it—it’s a cracker. I hate reviews that just summarise the plot—go read the book.

To get back to my original question; why Scottish crime? Well for starters, Scotland’s a vibrant place to live. The people are its strongest asset, not the lochs, mountains and tartan as you may have been led to believe. Scottish people, and I’m talking about the ordinary man and woman on the street, have a way of coping with all the shite that society flings at them. They have an extraordinary black and droll humour that stems from being kicked once too often, picking themself up time and time again, and waiting for that moment of glory that they know will come.

Ross shows this national characteristic off in great style in The Last Days of Disco, choosing to juxtapose the mobile disco scene and gangster violence in the West of Scotland with the arch-enemy of the Scots, Maggie Thatcher, and her 20th Century crusade to save the Falkland Islands from falling into the hands of those nasty foreigners from Argentina.

Argentina in 1978 was almost Scotland’s greatest moment in history, if a late goal by Holland hadn’t sent our national football team home from the World Cup. It broke the nation’s heart and only four short years later Maggie was charging across the Atlantic like a modern-day Boudicea. Ross expertly weaves together the confusion and futility of those jingoistic days with the story of a young lad’s dreams.

So what do you get in a Scottish crime novel? How about an original voice, social comment, politics, darkness, humour, cheek and a look at a wee nation that’s not afraid to stand up to those who’d want to be it’s masters?

—Fiona Johnson

About the Author

Fiona Johnson

Fiona Johnson lives in Argyll, Scotland and writes under the name ‘McDroll’. Her love of all that is dark in Scottish crime writing can be found at ‘I Meant to Read That…’ and while her own short stories also dwell on the darker side of life, a twist of Scottish humour is never far away.

You can follow her blog, and via @mcdroll on Twitter.



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