When I started writing Bloody January I wanted to write about Glasgow and I wanted to write a book about the different kind of people who lived there in the early seventies. A crime story seemed to be the best way to explore the different levels of society, from homeless people living on the streets to the landed Gentry in their huge houses in the country. The rich and the poor of Glasgow only really seemed to interact when sex, drugs or violence were involved so it made sense for the central character to be a detective and the story to be about him trying to solve a crime that connected both halves of the city.
So I ended up writing a ‘Tartan Noir’. Definition seems to be pretty broad but mostly they are novels set in Scotland containing some element of crime in the plot. Here are five of my favourites. All of them different, all of them saying something about the moral complexity of the people who commits crimes and the people who try and solve them.
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
This book is about as far from the Taggart view of crime in Glasgow as you can get. It’s mysterious, sexually loaded, set in the world of an auctioneer and his discovery of what may be a collection of snuff photographs. It’s a great novel that approaches the consequences of crime from an oblique and individual angle.
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin
All the Rebus novels are great but this is my personal favourite. It’s a book written by someone who knows exactly what they are doing, smart, referential and exciting. The different strands of the story weave together perfectly and Rebus is even more cantankerous and entertaining out his home town comfort zone. If you haven’t read it you are missing out big time.
The Papers of Tony Veitch by William McIlvanney
McIlvanney is actually quite a strange crime writer. His books have more in common with modernist novels in the European Tradition than with conventional crime novels. His lonely and alienated man just happens to be a cop. It’s also a book about Glasgow and about how it has begun to change, how the sands are shifting under Laidlaw’s feet. It’s his real masterpiece I think.
Exile by Denise Mina
This is the second novel of the Garnethill trilogy. The trilogy deals insightfully with the people crime novels don’t often deal with well. It has at its centre marginalized people, principally women, people for whom daily existence is a struggle in itself. The depiction of characters trapped and destroyed by poverty and bad decisions is as important for the novel as the crime narrative itself. Exile is almost twenty years old now and sadly the problems it deals with don’t seem to have abated any.
No Mean City by H Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur
By most standards this is a terrible book. A lurid potboiler dealing with the rise and fall of a Razor King in the Gorbals of the twenties. Having said that I can’t think of many books I enjoyed more when I read it. If you were being difficult you could argue pretty convincingly that it’s this book, not Laidlaw, that is the real first ‘Tartan Noir’. Would get my vote…
What’s your favourite tartan noir novel? Let us know in the comments below!
Bloody January by Alan Parks is out now. Listen to the book’s accompanying playlist here.