Scotland, the capital of crime fiction (or ‘which Scottish authors you should read right now’)

For a small country with a population of 5.4 million Scotland sees an awful lot of murders.

Luckily most of them are fictional. In 2018-19 Scotland had around 60 homicides which is too many but I suspect there were a lot more in crime novels based here and published over that time.

Arguably the father of fictional crime was Edinburgh born, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes though he was, of course, famously based at 221b Baker Street in London. However, Holmes was based on Scots surgeon Joseph Bell, who taught Conan Doyle when he was training to become a doctor in the 1870s.

Arthur Conan Doyle and a depiction of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Both images are in public domain

Bell was renowned for his powers and observation and deduction and the following account is an example of how he worked.

“Well, my man,” Bell said, after a quick glance at the patient, “you’ve served in the army.”

“Aye, sir,” the patient replied.

“Not long discharged?”

“No, sir.”

“A Highland regiment?”

“Aye, sir.”

“A non-com officer?”

“Aye, sir.”

“Stationed at Barbados?”

“Aye, sir.”

So how did Bell work this out? The answer was simple.

“You see, gentlemen, the man was a respectful man but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian’s ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantiasis, which is West Indian and not British, and the Scottish regiments are at present in that particular island.”

Conan Doyle later wrote to Bell acknowledging his debt.

“It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes … round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man,” he said.

Fast forward to 2020 and, as I write, one of the best-selling books in the UK is Ian Rankin’s newly published John Rebus novel, Song For The Dark Times.

Author Ian Rankin. Photo authorised for publication

It is Rankin’s 23rd novel about the maverick detective who made his first appearance in 1987 in Knots & Crosses. The Rebus series is now translated into 22 languages and are best sellers all over the world. Two different TV series have been based on the novels with John Hannah and Ken Stott playing Rebus and a third is in the pipeline.

Rankin has also written a book about the places which have provided inspiration for his novels, Rebus’s Scotland. Most of the action in Rebus takes place in Edinburgh but he does go further afield and in the latest novel the story is divided between the capital and Naver, a fictional remote village in the north of Scotland.

Rankin is one of the best-known Scottish crime novelists but there are a number of other high-profile names associated with the genre which has become known as ‘Tartan Noir’.

Val McDermid, who like Rankin was born in the Fife region, has also enjoyed phenomenal success with her crime novels which fall into four main series. The books featuring clinical psychologist Tony Hill and Detective Inspector Carol Jordan were used for the TV series Wire in the Blood.

Author Val McDermid. Image KT Bruce.

Her other leading characters are Inspector Karen Pirie who is based in Fife, Scottish journalist Lindsay Gordon and Manchester based private investigator Kate Brannigan.

McDermid was a bright child and was offered a place at St Hilda’s College at Oxford University when she was just 16. After leaving university she trained as a journalist and her work included covering the notorious Yorkshire Ripper case and the aftermath of the Moors murders. But in the mid-1980s as newspapers started focusing on entertainment news and she was sent to sit outside a soap opera star’s house to see who came out of the back door she decided to pursue a career as a novelist.

Her first successful novel Report for Murder was published in 1987 and she has finished her 40th.

In an article for McDermid wrote about the rise of ‘tartan noir’ which she says got started in the late 1970s when established novelist William McIlvanney wrote his first crime novel, Laidlaw.

She said Laidlaw – centred on detective Jack Laidlaw –  was the first detective story she had read where the people, including the police, spoke in ‘the vernacular of the streets.’ McIlvanney did not pull any punches in describing the reality of life in working class Glasgow.

McDermid argued that it was a genre that was ‘designed specifically for our dark winter skies and the dour Presbyterian side of our national character.’

Another very successful Scottish crime novelist is Denise Mina whose characters include journalist Paddy Meehan, Detective Inspector Alex Morrow and former psychiatric patient Maureen O’Donnell who was featured in her first novel Garnethill in 1998.

Denise Mina, author. Image from Denise Mina, authorised to be used in this post.

Two of the Meehan books were adapted for the BBC TV series The Field of Blood. Most of the action for her novels takes place in Glasgow.

In an interview in the Guardian Mina said that crime writing is being taken quite seriously now.

“A lot of people who used to write literary fiction are now writing crime,” she said. “Labels are just marketing ploys – Crime and Punishment is a crime novel.”

But not every author fits neatly into any category and one great Scottish example is Chris Brookmyre, whose novels combine comedy, satire and social comment with crime.

Investigative journalist Jack Parlabane is one of his regular characters appearing in eight novels including his debut Quite Ugly One Morning in 1996.

Recently he wrote the period novel The Way of all Flesh set in 19th century Edinburgh with his wife Dr Marisa Haetzman under the pseudonym Ambrose Parry.

Aberdeen is the main location for Stuart McBride’s books featuring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae. Before becoming a writer, McBride studied architecture but hated it, then worked offshore in the oil and gas industry and finally went into the IT industry rising to become a project manager for an Information technology conglomerate. By then he had written his first novel Cold Granite which was published by HarperCollins in 2005 and he became a full-time writer.

Interestingly one of the most successful series of novels based in Scotland was written by an English novelist, Ann Cleeves. Her eight Shetland novels have not only become bestsellers, but a very popular TV series starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. In 2018 she said Wild Fire would be her last Shetland novel but the TV series is continuing using her characters.

Ann Cleeves. Official picture of the author, authorised to be published in this post.

Cleeves worked for two seasons at the Bird Observatory on the Fair Isle when she dropped out of university and has been going back to Shetland ever since.

In an interview for the BBC Cleeves said isolated places like Shetland are perfect for a crime story.

“As a policeman on Shetland said to me, (and I gave the line to Perez) ‘There is nobody coming over the horizon’. They have to deal with a major crime on their own – and if the weather is bad, the cavalry might not turn up.”

Another series of her crime novels centred around north east England based detective inspector, Vera Stanhope, has also been made into a TV series.

Author Louise Welsh is also English but has made her home in Glasgow. The Cutting Room, published in 2002 won the Crime Writers’ Association Creasey Dagger for the first best crime novel.

Author Louise Welsh. Image by Louise Welsh, authorised for this blog post.

One of the most prolific Scottish crime writers is Quintin Jardine who has written more than 45 novels since 1993. The majority of them are about the fictional chief constable of Edinburgh Bob Skinner. Before becoming a full-time novelist Motherwell-born Jardine worked as a journalist, political information officer and media relations consultant.

Fans of Scottish crime fiction now get the chance to meet the writers at the annual Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing festival held in Stirling.

It was founded by crime novelists Lin Anderson and Alex Gray in 2012.

Greenock born Anderson, whose father was a detective in the CID has written 18 novels with 15 of them featuring forensic scientist Rhona Macleod. Before becoming a full-time novelist, Anderson taught maths and computing at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. She is a huge fan of the film Braveheart and has also written a book about the making of it.

Glasgow born Gray was also a teacher and wrote her first novel, Never Somewhere Else, in 2002 with lead character Detective Chief Inspector William Lorimer.

The festival has gone on from strength to strength and fellow novelists Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown have joined the organisers who help to showcase hundreds of new and established crime writers.

Robertson is another journalist turned novelist and has written nine novels since making his debut with Random in 2010.

Brown was in marketing before publishing his first novel Falling in 2009. His eleventh novel Thirty One Bones came out this year under the authorship of his pseudonym, Morgan Cry.

My research found some 64 Scottish more or less contemporary crime novelists and I will cover others in a future blog but I cannot finish without mentioning former policeman Denzil Meyrick.

I bought his first novel Whisky From Small Glasses when he published it in 2012 and he has since written seven more books featuring Detective Chief Inspector Jim Daley and set in the fictitious Kinloch which is based on Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula.

It is written with dark humour and is just one of those books you can’t put down.

Once you have read all the above authors – plenty of time for that this winter I am guessing – you can follow in the footsteps of Daley, Rebus, Pirie, Skinner, Parlablane, Macleod, Perez, Morrow, Meehan, Lorimer, and Laidlaw by coming to Scotland.

And you never know. It might inspire you to write your own crime novel!


Featured image: Scottish authors, all pictures authorised to by the authors themselves to be published in this post.


About the Author:
Alasdair Northrop is a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide and qualified in 2014. He does a variety of work ranging from driver guiding to walking tours and has a wide range of interests. Before becoming a guide,  Alasdair was an award-winning journalist and edited Scotland’s national business magazine for 15 years. He recently wrote the history of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association which is available as an ebook on Amazon.  You can find more about Alasdair on his Guild profile or on his website