Sat
May 21 2011 11:00am

One Scotland, Different Universes: Lads of Crime

Edinburgh sunsetIf you read the previous post about Scotland’s great female crime writers, you learned a bit about Glasgow especially.  Now, we’ll cover the lads with Edinburgh and county Fife.

Ian Rankin, in particular, comes from Fife, which is the Scottish equivalent of New Jersey and actually has more connection to Chile, through mining, than much of mainland Scotland. They don’t suffer fools gladly. Many people I know from Fife were born in Chile and were given refuge after fleeing persecution from the Pinochet regime. They brought with them a tradition of group storytelling and poetry reading, often with a political angle. Rankin brings a resonance of that part of Scotland to his work. Inspector Rebus has a “Fife” tone to him.

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall SmithDespite living much of his life in Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith, by contrast, is a fine example of the civilized Edinburgh gentleman. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, which gave him international prominence, are set in Africa, but much of his recent work is Scotland-based. 

44 Scotland Street, a collection of daily stories serialized in The Scotsman newspaper for six months, was set in an Edinburgh street of the same name.  Afternoon tea and shortbread, twitching curtains as prying eyes view the outside world with a mixture of curiousity, disdain and fear. He perfectly captures the feeling that nothing is quite what it seems on its pleasant surface.

Trainspotting by Irvine WelshIrvine Welsh’s writing is all wide-eyed violence, drugs, AIDS, and the teeming underbelly of a city with the largest housing project in Western Europe. It is also an accurate description of Edinburgh. Therein lies the fascinating reality. McCall Smith’s Edinburgh of lawyers, doctors , and pinched smiles is the same city as the one Welsh writes about.  These Edinburghs usually only touch in incendiary tales of intrigue and double-crossing, when people from opposite sides of the city try to enter the other side’s world. When Irvine Welsh reads his own work, it is magnetic, and he becomes the characters from his books.  I think that is what Welsh and McCall Smith have in common with each other and all the best Scottish crime writers. Despite the differences between the Scotlands they iwrite about, there is very little distance between the essential elements of their stories and who each of them is.  

Let us not forget the most notable Scottish crime writer of all: Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, who penned the most famous detective ever. Though an Edinburgh resident, he was actually of Irish stock.  The yarns are rattling good tales, and popular doesn’t begin to describe them.  Conan Doyle received death threats when he had Sherlock Holmes killed in a fight with Professor Moriarty.  That’s what I call a passionate readership. He had to bring Holmes back, which he did, as a pre-Reichenbach version of the sleth in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”   There is a statue in Edinburgh, deerstalker hat, monocle, the works. People passing all think it is Sherlock Holmes. It is only when they read the nameplate that they see it is actually Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle.  He’s been made close to his characters, too.


Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish. His next book, The Politics of Murder (The X-Press UK/US) will be published July 31, 2011.                                        

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2 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
Looks as though the lads certainly rival the lasses. I would love to read some of Alexander McCall Smith's material set in Scotland.

More for the TBR list.

And how could I have forgotten that Conan Doyle was a Scot??
Dirk Robertson
2. DirkRobertson
The best example is his work in "The Scotsman" newspaper, "44 Scotland Street." If you contact them directly you may be able to access some of the previous work. Well worth it!
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