One Scotland, Different Universes: Lasses of Crime

The River Clyde at sunset in Glasgow
The River Clyde at sunset in Glasgow

The Scots share a strong sense of place and identity and a unique culture which flavours their crime writing, though there are marked differences in tone between those writers from the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, or county Fife.  In fact, they’re universes apart, though only 40 miles separate any from the others.

The River Clyde runs through Glasgow, and having one of the deepest basins you’re going to find, it spawned shipbuilding, which was the backbone of the city until the industry dried up broke in the 60s and 70s. You can still see the bitterness of former glory and that sense of betrayal in the eyes of many Glasgow citizens, just like in the steel towns of the U.S. Glasgow folk see themselves as honest, hard-working and loyal, as opposed to Edinburgh, which they view as empty-headed and foppish with its art, literature, and fancy manners. Alex Gray really captures the essence of Glasgow’s people and the city, not neglecting the Scots love of soccer, a love she shares.  Her novel Pitch Black is set in the world of association football, to give soccer its correct name.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
Louise WelshThe Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
is another female writer from Glasgow, who weaves plots which are downright ingenious. One of her excellent offerings, The Cutting Room, is about a gay Glaswegian auctioneer. In Glasgow, with its macho, drinking culture, being gay or not manly is a thing which they associate only with Edinburgh.

To illustrate, here's a real-life scene I once witnessed in a courtroom: The accused denies ever having been in Glasgow. The case is about to collapse when the prosecution brings in the owner of a pub who says the accused was in his establishment on the day in question. When the defence lawyer stands up confidently to cross-examine the witness, he asks how his client could possibly be placed in Glasgow on that day and at the time. The answer still makes me smile. “That’s easy, your honour, I have been running this pub for thirty years, and he is the only man who has ever ordered a sweet sherry!” That is a typical Glaswegian attitude and sense of humour at work. Welsh knew exactly what trouble she was stirring when she created her character.

Denise Mina’s first book was Garnethill . When I read it, I could smell the rubber from the Glasgow buses braking too harshly, as well as the salt and vinegar from the fish-and-chips shops, which all have peaceful names like Sea Paradise, Oceanworld, or Surfview.  Glasgow is nowhere near the sea, and on a Saturday night after the pubs have closed, those spots can be amongst the most violent places on earth. If I ever miss Glasgow, I just pick up a copy of one Mina’s books.

The Wire in Blood by Val McDermid
The Wire in Blood by Val McDermid
Val McDermids sense of place has as much to do with her ability to get inside the minds of the bad guys.  No surprise for me to see she was brought up in Fife, just like Ian Rankin. (Read about what makes Fife and its writers different here.) One of her best is The Wire in the Blood, a gripping thriller that was adapted for the screen with Robson Green playing the main character Dr Tony Hill.

Another example that shows the Edinburgh/Glasgow divide is writer Alanna Knight.  She’s Edinburgh-based, and (therefore?) writes delightful, timeless, thrillers about a nineteenth-century detective named Inspector Faro.

What has J.K. Rowlings work to do with crime writing? For many people, including me, her books are crime thrillers, as well as fantasies, and are very Scottish. The café where she wrote Harry Potter has an excellent view of Edinburgh’s Fettes College, academic home to sons of kings and presidents.  Daughters can be educated there, too, if you can afford fees equaling the gross domestic product of a small country. Many people think Hogwarts is based on Fettes. (The building in the films is exactly like the gothic façade of Fettes.)  The café there has a sign saying this was where J.K.Rowling wrote the Potter books . Further up the road, another café has a sign saying they kicked J.K. Rowling out for being rude over a dispute about a cappuccino. I don’t know if the story’s true, but no matter what part of the country you’re from, it’s universally Scottish to bring people back down to earth.

Learn more about Fife, Edinburgh, and Scotland’s crime writing lads.

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.


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    I have read and enjoyed a large number of books that take place in Ireland. I thank you for introducing me to authors who may easily lure me into Scotland. Your description of their work is intriguing. I shall certainly return to see what the lads are up to. Go Lasses!

  2. Dirk Robertson

    For me, they are top class storytellers. Their work has a real sweet and sour feel to it. They remind me of eating an oyster and finding grains of sand in my mouth…..

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