4 de juliol de 2016

Tartan Noir tales are no retreat to a fantasy land

[The National, 4 july 2016]

Chris Dolan

SOME years ago James Kelman railed against the rise of Tartan Noir which he believed to be an essentially commercial industry. I would argue that Scotland’s crime writers have something to say and reading them this summer, in the wake of the Brexit victory, is not just a retreat into fantasy. Scottish Noir often is and has been politically motivated and ethically complex.
There were Scottish crime writers before William McIlvanney but most would agree it was he who first assembled the ingredients of the genre. His Laidlaw novels are brilliant social commentaries. They are searching, enraged, politically and ethically astute works of high literature. McIlvanney adopted the genre because he saw in it a vehicle to investigate who we are, as individuals and in our communities, our nation. A space in which the writer can be thoughtful about crime and the causes of crime, and to reflect on how we can heal ourselves. Perhaps ironically, most Scottish crime genre writers list not only McIlvanney but James Kelman high on source reading lists with the idea of writing as engagement, the obligation an artist has to understand the forces at play in our society and reflect and challenge them honestly and directly.
The influences go further back to, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Douglas Brown, the latter for his unflinching barbed humour and monitoring of the minutiae of Scottish life. From Stevenson, we learn how to combine a captivating yarn with a radical vision of the individual in society. Jekyll and Hyde and many of his short stories confront the perceived duality at the heart of Scottish, perhaps all, life. Crime, in fiction as well as in life, is never simply Good versus Bad.
But Scottish noir is not an insular tradition. There are voices from different places and times that chime with us. To take just one example, I’ve noticed that Dashiell Hammett’s name crops up regularly when crime writers get together. A member of the US Communist Party, tried and arrested for his activities in the Civil Rights Congress, imprisoned for refusing to reveal names of other left wingers, Hammett’s engagement, both in his work and his life, is an important stimulus.
Val McDermid once said that crime fiction is left wing and thrillers right wing. This isn’t the place to go into the multiple subgenres, from procedurals to domestic noir. Her point, I think, is that while there are novels that are all bang-bang, shoot-shoot and who cares about the who or why, most Scottish crime fiction is acutely aware that crimes are committed by people against people. There are social consequences and societal causes for crime.

In the last few Scottish crime novels I’ve read the authors have confronted misogyny, the 1984 miners’ strike, and the total breakdown of civilisation. I adapt Rankin’s Rebus novels for Radio 4. In the last one Rankin tackles private education, and in Fleshmarket Close, which I’m working on now, he examines the effects of immigration.
But it’s across the entire Rebus series that a brutally honest, if very male picture of modern, changing, Scotland emerges. For a feminist angle on our troubles and our hopes, Scotland produces some of the best women crime writers of the era. Read Denise Mina and Louise Welsh, to mention just two, and you get more than satisfying, well-crafted stories; you get a handle on what is happening in our world, and where it might go catastrophically wrong if we’re not careful (and if we’re not too late already).
Scottish noir is an arena in which lively, even hard-boiled, discussion and argument takes place. Not all of us agree on the Scottish referendum but the debate, already being reflected in fiction, is informed and engaged. There will be divergence of opinion on what happens now after the Brexit vote. I do not share Allan Massie’s politics but his Bordeaux novels are meditations on moral decisions and their consequences. There is no Scottish noir “establishment”.
Crime writers might not be the go-to people to save Scotland and Europe from impending tragedy, but they have as much to add to the discourse as other artists. And while there are those who consider Tartan Noir pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap commercialism, the flipside is that it can reach parts of our society that others can’t. Most Scottish crime writers have something to say and, as McIlvanney himself once commented, it’s best to be where the readers are.

Chris Dolan’s new novel, Lies of the Land, is published by Vagabond Voices, £9.95

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