CIS: The classics of Tartan noir

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Scottish crime fiction has a long and lustrous history. Whether set in Scotland or written by Scots there is a wealth of classics from which to choose. Our feature includes some of the earliest examples as well as modern works by still-active authors – all classics worthy of the name. It’s hard to believe that Laidlaw is now 40 years old and Ian Rankin brought us Rebus a full 30 years ago. Rankin, Val McDermid and others can now mark their careers in decades. It’s important to recognise their contribution to Scottish classic crime fiction alongside the greats of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan. Summer is waning, the nights are drawing in, so hack a wedge of peat to throw on the fire, pour yourself a dram, and tuck up with a gem from this collection of classics.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (1977)
It would be tough to have a list of Scottish crime classics without a nod to the grandad of Tartan noir. Now 40 years old McIlvanney’s Glasgow detective Laidlaw has all the right qualities. He is flawed, fights with his superiors, but still holds himself to his own moral standards. We all know the archetype. As Raymond Chandler said, a detective should be “…a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” Laidlaw is those things, and as much as William McIlvanney was influenced by Chandler, many Scottish authors have followed in his footsteps while few have quite reached his level.
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Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Ian Rankin has said that it took him time to grow into Rebus and has expressed gratitude to his publisher for continuing to back him through the early books. His craft grew and Rebus blossomed. Black and Blue is the eighth Rebus novel and Rankin blends the true crime tale of the infamous Bible John with a modern copycat killing police procedural. It deservedly won the CWA Gold Dagger. It’s a dark, multi-stranded tale that showcases Rebus, and Rankin, now hitting his stride. Scottish crime fiction wouldn’t be the same without Rebus.
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The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
Buchan himself described his book as a ‘shocker’ in the sense of its dramatic and sensational style that left readers on the edge of the believable but still in thrall to the page. This classic Scottish novel has played a hand in the development of the modern thriller and has been the basis of several films. It follows the exploits of Richard Hannay, recently returned from Rhodesia and struggling to settle into life out of Africa. He meets Scudder, who soon ends up dead and Hannay takes off when wrongly accused of his murder. It’s the original chase novel that has Hannay fleeing to Scotland pursued, at times, by that iconic and mysterious plane. Click here for more.
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The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (2004)
Val McDermid is a giant of crime fiction deserving of inclusion in any list of Scottish crime fiction greats. We recently reviewed her 30th novel, Insidious Intent. But which one to pick as a classic? The Tony Hill series forms the backbone of an astonishing body of work but that is based in England. Better to look to Scotland, and The Distant Echo is a carefully woven tale set in Fife – first in the Karen Pirie series. Four men stumble over a woman, raped and dying, in 1978. The police pick up the cold case and the aftermath tumbles through the years. Val McDermid was writing coruscating psychological thrillers long before the current vogue for that sub-genre.
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Garnet Hill by Denise Mina (1998)
Denise Mina may have her tongue lodged in her cheek when styling her Twitter handle as @DameDeniseMina but she can certainly lay claim to being a member of Scottish crime writing aristocracy. She has grown in stature since Garnet Hill fanfared her arrival in 1998 and garnered her a CWA New Blood Dagger. Garnet Hill follows Maureen O’Donnell, a survivor of sexual abuse, who is wrestling with her mental health. She wakes up next to the dead body of her therapist and lover, Douglas. His throat has been cut. A superb novel with a cast of colourful Glaswegians unfolds as Maureen tries to prove her innocence and shed her mantle of victimhood.
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Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
How about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? With murders and its exploration of good and evil it is classic crime fiction territory. However, Kidnapped has better credentials as a Scottish classic. Initially written as a boys’ novel it is still lauded for its enthralling narrative with a deeper study of the conflicted Scottish character. It is based on bloody historical events in the 18th century around the time of the Jacobite rising. David Balfour is just 17 years old when he finds himself trussed up in the hold of a ship. With the help of the Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart “a condemned rebel, and a deserter” they make their escape across sea and the Highlands. It has been adapted for film and television no less than eight times.
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The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (2002)
Another remarkable debut and a brutal portrait of Glasgow, a dark and Gothic one, as auctioneer Rilke searches for the truth behind some apparent snuff pornography unearthed in a house clearance. We follow the predatory homosexual Rilke as he stalks the streets, in Irvine Welsh’s words, like a “walking cadaver”. Literary, graphic but not prurient, atmospheric and grimy, it might not be to everyone’s tastes but Welsh’s unique voice is obvious and screams off the page. It also took the CWA New Blood Dagger in 2002 and Welsh was firmly planted in everyone’s minds as a Scottish talent to watch.
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We’ve interviewed both Val McDermid and Ian Rankin on our site, and for more Scottish crime fiction click here.

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