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Dead Sharp: Scottish Crime Writers on Country and Craft, by Len Wanner

July 12, 2011

Len Wanner’s book Dead Sharp (Two Ravens Press, 2011) contains nine informative, and entertaining interviews with Scottish crime writers, and a Ten Commandments for successful interviewing. In his Ten Commandments Wanner asks “Am I a good enough interviewer to tell you how to become a better one?” On the evidence of the interviews here, he is. He picks his questions well, is friendly without being gushing, presses his point to get an answer, and manages to bring a lightness and humour even to such glum and serious subjects as gender politics.

It is probably inevitable that the book begins with Ian Rankin, and that his name, and the description “Tartan Noir” should turn up more than once, even in interviews with other writers. Wanner’s interview with Rankin sets the tone for the questioning throughout the book; that is, unexpected, and revealing. The question “If Rebus is an ‘Old Testament sort of guy’, what kind of God are you?” elicits the response from Rankin that “I’m a much more forgiving God than Rebus would accept”, which tells us something about Rankin, and Rebus, but also leads to a discussion about Presbyterianism and guilt in Scottish crime writing that brings in Christopher Brookmyre and Stuart MacBride, both subjects of later interviews.

Wanner’s jokey, and quick-witted style of questioning doesn’t always get him as far as he hopes. Questioning Allan Guthrie on what it was like adapting his novel Two-Way Split as a screenplay, he gets the one word response “Interesting”, while a question about whether he has been tempted to write a series, is rewarded with “No. Never”. Guthrie’s guarded style distinguishes him from the more loquacious subjects here, but later Wanner manages to draw him out on the subject, and we are treated, at some length, to Guthrie’s thoughts on crime and detective fiction, and the “nightmare” which, in his view, is the Police Procedural.

The interviews are revealing about the details of writing methods. Karen Campbell, for example, writes strictly without music playing, and says “I think you write the book you want to read yourself, don’t you?” Alice Thompson is apparently more autocratic. She often writes in noisy cafes, and says “I don’t think about the reader at all”. More interesting is what the writers have to say about genre, Brookmyre taking the position that “what we like in crime fiction is the reassurance our choices would have been vindicated …” while for Rankin it is a “vicarious thrill”. To varying degrees, all address the idea of crime fiction as a genre well suited for exploring political and social issues. Paul Johnston is asked whether crime fiction has “tasked itself with addressing such uncomfortable truths [as heroin addiction]?” he answers: “Well, it should do as far as I am concerned”.

Most of the writers interviewed here are university educated, but their relationship with the academy is sometimes uneasy. Rankin, who began writing his first Rebus novel while he was a postgraduate student, likes the idea of crime fiction being studied in universities, because he thinks it deserves to be taken seriously. Even so, he is scathing in his dismissal of the theoretical turn in literary criticism, describing Deconstruction as “scientism. It was people saying ‘We need to look more scientific. We need to look like we know what we are doing.'” Rankin’s ambivalence is shared by Paul Johnston, who says there is “no reason why there shouldn’t be an academic tradition of studying crime fiction”, but Johnston is strongly aware of the commercial imperatives of crime writing, a point that comes out of many of these interviews. Indeed, it is crime fiction’s ability to transcend itself, to deliver Rankin’s vicarious thrill, and yet still satisfy the more literary interests of character development, social and historical commentary, and complex morality, that makes it so compelling to many readers.

Dead Sharp is fascinating for the details of it’s subjects’ writing lives, but what emerges most strongly from this entertaining book, is Scotland. That may seem an obvious point to make about a book of interviews subtitled “Scottish Crime Writers and their Craft”, where you might expect Scotland to feature quite significantly. But what emerges here is a group of writers who are quite different from each other, both personally, and in terms of the books they write, but who are all exploring ideas of Scottishness, and what Scotland might be like, as a place, and as a nation. Brookmyre comments that Scottish writers seem to be more acceptable to publishers than in the past, and suggests that stories about Scotland are perceived as “more modern, and immediate and raw”.

It’s a debatable point, but judging from the interviews here, Scotland, and in particular Scottish cities, seem to inspire Scottish crime writers. Louise Welsh speaks of being inspired by Glasgow, while MacBride, whose novels are set in Aberdeen, jokes about The “Edinburgh Mafia” in the form of Ian Rankin and his fans, but identifies Rankin’s most famous character, Rebus, as quintessentially Scottish in his refusal to accept that he might be wrong. Scottish crime writing, like this book, and he suggests, perhaps Scots themselves, is irreverent, and often funny, even in the face of hardship and horror. Neil Forsyth sums up the difficulty of the Scottish writer, claiming that writing is essentially quite a cocky thing to do, and that since being cocky doesn’t go down well in Scotland, the only defence is self-deprecating humour. If there is one thread that binds these writers together, self-deprecating humour would be it.

Dead Sharp is a terrific introduction to some of the best contemporary Scottish crime writers, in which they explain their modes of working, and their views on developing the genre, and entertaining readers. The description “Tartan Noir” may be frustrating to writers like Rankin, and those who have no choice but to coexist with his success, but as MacBride explains, the thing about “Tartan Noir” is its diversity, and that there is no one style that defines it. As these excellent interviews show, Scottish crime writing refuses to be pinned down to a snappy marketing description. As Karen Campbell puts it, “We’re more than that, much more”.

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