Crime writers get dissected

24th April 2009 at 01:00

Tartan noir, that rather catch-all term coined by James Ellroy when discussing Ian Rankin, has been a gift to publishers. Under it are bundled together a gallimaufry of crime writers with varying degrees of connection to Scotland: some set their action here; others are Scottish but work elsewhere.

The protagonists often have a connectedness to crime, whether they're paid-up members of Scotland's finest or gifted amateurs, dabbling a bit in crimes that come too close to home for comfort.

But whatever the marketing usefulness of the term, the fact remains that Tartan Noir is a sub-genre of crime fiction which is demanding more and more to be taken seriously in literary terms. No less a writer than Allan Massie maintains that, in its present re-positioned form, "it deals more convincingly with different levels of society than is now easy to do in a straight novel".

While this upgraded sub-genre may have polished up its image in literary circles, it has still not taken its rightful place in the classroom. A lingering, literary snobbishness? Or doubts as to where exactly in the school to position a text like Rankin's Black Blue?

Until recently, there may have been some reluctance, even among his fans, to use Rankin texts for classroom study, due to a lack of back-up classroom material which, happily, is quietly being remedied.

Black Blue is a good example to choose for the classroom, since Rankin moves Inspector Rebus out of Edinburgh to investigate on a national scale. The result is a trenchantly-observed snapshot of Scottish society in the dying days of the 20th century; a treasure trove of carefully-observed settings, quirky characterisations and themes as disparate as the power of past sins, troubled relationships, and the effects of the oil industry on Scotland - all guaranteed to challenge and intrigue young critics and writers.

While it is a valuable social history document and could usefully supply background material for many a modern studies project, the book cries out to be taken seriously in the English classroom as a potential text for personal study at Higher and Intermediate 2 level. Although the vastness of its sweep, almost Dickensian in its creative white heat, may seem daunting for teenage readers, careful study sees it breaking down into manageable areas of interest for individual writing projects.

But the most seminal novel of all, in Tartan Noir terms, is William McIlvanney's Laidlaw, which has become overshadowed - unjustly - by the recent spate of young Turks. Like Edinburgh's Rebus and Paris's Maigret, Glasgow's Laidlaw is a philosopher of the human condition, laying bare systemic social ills as much as the facts of individual crimes. And in terms of coruscating wordsmithing, McIlvanney leaves his younger imitators standing.

For students of literary style, McIlvanney's 1977 work, a trailblazer of the genre, is full of verbal fireworks of the kind Rankin carefully avoids. This contrast offers fertile territory for study. Here, too, a handy Scotnote by Beth Dickson on Laidlaw provides back-up analysis for individual study by students.

Christopher Nicol teaches English at Galashiels Academy.

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