New in noir land - Tony Black interview

Is Gus Dury the new Rebus? His journalist creator feels such comparisons are a little premature, writes SUSAN

THE TABLES HAVE BEEN TURNED on Tony Black. The interviewer has become the interviewed. The Edinburgh journalist whose first novel has just been published is finding himself looking down the wrong end of a tape recorder. "Now I understand," he says, shifting uncomfortably, "why people get nervous when they see these things."

His novel, Paying for It, is a fast-paced, darkly funny thriller set in the capital. The protagonist is one Gus Dury, a thirtysomething former hack who has lost his job and his marriage in his battle with the booze. He's one step away from the doss house when a friend asks him to investigate the death of his son.

Black, 36, makes a point of explaining early on that he and Dury have little in common. He has a steady job and is teetotal. "I hit my early thirties and realised drinking is something you should get out of your system in your twenties. And I'm very happily married, so that wrecks your next question."

The novel was snapped up by the celebrated editor Rosie de Courcy at Random House for new imprint, Preface. Gus Dury's name is being bandied about the publishing world as the successor to Rebus, Edinburgh's most famous detective, who hung up his badge at his retirement last autumn.

"It's crazy," says Black. "For a complete unknown who's put out one book to be compared to somebody like Ian Rankin is just incomprehensible. He's created a whole genre: tartan noir. But it seems that if you're a new writer from Scotland and you're writing crime, you're going to be compared to him. Everybody is the new Rankin."

It's also true that anybody setting out to write a new Edinburgh crime novel does so in the shadow of illustrious predecessors. "Ian Rankin casts such a long shadow that if I'd thought about that, I don't think I would have picked up the pen. My main concern was to write the best novel I possibly could without looking at what's gone before."

But Edinburgh, it turns out, is a city with an unusual amount of room for violent crime. "If you were putting together a template for what might be the best city for a crime novel, I think Edinburgh might fit the bill. It's got that schizophrenic heart. There is rich Edinburgh and poor Edinburgh, there are ornate buildings and sink estates. Inevitably these two worlds must collide, which creates perfect conflict for the crime novelist. It's the city of Trainspotting, but it's also the city of Miss Jean Brodie."

Like many Edinburgh crime writers before him, Black adheres to the real geography of the city in his book, but unlike Ian Rankin, who decided to use real locations such as the Oxford Bar, Black prefers to develop his in his imagination. "Describing a bar that I know would be a different kind of writing, more like reporting, and I've done enough of that."

Nevertheless, no local reader will fail to recognise Gus Dury's city of traffic jams and weekend break-ers, Stockbridge tractors and "tartan shops blasting teuchter music", seedy old boozers turned into wine bars. Dury does a good rant, and he has a wicked way with metaphor.

"Yeah, it's almost like therapy," Black grins. "It's cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist, and it saves me writing to my local councillor every week.

"I'm interested in how people adapt to changes in society. Gus is a man who has failed to adapt, which is probably why he spends so much of his time ranting and raving against changes in society."

Although Black is adamant that he's not a political writer – "those words are enough to turn me off reading any book" – there is an anger at the heart of the novel, about corrupt cops and morally bankrupt B-list politicians, and a about a modern newspaper industry which has little time any more for Gus Dury-type investigative journalism.

He takes his protagonist into the darkest corners of the criminal underworld: Latvian teenagers trafficked into prostitution, bent coppers who dispense easy violence, a gangster who keeps a wolf in a cage.

While the events and characters in the book are imaginary, Black says he got an introduction to the seedier side of life when he worked as a nightclub reviewer for the Daily Record. "I was in my twenties, it was the dream job, though there's not really very much you can say about one nightclub compared to the next. But I did meet a lot of shady club-owner types.

"I would get phone calls in the middle of the night saying: 'So-and-so is about to pour petrol through the roof of his club for the insurance money'. Those were the kind of people I was mixing with."

Dury himself surfaced a few years later when Black, then a reporter with the Press and Journal in Inverness, was dispensed to a press conference with a government minister. "It was the standard thing, we went to the press conference expecting to get the story, but he spoke for two or three minutes and then made a mad dash for his limo.

"I still had to get the story, so I tried to waylay him on the stairs and was immediately surrounded by these men in black. And as I produced my tape recorder, these two press officer flunkies appeared on either side of me and produced tape recorders as well.

"I didn't get answers to any of my questions. It really galled me – we waited all these years for devolution and this is how they treat us. I started to imagine how it might play out with a different personality to mine, and so Gus Dury was born."

He continued working on the book sporadically while working for a newspaper in Victoria, Australia. "My father died at that time, so probably a lot of the father-son conflict in the book stems from that." Not, he hastens to add, that his father is anything like Cannis Dury, a former footballing legend who takes his aggression home from the pitch and inflicts it on his family. Black's father was a professional rugby player with caps for Scotland, but there any similarity ends.

Paying for It is actually Black's fifth novel, the first four having found agents but not publishers. All five were completed while working full-time as a journalist, setting himself a target of writing 2,000 words a day and doubling it the next day if he fell short. What kept him going? He shrugs. "I was just too stubborn or too stupid to stop," he says. "I interviewed (bestselling Australian author] Bryce Courtenay and he told me that the average writer does five or six books before they break through. At that stage I only had four so it seemed worthwhile trying again.

"It's probably no coincidence that this book is a crime thriller; crime is so huge at the moment. Publishers are all looking for best sales they can get their hands on. That's fair enough, it's a business like any other."

It's no coincidence that the current wave of young Scottish crime writers grew up during the renaissance of gritty Scot lit which was spearheaded by Trainspotting. Arguably, it is Irvine Welsh, as much as Ian Rankin, who laid the foundations for tartan noir. "I remember reading The Acid House and being blown away by it, thinking: 'how can he get away with this'. I loved that, and Alan Warner, and Duncan McLean's Bunker Man."

Though at present he has a two-book deal – the sequel, Gutted, is already well on – de Courcy has asked him if Gus Dury could run to a series of 20 books. Black is keeping his feet on the ground. "He's a character that I enjoy writing. He's got legs, he's got so much going on in his life: the torment of his past, the battleground with his wife, his struggle with alcohol and his constant inability to kick-start his career. He's a person I'm not done with, that I'd perhaps like to know a bit better. He's got a few years yet before his liver gives out.

"Whether it will last 20 novels, who knows? It's great as a first-time novelist to be thinking that far ahead, but I can't really look beyond the next one. I have ideas for other books, but if all I do is write Gus Dury novels I won't be complaining about it – there are so many people in the crime genre that I admire.

"Gus will probably tell me when he's had enough, or I'll tell him."

&#149 Paying for It by Tony Black is published by Preface, priced 16.99. Black is at the Edinburgh book festival on 15 August.

Black's books

"I tend to read Depression-era American writers. I'm a huge Hemingway fan, and I like Fitzgerald, though strangely, I think of The Great Gatsby as a crime novel. Then again, I think of Camus' Outsider as a crime novel too. And I love Salinger – the way he brings characters to life is just tremendous.

"Inside the crime genre I like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, and contemporary writers like Ken Bruen and Martyn Waites. I'm a huge Irvine Welsh fan – Marabou Stork Nightmares is one of my all-time favourite books. But another is George Douglas Brown's The House with the Green Shutters. The light he shines on the Scottish character is amazing. It has good, strong themes."

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