Tony Black: Does 'tartan noir' mean anything at all?

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"TOO much black for the white." That was the assessment of the Ayrshire novelist George Douglas Brown when asked what he thought of his novel The House with the Green Shutters over a century ago. It's also, perhaps surprisingly, a very apt summary of a modern phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.

The man many regard as the Godfather of Tartan Noir, William McIlvanney has called the term ''ersatz''. But the Whitbread-winner was one of the first on the modern Scottish crimewriting scene, with Laidlaw in 1977, clearly chalking a line around the corpse of familiarity.

"I'm a hung jury about the phrase," says McIlvanney. "I suppose it works as an adman's slogan. Certainly, for the American market, say, it probably gives the most succinct signal of Scottishness they would recognise. But simultaneously, it suggests an old-fashioned view of the place, as if modern Scotland were being observed through a lorgnette rather than the 20-20 vision of people like Ian Rankin."

McIlvanney's own crime tales were at once grim, dark, close to the knuckle and hugely influential. The Kilmarnock-born author took to the mat with the American Hardboiled school, and wasn't found wanting.

Ian Rankin, like so many of his contemporaries, pays due respect to the Godfather. "I owe McIlvanney a huge debt," he says. "Rebus was an attempt at an east-coast Laidlaw." Rankin's Rebus may not be everybody's idea of a sympathetic protagonist but his singularly Scottish traits strike a resonant chord with the buying public. "We Scottish writers have found that crime fiction is a good way to explore 'place', especially urban," says Rankin. "We peer below the surface of the everyday city and show its complexity. Crime fiction is also often political, looking at the mess we are in and asking how we get out of it."

Rankin too has his doubts about the Tartan Noir tag. "Tartan Noir maybe makes it sound as though we only write dark, twisted crime fiction in Scotland. We are a broad church - McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson, etc. If there is a broad connecting theme in a lot of Scottish crime fiction it is a sense of duality, of our ability to do bad as well as good."

Rankin sees little geographical distinction between the country's Tartan Noirists, though he is puzzled as to why our largest city doesn't feature more often.

The Dear Green Place is the setting for Alex Gray's crime fiction, yet she also struggles with idea of an east-west dichotomy. The old claim that you can have a better time at a Glasgow stabbing than an Edinburgh wedding, she believes, is groundless. "East versus west? Um, I was about to say the westerners swear more but that's not true! Thinking of Allan Guthrie puts paid to that idea," she says. "I'm not sure there is that much of a difference, really. Maybe Scotland is too wee for big differences in psyche?"

Theakston's-winning author Allan Guthrie, originally from Orkney though now settled in Edinburgh, where he sets his fiction, offers a more simple assessment of the blurring boundaries. "It's more likely that we see success around us and we - as writers - are drawn towards it," he says. "I became a crime writer through reading (Christopher] Brookmyre and Douglas Lindsay and feeling inspired to try my hand at a comedic non-police procedural crime novel too."

A small nation sharing similar traits may embue its writers with a narrow spectrum of influence to choose from; add an established dichotomy of thought - the Caledonian antisyzygy - the long dark nights, and the northern tendency towards depression and we begin to look like a dour lot.

Glasgow author Donna Moore runs a website for fans of Tartan Noir called The Big Beat from Badsville. Moore thinks Tartan Noirists are influenced by a mixture of gothic sensibilities dating back to James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner as well as Jekyll and Hyde and Burke and Hare. "We're never going to write sunny stories about how brilliant everything is. Most of the time it's chucking with rain," says Moore. "There's also a lot of duality - you've got a mix of twitching net curtains in grand Georgian townhouses, just a stone's throw away from run-down schemes. Scottish crime fiction tends to be curious about why crimes happen, and about the people who commit them. And Scotland has the second-highest murder rate in Europe, second only to Finland."

Mean streets, grim weather, a history of violence, the dark literary vein … whatever you call it, there's plenty to keep our detectives - fictional or not - occupied.

• Tony Black's latest crime novel, Truth Lies Bleeding, is published by Preface, 12.99. See his website at www.tonyblack.net< /a>

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