A mystery guest is always a good idea, and this year’s mystery guest, due to appear on Saturday, has just been outed as none other than the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She will be in conversation with Ian Rankin, the doyen of Scottish crime writers to whose crown there have been any number of aspirants, none of them quite making it. The position of Ian Rankin, it seems, is currently not vacant – which is a decidedly good thing for the many fans of John Rebus, his very slightly hard-bitten Edinburgh detective. This does not prevent publishers from claiming that their latest discovery is the new Ian Rankin, a claim that nobody takes seriously any more.
In spite of Rankin’s clear pre-eminence, the ranks of Scottish crime writers are conspicuously healthy. Many of them are very good indeed, particularly Alex Gray, whose novels about the Glaswegian sleuth, DCI Lorimer, are currently attracting a growing readership. Lorimer is not your typical fictional detective in that he is attractively straightforward. Most crime writers give their detectives a handicap or two, usually an excessive enthusiasm for alcohol, marital problems, or obscure and demanding interests. Conventionality, it seems, is not the best background from which to investigate and solve crimes. Nor, it appears, is it one that interests the reader – a fact that has led crime writers to invent ever more bizarre backgrounds for their sleuths. There are plenty of cat-loving detectives – in some cases, it is the cat that solves the crime; there are detectives who are acupuncturists, philatelists, glass-blowers. Anything will do, as long as it is sufficiently out of the ordinary. There are even some fictional detectives who are, well, detectives, a cunning turn if ever there was one.
Scottish crime fiction has a major advantage over other branches of the genre, and that is the landscape. Crime fiction needs a background, and we have plenty of that. We have Hebridean islands on which some of our detectives pursue their perpetrators in winds and horizontal rain. We have the River Clyde, which is very useful for bodies to be found in. We have Aberdeen, where the cold ensures that the bodies are found in good condition for the pathologist, who of course is often a detective of sorts – and a philatelist, perhaps. We have any number of tough bars in which victims can spend their last hours before they fall foul of the need of detective fiction for a body by chapter two.
We also have a sound Calvinist heritage that is of immense usefulness in crime fiction. Crime that takes place against a moral background in which anything goes is of very little interest. A crime that takes place in circumstances of respectability, is far more interesting, as this adds salience to the criminal act. And here, of course, Edinburgh’s advantage as a setting for crime fiction is highlighted. Edinburgh is a famously respectable city, its prim façade a wonderful background for seamy deeds. Deacon Brodie was the embodiment of that; Burke and Hare another instance of the light and shade of a city with more than one face.
Writers of crime fiction like to portray themselves as social realists, depicting the true nastiness of life. This claim, in fact, is dubious. Crime fiction is almost always concerned with murder – there has to be a body to make the whole conceit work.
One can see, of course, how this is necessary for another feature of the genre – the mandatory autopsy. Every self-respecting crime novel must have a post-mortem scene these days or the reader feels cheated. These scenes should be as grim as possible, sparing no detail when it comes to describing the sound of the saws cutting into the skull and so on. All very vivid stuff, and yet and yet ... Murder is, in fact, a very unusual crime, occurring relatively infrequently and vastly outnumbered by other crimes. If crime writers were realists, as they claim to be, then surely they should write more about more common offences.
And what are these more common offences? The answer is parking offences. If crime fiction were more realistic, we would have far less written about homicide and far more attention paid to parking offences. Yet where is the contemporary parking offence novel? Crime writers have conspicuously failed to rise to the challenge.
That, though, is a minor criticism. Crime fiction continues to entertain us vastly. It has everything we want in a good tale, in particular, a quest. The hero engaged in a quest is a theme that has lain at the heart of literature since Homer. It is what we like in a story. And then we want resolution. At the end of the day we yearn for the scales of justice to be balanced. We want to see malefactors punished. We want to see those who have been wronged vindicated. We want to see people get their just deserts. Only the very rare crime writer resists that convention of resolution: Patricia Highsmith did it with her Ripley novels. Ripley, the classic psychopath, gets away with it for five books. Then his progenitor died before he could be punished. That, in a way, is a bit of social realism: those who do wrong often get away with it.
Look at those figures in public life who tell shameless and egregious lies. They seem to be getting away with it. But they should watch out. Nemesis is watching as intently in reality as in fiction. Just watch out.