Sin Cities

Dan Heap talks to authors Tony Black, Caro Ramsay and Lin Anderson about why Scotland’s twin cities have become such a hotbed of crime writing

feature | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 12 Aug 2011

“Edinburgh was a mix of stoic kirks and grand cathedrals, of bold achievements and great plans, but it was also where innocent looking teenage girls wound up, beaten and bloodied in grimy, piss-smelling back allies. They just didn't put that stuff in the tour guides.” So speaks Tony Black’s new character DI Rob Brennan, who now joins Black’s Gus Drury, Lin Anderson’s Rhona MacLeod and the most famous of Scotland’s large and still growing legion of fictional detectives, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, hunting down crime in the grimy back streets of Glasgow and the murky wynds of ancient Edinburgh.

The city’s split personality, Black insists in the low, gravelly, slightly menacing brogue that makes him seem born to be a crime writer, is why he and so many of his colleagues have chosen the Scottish capital as a setting for their work: "If you're putting together a template for a crime novel, Edinburgh's probably a perfect city. It has the ornate buildings and the sink estates; the rich Edinburgh and the poor Edinburgh; it has a schizophrenic heart. When these two worlds collide, it's perfect fodder for a crime novelist to latch onto and record on the page." The beauty of Edinburgh that attracts so many people he adds, only serves to unnerve the reader further. “When you’re writing crime it’s good to have it happen in such a nice places. Edinburgh is such a beautiful city. When bad things happen in a beautiful place, it adds an extra resonance, an extra layer of intrigue, and shock.”

Caro Ramsay, author of Glasgow crime thrillers Dark Water and Singing to the Dead, makes a similar point when explaining why so much Glaswegian crime fiction is set not—as one might expect—in the city's notorious south side, but in the affluent West End. That part of the city has "the university, students, such a mix of people. You can write anybody in [Glasgow’s West End], and they will have a right to be there.” And as a result, it seems, anything can happen.

Lin Anderson says the same split personality applies to Glasgow, home to her character, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod. As she embarked on writing her first book she "became completely fascinated by Glasgow as post-industrial city. It’s full of grandeur, though the buildings themselves were built with money raised by the tobacco lords and the slave trade. I became interested in what it grew out of and what it became as a result." This Jekyll-and-Hyde character to the two cities that seems to so attract writers is no surprise given that Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh and based his character on the real life Edinburgh villain Deacon Brodie. As a result, argues Anderson, "the history of crime writing in Scotland is quite different [to that south of the border]. It comes out of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story: there’s two sides to everyone. Dark and light dwell within everyone."

For Anderson, as for Black, the city becomes more than just a backdrop: "Each time I start a book, the inspiration almost always comes from the location. Once you choose that location, it becomes a character, and a very powerful character at that. The location drives the story as much as the characters do." Anderson describes a walk around the Govanhill area of Glasgow during which she happened upon a long abandoned cinema with a crumbling arabic façade—complete with minarets—the former Govanhill Picturehouse. This chance encounter led her to uncover Glasgow's lost "cinema city" past – in the 1930s, more than 100,000 people could watch a film in the city at any one time, second only to New York. She uncovered many more decaying relics to that long-gone age hidden away in sad, forgotten, frozen-in-time corners of an otherwise brash, forward-looking city, an experience which forms the basis of her new McLeod mystery, Picture Her Dead.

Ramsay draws my attention to the climate that denizens of the city endure as an important influence on the development of the genre: “People ask me 'why do Scots write good crime fiction?' My answer is that Scots have two things to be depressed about: the weather and the football teamThe interminable sheets of rain that batter the city all year round are central to the gloomy, oppressed image that so appeals to her as a writer. "Rain," she says "immediately dampens the mood. You could lift these storylines and put them anywhere but it's that damp humour, the rain that flavours the book and makes it about Glasgow." The long, dark nights are integral, she says, to the appeal of the northern crime novels coming out of Scotland and increasingly also Sweden, Norway and Iceland: "There’s a melancholy of the soul of the people who live in this climate: the long winter nights, they do something to the mind. When it’s half past four and dark again: the mind turns to strange thoughts."