Tartan Noir

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Scotland’s craggy landscape, drab weather and crowded, aging cities make a perfect setting for noir crime stories.

Combine the weather and the landscape with a cynical, world-weary, conflicted and rumpled protagonist trying to bring justice to a corrupt society and you have what writer James Ellroy calls “Tartan noir.” (He used the phrase to describe Scottish mystery writer Ian Rankin’s stories.)

But to quote Zach Vasquez: “As the demon dog of crime fiction himself, James Ellroy, once put it: ‘The overarching and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.'”

Author William McIlvanney is considered “the godfather of tartan noir.” His 1977 police procedural, LAIDLAW, features a maverick police detective dedicated to his job at the expense of his marriage and family. McIlvanney writes lyrically about Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and one of the rainiest in the United Kingdom, sprawling along the banks of the River Clyde.
During the period in which the Laidlaw books are set, Glasgow was undergoing extensive urban renewal. Residents were relocated from aging, impoverished neighborhoods to so-called “new towns.” The process left behind derelict tenements perfect for hiding crimes and criminals.
Edinburgh and Aberdeen have their share of noir novels. Ian Rankin’s Detective Sargent John Rebus lives and works in Edinburgh as does Quintin Jardine’s Chief Constable Bob Skinner. Stuart MacBride’s Detective Sergeant Logan “Lazarus” McRae works the mean streets of Aberdeen.
And let’s not forget the Shetland Islands and Ann Cleeves’ novels featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez, beginning with RAVEN BLACK.
Here is an extended list of tartan noir writers:
  • Lin Anderson  — DRIFTNET (2006). This is the opening book of a series featuring Glasgow forensic scientist Rhona Macleod Book.
  • Tony Black  — ARTIFACTS OF THE DEAD (2019). Detective Inspector (DI) Bob Valentine is just back to work after a near fatal stabbing when he’s sent to cover the murder of a banker in the sleepy coastal town of Ayr. This is the first of a series.
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet — HIS BLOODY PROJECT; DOCUMENTS RELATING TO THE CASE OF RODERICK MACRAE, a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, which rarely honors crime fiction.
  • Alex Gray — NEVER SOMEWHERE ELSE (2011), first book in a series featuring Glasgow Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) William Lorimer and psychologist and criminal profiler Solomon “Solly” Brightman.
  • Allan Guthrie — KISS HER GOODBYE (2007)  features Joe Hope, an enforcer for an Edinburgh loan shark, whose teenage daughter is found dead. Initially viewed as a suicide, the police soon arrest Hope for murder and he needs the help of Scotland’s hardest men and women.
  • Quintin Jardine  — SKINNER’S RULES (1994) introduces readers to Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Bob Skinner, who heads Edinburgh’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID).  In this first book of a series, Skinner’s team is faced with savage murder of a successful young lawyer. When more murders follow, including that of the lawyer’s fiancée, Skinner realizes he has a serial killer on his hands.
  • Stuart MacBride — COLD GRANITE (2005),  first of the Logan McRae series.  Set in Christmas time in Aberdeen, Detective Sergeant (DS) Logan McRae is back from a year’s sick leave when the body of four-year-old boy is discovered in a ditch.
  • Val McDermid — THE MERMAIDS SINGING (1996). This is the first book in the Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Inspector (DI) Carol Jordan series. Dr. Hill is a criminal profiler. Hill and Jordan must solve a case of men being abducted and tortured using medieval techniques and then dumped in areas frequented by gay men and women.
  • William McIlvanneyLAIDLAW (1977), The first of the Jack Laidlaw mystery series, which was followed by THE PAPERS OF TONY VEITCH (1983) and STRANGE LOYALTIES (1991).
  • Liam McIlvanneyTHE QUAKER (2018) is based on a still unsolved Bible John serial murder case in 1969 in Glasgow. Liam McIlvanney is the son of William McIlvanney.
  • William H. S. McIntyre — RELATIVELY GUILTY (2011), featuring Scots criminal defense lawyer Robbie Munro. A lawyer before he became a writer, McIntyre has written two series. This is the first book in the Best Defence Series. The series is noted for a mix of comedy, legal procedure, social comment and action.
  • Denzil MeyrickWHISKEY FROM SMALL GLASSES (2017), featuring Glasgow DCI Daley. This is the first book of a series.
  • Denise MinaTHE LONG DROP (2017) and STILL MIDNIGHT (2011), the first book in the DI Alex Morrow series. She also wrote the Garnethill trilogy, which deals with characters trapped in poverty and by their own bad decisions, marginalized by society and struggling to get by. THE LESS DEAD is a standalone mystery about a pregnant physician searching information about her birth mother, murdered just four months after she gave her daughter up for adoption.
  • Alan ParksBLOOD JANUARY (2018), a police procedural set in Glasgow of 1973.
  • Mary Paulson-EllisTHE OTHER MRS. WALKER (2016) and THE INHERITANCE OF SOLOMON FARTHING (2019), which are unrelated stories featuring people who die without next of kin.
  • Hugh C. Rae –SKINNER (1966), which was based on Scotland’s notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. Rae was a prolific writer who wrote under a number of pseudonyms, including a romantic historical series written under the name “Jessica Stirling” with co-author Peggie Coghlan.
  • Caro RamsayABSOLUTION (2007). Detective Alan McAlpine finds that a disturbing murder case involving two women tied together as if they were crucified and then murdered is bringing back long buried memories of a case early in his police career.
  • Ian Rankin — KNOTS AND CROSSES (1987), set in Edinburgh, this is the first of Rankin’s prolific DS John Rebus series.  Some say BLACK AND BLUE (1997), the eighth book in the series is his best.
  • Manda Scott  — HEN’S TEETH (1997). This is the first book in her Kellen Stewart series. Scott has written a number of standalone novels, including A TREACHERY OF SPIES (2018).
  • Peter Turnbull – DEEP AND CRISP AND EVEN (1981). This is the first of Turnbull’s 10-book Glasgow P Division police procedural series.
  • Louise Welsh — THE CUTTING ROOM (2003), about an antiques dealer who accidentally stumbles on a cache of what appear to be snuff films.


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