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Issue 14 - Living here isn't quite murder

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004

 

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Living here isn't quite murder

Roddy Martine talks...

I have a sister who lives in a quiet mews in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town and who was recently appalled when a journalist turned up on her doorstep to ask her if she knew where the murder had taken place.

“What murder?” she asked anxiously.

“The one in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus book,” he replied.

Of course, the murder he was asking about was entirely fictitious, but that was of little consolation to my sister or her neighbours. Unknown to them, the Scottish Literary Tour Trust was revising a guided walking tour of locations featured in Ian Rankin’s best selling detective novels.

Such is the esteem in which the non-existent policeman John Rebus is universally held, that recent tour participants have included members of the (real) Lothian and Borders police force, a pathologist from Germany, and a judge all the way from Canada.

As a resident of Scotland’s capital, it would be impossible for me not to be aware of the fictional dark side of the city in which I live. Robert Louis Stevenson, creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was born in a house virtually opposite the garage where I buy the petrol for my car. Astatue of the super sleuth Sherlock Holmes stands on the site of the birthplace of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, less than 100 yards from my home.

And crime fiction continues to proliferate in Edinburgh, although Glasgow has its share, notably the immensely successful Scottish Television series Taggart.

On the east coast, Quentin Jardine’s Inspector Skinner thrillers and Alanna Knight’s Victorian Inspector Faro mysteries, both make compelling use of the stage of Auld Reekie for their plots.

In his novel Complicity, Iain Banks’s murder investigation hero Cameron Colley is a hack on an Edinburgh newspaper.

I wish I could say that Val McDermid, winner of Scotland Magazine’s 2004 Scottish Writer award, lived in Edinburgh, but she was born in Kirkcaldy, which I suppose is near enough for those sinister influences to be carried on the wind.

What her international success proves, however, is that well-written crime fiction is both universal and timeless. Val’s characters, Kate Brannigan in Manchester and Lindsay Gordon from Glasgow, are as real as if they were walking past in the streets of Detroit or working out of an office block in Dublin.

All the same, it fascinates me how some locations more than others inspire crime fiction writers, and how fascinating we, the reading public, find the criminal underclass in general. Providing, of course, that none of us find ourselves in over-close proximity to them.

The city I live in is a contrast of broad boulevards and narrow, cobbled streets, with a mediaeval castle rising in its midst. Admittedly, the winter nights are dark and chilly, but in no way threatening.

In the summer a strange mist sometimes swills in from the sea, but the majority of people live here are open-hearted, kind and friendly folk, not even remotely in tune with the drug-fuelled misfits of that other best selling Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting.

So what is it about Scotland that makes it such a fertile breeding ground for tales of villainy and dark deeds?

Remember the Appin Murder, the mystery surrounding the death of James Stewart of the Glens; and think of Burke and Hare, the 19th century body snatchers.

Nobody actually knows who killed Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots.

The Scots have always been blessed with vivid imaginations when it comes to conspiracy theories and the macabre.

I suspect that the answer to this must lie buried deep in our national psyche, and I dare say it may have something to do with the rigid doctrines of the Kirk.

But don’t worry about it. It is all in the mind. This is a nice place, really, so nobody should be put off visiting us.

The latest master of the genre to emerge from the genteel terraces of Edinburgh is Alexander McCall Smith, but here again there is something that stands out about his writing. Nobody gets killed and Precious Ramotswe, his lady detective, lives in Botswana.

I haven’t been on a Rebus Tour of Edinburgh yet, but I am certainly thinking about it.

Who knows, I might even end up on my sister’s doorstep.