Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Criminally Caledonian

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Criminally Caledonian

Article excerpt

The Beat Goes On: the Complete

Rebus Short Stories

Ian Rankin

Orion, 464pp. 19.99 [pounds sterling]

The Martini Shot and Other Stories

George Pelecanos

Orion, 296pp. 19.99[pounds sterling]


The detective novel is the creation of two countries, Scotland and the United States, with the occasional helping hand from France. It was Edgar Allan Poe who set the ball rolling with his stories about C Auguste Dupin, a detective with some resemblance to Eugene Francois Vidocq, the founder of both the Surete Nationale and--no less importantly, in literary terms--the first private detective agency, to which he gave the name Le Bureau des Renseignements Universels pour le commerce et l'Industrie. (Crime-fighting language got terser.) Poe's greatest champion was Charles Baudelaire, whose Dupin translations shot around Europe, and his greatest followers were Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson: having three names clearly helps in crime fiction. Conan Doyle, who used Dupin as the model for Sherlock Holmes, described Poe's stories as the "root from which a whole literature has developed ... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"

The intended answer presumably was "Nowhere", but a more accurate answer would be "Edinburgh", where both Doyle and Stevenson were born, and where crime fiction had been lying dormant for the best part of a century. In writing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was reviving a theme sometimes--though rarely out loud--called "the Caledonian antisyzygy", the Scottish interest in duality shown by James Hogg's "Strange Letter of a Lunatic" (1830) and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), and recorded in Karl Miller's emphatically Scottish "studies in literary history", Doubles.

Later on, following the period of English activity that prompted Edmund Wilson's 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", it was a French critic, Nino Frank, who identified film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett and James M Cain as examples of "noir". That word took a journey back across the Atlantic when though some dispute this--James Ellroy came up with the phrase "tartan noir" to characterise the work of Ian Rankin, the Edinburgh-based crime writer, whose many accolades include an award given by the Mystery Writers of America in honour of Poe, the Edgar, which he won in 2004 with Resurrection Men, his thirteenth book about Detective Inspector John Rebus.

A near-century of American ubiquity has worked to obscure crime fiction's Scottish heritage, and the phrase "tartan noir", whose practitioners include Rankin, Val McDermid and Denise Mina, carries a hint of irony that was altogether absent from "Caledonian antisyzygy". The implication seems to be that Edinburgh and Glasgow, in contrast to, say, Los Angeles, are gritty but not seedy--tough in the wrong way. In reality, "tartan noir" is less an oxymoron than a tautology. When David Peace transposed Ellroy's tone to Yorkshire in the time of Arthur Scargill and Peter Sutcliffe, it was a conscious exercise in juxtaposition. When Rankin invented Rebus, he was merely following on from where others had left off.

"I wasn't interested in Rebus as a person," he writes in a postscript to The Beat Goes On, a collection of 29 stories about the detective. Instead, the character provided "a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelganger tradition". But Rankin doesn't see his project as a straightforward resumption of 19th-century business. Although he acknowledges Hogg and Stevenson (Doyle's stories are mostly set in London), Rankin also says that when he started writing there was "no tradition of the crime novel in Scotland". That's where the American influence comes in, and particularly that of Raymond Chandler. …

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