Touching Evil – Denise Mina, Peter James, Alan Riach
For 10:30 in the morning, this was a very lively discussion, in more ways than one. The basis of the panel was to delve into the topic of evil and whether it really exists in a world of murder and crime. It seems like they would all come to the conclusion that of course evil is real, right? Wrong. The panel consisted of top crime-fiction authors Denise Mina and Peter James, moderated by Glasgow University professor (and one of my many thesis sources) Alan Riach.
Riach opened the panel by introducing the two authors and having them read from their most recent books. From there, he began the discussion of the different levels of crime in crime fiction, and how the author views it. Mina, one who can be very gritty in her writing, piped up that as the author of the grit you don’t find it distasteful. Because she is the one who wrote it, there is a sort of distance there that keeps it from shocking herself. This comment may be informed by the fact that Mina does not really believe in the concept of evil. She thinks that it is a word we use to avoid empathy with the perpetrators. Evil is a social shut down so we don’t have to explore how we might also commit the crime.
In some respects, I do have to agree with Mina. The idea of inherent darkness in the human condition has been extensively examined in Scottish fiction such as James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the well-known Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both authors would have you believe that evil exists within each of us, and it is a matter of the choices we make that can tip the scale one way or another. Mina, as it seems, would agree with those findings, going so far as to not even believe in evil. When James brought up a few examples of gruesome crimes, which he said he would definitely consider evil, she was still not swayed. It is admirable for her to empathize, to feel sorrow, for those we might consider the worst men and women in history, and that empathy certainly translates into her writing. Of course, you could tell that there were many of us in the Bloody Scotland audience that day that just could not agree with her all the way.
From there the discussion moved towards villains, and James pointed out that those villains that have endured in pop culture are the ones with whom we can empathize. This led an audience member to ask if Mina or James felt that each book needs to have a real resolution, with the “bad guy” being caught at the end. Both agreed that at least for them, the triumph of “good” versus “evil” is not as important as it used to be, especially in crime fiction. The lines have blurred between the detective and the criminals they hunt, and while both do usually end the book with the mystery being solved, the arrest might not get made.
I found this whole panel very intriguing. There were a lot of points made about sociopaths (James insists that with good parents, sociopaths can lead normal lives, that not all will become serial killers as media would have us believe), and some very interesting back and forth between the three. A bit heavy for so early in the morning? Sure, but definitely worth the time.
In the Beginning was Laidlaw – William McIlvanney with Len Wanner
When I originally booked a ticket for this event, I thought they would be just discussing McIlvanney’s groundbreaking Laidlaw. There were no mentions that the author himself would be the one leading the panel. You can imagine my excitement when I got a promo email a few days before mentioning that he would be there. I may have been more nervous about hearing from McIlvanney than Rankin. And I didn’t have the guts to have him sign my Kindle, because really I want him to sign my heavily-noted paperback of Laidlaw. That’s in the States. Curse books being heavy and my ignorance of his presence at the panel.
For those who are unfamiliar, William McIlvanney was a popular literary writer who championed the Glasgow-area working class. When he wrote Laidlaw, he not only inspired Ian Rankin, but he also laid the groundwork for Scottish crime fiction. He is of course older, but he looks good for his 75 years. The thing I found really endearing was that he was casually dressed with trousers that rode up exposing his pulled-high white socks and he carried first-edition copies of the three Laidlaw novels on stage in a blue grocery sack. Like he’s just someone’s grandpa, not one of the most celebrated living Scottish authors.
McIlvanney shared some great stories about his life in a Glasgow bedsit (his former landlady was in the audience!), and his decision to write crime fiction. Simply put, he made Laidlaw a policeman so he would “have to deal with the bad stuff”. Simple. No motivation for money or fame, but because it was a vehicle to explore the issues close to him. He also wanted to reconnect himself to the contemporary, as his previous novel Docherty had been set at the turn of the century, and felt that a policeman could do that for him.
Perhaps the funniest thing McIlvanney related was his love of the crime fiction community, how generous they are and how they are full of praise for one another. He said he never felt that welcome amongst other literary writers, and instead was always looking for the hidden knives in that circle. An unexpected observation? A bit, but not after having attended this festival.
To end the night, PhD candidate Len Wanner asked McIlvanney about rumors concerning another Laidlaw novel. That was when McIlvanney told us that the books were going back into print, and Laidlaw’s voice was back in his head. He didn’t promise anything, but he is considering work on a fourth in the series! Great news for Scottish crime fans everywhere.