Bloody Scotland

Gods & Beasts – Denise Mina

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Gods and Beasts is the third novel featuring DS Alex Morrow and follows her investigation into a pre-Christmas post office shooting and robbery.  While she tries to unravel the mystery, Alex just wants to be home with her new twin boys and husband.  Woven in is the mysterious young man who cared for a boy while his grandfather was shot, increasing amounts of police bribery, and a corrupt MP fighting scandalous allegations.

Mina is known for her deep, psychological crime fiction, and I expected Gods and Beasts to be on par or better than End of the Wasp Season.  I am afraid this newest installment fell a little short of its predecessor.  It is several pages before we even see Alex Morrow, our protagonist, and the lack of focus on her makes the book feel very full.  There are countless characters all involved in various schemes, and even I had a hard time remembering which names fit into which story.  The entire MP storyline could have been lifted from the book without a lot of bother.  It only sheds light on the major ending twist; a twist that could have been delivered another way easily.  Instead, Mina’s desire to delve into the political feels misplaced and could have been more powerful in another novel.

One thing that worked very well in Gods and Beasts was Morrow’s new motherhood.  Mina is one of the few crime authors I’ve read that has had her main character be personally successful.  In fact, during Bloody Scotland, Mina mentioned that she wanted “to write a cop who is very happy at home, just to be outrageous.”  Morrow’s desire to be at home, her appreciation for her “second-chance at motherhood”, and her desire to push forward in her life were quite refreshing.  She even admits her familial connection with half-brother mobster Danny to her bosses, just to prove she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  I loved that about her, the strength it must have taken.  DS Alex Morrow has shown one of the better character progressions in Scottish crime fiction, and Mina shows great restraint in not mucking it up for drama.

Gods and Beasts is still a fantastic read, even if it did have a high standard to live up to with End of the Wasp Season.  While it lacks the same depth in its criminals that we have gotten more often from Mina, she does bring a new twist to a genre that constantly redefines itself in Scotland.  Now if we could just have gotten rid of Kenny Gallagher MP, the story would be tight.

Rating: 7/10

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Bloody Scotland, Day 3

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Wild Girls – Denise Mina & Karen Campbell with Craig Robertson

While the tagline of the event sold it as a discussion of women and crime writing, it really became a discussion about crime writing.  Both Mina and Campbell actually seemed a little uncomfortable to discuss whether their gender influenced their writing (Mina stated that some days she forgets she’s a woman), and Campbell set out to write crime to humanize the police.  With both authors unwilling to dwell a ton on feminism, we got a great, fun panel with a wide amount of crime topics.

One topic they addressed that I found really interesting was that of power.  For both Campbell and Mina, publication is a form of power, and both feel that what they write shows how they choose to use the power they are given.  Campbell, a former police officer, chose to use her power to show that members of law enforcement were more than just instruments.  Mina has used hers to discuss and highlight social issues throughout each of her books.

But does the fact they are women influence our choice to read them, or the way they are marketed?  Off the bat, one distinguishing feature of the female writer is the fact that both Mina and Campbell have written pregnant detectives.  That representation of happiness, stability, and a home life to come are both uncommon in a lot of crime fiction.  And of course, being pregnant is a huge reminder of one’s femininity.  One audience member was brave enough to say that she might choose Mina or another woman writer over their male counterparts, but mostly because she expects more psychological depth from a woman writer.  And both Mina and Campbell said they have received letters from readers complaining of rough language in their books; language the reader didn’t expect because they are women.

Which led them to start talking about the use of Scots in their novels.  As an avid reader of all sorts of Scottish fiction for the last five years, I was intrigued to hear their views on this.  Mina, who is widely published in the States, mentioned that while her books used to have to be “translated” for American readership, they now are changing less and less.  Campbell has also had her fair share of arguments with her London based publisher, who at one time wanted to change the word “close” to “foyer”.  For those not in the know, a close is a sort of alley or entrance to a group of tenement flats.  It gets its name from being small, enclosed on all sides.  Somehow, Campbell’s publisher took her description and thought it was the same thing as a foyer.  It is an amusing example of how much language and word choice matters, even if readers might not be familiar with the word in question.

About this time, the discussion broke away into a broader discourse about crime fiction in general.  Campbell is moving away from the genre for her next book, but Mina has fallen in love with it and will stay put.  They both admire the genre for its potential for great narrative drive and the avid readership, but both admit that their placement in the genre is due to marketers.  They write the books that they want to write, and the publisher does what they need to do to sell them.

No conclusion was really drawn from either of these wild girls when it comes to women and crime writing.  While both agree they still see many of their colleagues using initials, pseudonyms, or gender neutral names to sell books, they themselves have not succeeded less because of who they are.  Mina stated that the only way to fix the issue was to keep putting a woman’s name on the book and let the contents sell itself.  Act like there is a problem and you create it.  While it might narrow the readership field now, both Mina and Campbell only want to write good books.

Book Signings

I went to book signings for Rankin, Gray, and Anderson and for Mina after her Girls panel.  It was an incredible experience to meet all of them, and see Mina for the second time.  I was potentially most nervous to meet Rankin (of course), in part because I decided to have them sign my Kindle and he was the first I handed it to.  When I showed it to him and asked if he would, he laughed and said he had seen it done in the States before, then asked where I was from.  I responded the States, and he, Gray, and Anderson all chuckled.  When I asked Mina to sign it (who did remember me a bit from a couple of years ago), she and I got into a good discussion about how eco-friendly they are and just what a great device eReaders are for an avid reader.  I do wish that I had had brought one of my actual copies for Rankin to sign, but having four of the leading Scottish crime writers on the back of my Kindle makes it awesome to read.

Ian Rankin at the top (with the Knots and Crosses), then Gray, Anderson, and Mina below!

This is sadly the end of my Bloody Scotland write-ups and experiences.  I hope they announce an event for next year soon, because I am already starting to get excited for another go.

Bloody Scotland, Day 2

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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

Len Wanner and William McIlvanney

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.

Bloody Scotland, Day 1

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I had the most awesome opportunity this weekend to attend Bloody Scotland, the first crime writing festival in Scotland.  Not only did we get to kick off the festival with a hilarious recreation of authors Alex Gray and Lin Anderson dreaming up the festival, but Ian Rankin gave the keynote address and the three took questions from the audience.  Plus, I got to meet and get all three of their autographs after the night.  It was surreal.

Ian Rankin, Alex Gray, and Lin Anderson opening the fun-filled weekend.

Instead of standing and giving some sort of address, Gray and Anderson put together a little skit, meant to be a recreation of when they decided to start Bloody Scotland.  Part way through Ian Rankin and Craig Robertson came on stage, standing at a little pub table pretending to be in their own conversation.  Rankin was later invited to join Gray and Anderson, and from there gave his keynote address.  Though it sounds a bit silly to describe, having the three very influential crime authors sitting in chairs just having a nice chat gave the evening, and the beginning of the weekend, a relaxed, comfortable feel.  Which is helpful when you open the panel up for questions from the audience.

Rankin made a few great observations about Scottish crime fiction, one of which is that there was no real history of it.  Sure, the quintessential detective Sherlock Holmes was written by a Scot based on a Scot, but he was English and lived in London.  After Conan Doyle, there were no other writers who stepped forward and took over the mystery game.  Not really until literary writer William McIlvanney published Laidlaw in 1977, that is.  Rankin noted that without a long-standing tradition, Scottish crime writers are not constrained by outside expectations, and that freedom has allowed perhaps the most creative, diverse set of crime writers from any country.

In addition to his personal views on the history of crime fiction, Rankin shared a bit of his own past with the genre.  As many of his fans know, Rankin was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh when he wrote the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses.  To hear Ian Rankin tell it, it was really McIlvanney who inspired him to go for the crime genre.  When Rankin met McIlvanney at a signing, he mentioned that he was working on his own detective, but that he’d be from Edinburgh instead.  McIlvanney apparently replied with signing Rankin’s book with the inscription, “Good luck on the Edinburgh Laidlaw.”  Not surprisingly, Rankin stated that he still has that book (why would he ever part with it, though?).  But one of Rankin’s points that surprised me was he mentioned he wanted to write books that his dad would pick up.  He wanted to write something that was accessible, enjoyable to read.  Considering he was in the middle of a grueling academic degree, spending his time delving deep into sometimes impenetrable literature, I don’t blame Rankin for not wanting to follow that same path.

Other tidbits:

  • Ian Rankin suggests that before you travel anywhere, read the crime fiction set there.  It’ll show you the places to go (and avoid), and it gives you the most accurate depiction of a city.
  • Rankin also broke all wannabe writers’ hearts by saying that writing never gets any easier.  Because you will always want to improve and top the last thing you did, and you can’t stay stagnant, you’ll agonize over each book.  Thanks Ian.
  • When offered water after his glass of presumably beer was empty, Rankin just waved his hand and laughed.
  • Alex Gray and Lin Anderson have obviously had way too much fun putting Bloody Scotland together.
  • Mentions of the Scottish Crime writers as a sort of gang of friends was nice, minus the sad news of fake Amazon reviews by one of their own (to be discussed in another post).

Are Authors Celebrities?

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Ian Rankin – I think this is the same picture he’s used for years.

Thinking about my impending visit to Bloody Scotland, I was imagining finally seeing (and maybe meeting) Ian Rankin.

For many reasons, that is a terrifying prospect.  For one, I spent a couple years of my life intensely studying some of his books, which is evidenced by all of my copies being heavily marked and littered with Post It flags.

Second, nothing I could possibly say to this man would not come off as extremely embarrassing.  Most likely.  As well as my initial meeting with Denise Mina went, I have to say I am about ten times as terrified/excited to meet the man behind Rebus.  The fear won’t prevent me from going to the festival (I did already book my tickets) or from seeing Ian Rankin speak, but I have to say that I will probably anticipate that Friday evening more than any other I could think of.  (Minus my own wedding of course.  Which happens to also be a Friday evening.  Luckily the Scottish fiance doesn’t always read these musings, which just might save our marriage down the line.)

All of this anticipation and hype got me thinking – Do we view authors as celebrities? Or do we look at them differently than we would a movie star?

I would have to say:  yes, we look at them much differently. We fall in love with their talent, not with their faces or ability to make us swoon.  Look at guys like Stephen King; great writer, but not the most handsome guy in the world.  Now think about the celebrity you find most attractive, like the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds) or Chrises (Hemsworth and Evans) of the world.  When you think of these actors, you generally first think of how beautiful they are on a movie screen, second how talented they are.  Not everyone does that and yes, I admire many actors for their talent (Jennifer Lawrence or Gosling again), but as a very superficial society we do look at actors and judge them on how attractive they are.  After all, the ones that look like Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman are considered “character actors”, and hardly ever are given the lead in a blockbuster film.

This is what is so refreshing about the book world.  No one cares.  It might be an added bonus that your favorite author is good to look at, but how many authors are there in the world that really look like Nathan Fillion’s Castle?  I might not think every author who is loved deserves the accolades, but where our tastes differ we can all agree on the same thing – we love our favorite authors because of what they write.  Because they bring our favorite characters to life.  Or simply because they paint a picture with words so vivid that you almost forget what you are reading is fiction.

So, back to my main question – are authors celebrities?  No, not really.  Not in the traditional sense anyway.  You are not really getting to know them (as you can fool yourself into believing with the traditional celebrity), but you are getting to know their writing style, their talent, and maybe a little piece of their own reality.  You see the inner workings of their brains in a way that is so unique from any other art form, and yet they are all distinct from what they write.  It is actually frowned upon in the academic world when you bring an author’s background into the literary theory, unless there is just that unmistakable connection.  Whatever the author has gone through has been channeled into their work, without a doubt, but what we are reading is something wholly different from what they might actually believe or have lived through.

This is I think why it is almost nerve wracking to meet your favorite author.  You know that they are not the characters they write, and yet you sort of want to believe it.  So you stress, because you do not want to come out to a signing sounding like some nutter who believes the fiction is real, and yet you want them to know how much their work has touched you in whatever way.

And here’s the main question:  would you actually recognize your favorite author on the street?  Most of us would have to say no, unless your favorite author was J.K. Rowling, and I would have to admit even she might be hard to recognize in a crowd.  Question answered with this one, really.