William McIlvanney

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.

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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).