While awaiting the new Doug Johnstone – The Jump – to be released I made the acquaintance of another Scot, James Oswald (only literally, of course). Is there no end to good Scottish crime writers, I wondered and tried to work out their number.
Not so easy, it seems, for it’s hard to know what makes an author Scottish. Is it an accident of birth? Is it a question of residency? Or because the books are placed in Scotland? Who decides, anyway?
Take Ann Cleeves, the author of Jimmy Perez Shetland Island mysteries, Vera Stanhope of the TV fame and many others. Ann grew up far south of the border and has, for decades, lived on Tyneside, but is often celebrated as a Scottish Crime writer.
In contrast Manda Scot, hailed as “one of Britain’s most important crime writers” – was born, educated and worked in Scotland although now lives in England. Her Glasgow novel No Good Deed is, in my humble opinion, as good as it gets – yet it’s hard to find her name on the lists of Scottish Crime writers.
Val McDermid is a Scot by birth but most of her books are placed in England – A Darker Domain being an exception – and she has lived primarily outside Scotland. Still, you can hardly talk about Tartan Noir without mentioning McDermid alongside Ian Rankin et al.
And then there’s Charles Cumming. In 2012 his spy thriller, A Foreign Country, was named as “The Scottish Crime Book of the Year”. Cumming was born in Scotland but has lived most of his adult life elsewhere. This is how the New York Times reviewer, John Schwartz, sums up A Foreign Country:
“Amelia, a young au pair, disappears in Tunisia in 1978, leaving behind a lovelorn seducer. Years later, an elderly French couple are murdered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Soon after, a young man is abducted from a dark Paris street in a 20-second maneuver “as easy as lighting a cigarette.” And Amelia, now the new head of MI6, the British intelligence service, has gone missing during a sudden trip to the South of France.”
Not exactly a Scottish tale, then. But, wait, Schwartz comes to this conclusion:
Geopolitics aside, this is a novel about identity… the real story in “A Foreign Country” is the quest to reclaim our better selves, the people we once thought we might be.
Maybe that’s the answer. It’s all about identity. Or to paraphrase the old saying: If the Tam O’Shanter fits, wear it.