Genre fiction has often had to pay for its popularity by being looked upon as subliterary, especially in the United States where cultural arbiters tend to be overly scrupulous in distinguishing “real” (or “high”) art from mass entertainments such as science fiction, romance, and mystery. Since the 1960’s, popular culture has been treated with increasing seriousness, within the academy and without. As a result, the boundary between the literary novel and genre fiction has become increasingly porous. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the detective novel, especially in its Scottish branch, which has come to house a distinctive and often quite literary subgenre of it own: tartan noir.
Tartan noir’s roots reach back to William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series (begun in 1978), arguably earlier still to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle (trained at Edinburgh University) and even the Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg, an influence on Edgar Allan Poe, originator of the American detective story. Recent novels by Louise Welsh, Val McDiarmid, and Denise Mina have greatly extended tartan noir’s range, but it is Ian Rankin who not only serves as the bridge between then (McIlvanney) and now (Mina et al.) but who is also the person most responsible for putting tartan noir on the global literary map.
Rankin published his first novel in 1986 and his first detective fiction the following year. With few exceptions, he has stayed with the form and the same detective ever since. Genre fiction depends, as genres in general do, on repetition to create a sense of sameness, ringing its variations on a theme, while maintaining a high degree of stylistic and structural uniformity. Rankin’s John Rebus novels are no exception. What distinguishes Rankin’s detective novels (or, more accurately, “police procedurals”) is the way in which, and the degree to which, Rankin incorporates these differences within one novel and from novel to novel. His still unfinished series is now nearly two decades old. Rankin’s breakthrough came in 1997, when he won the Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious Gold Dagger Award for Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus novel (and ninth Rebus book, including a collection of Rebus short stories). His novels shot to the tops of Scottish best-sellers lists, gaining a worldwide audience.
Along the way, the Edinburgh in which all but one of the Rebus books are set became known as “the crime capital of the world”or more accurately, the crime fiction capital. This labeling of Scotland’s capital city is a bit odd. The real Edinburgh, which has a very low homicide rate, seems better suited to novels about history such as James Robertson’s The Fanatic (2000) or, given its reputation for class-bound propriety and Calvinist repression, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)at least until Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting appeared on the scene in 1993. Larger, newer, more urban-industrial Glasgow, with its history of gang violence, seems a more likely setting for crime fiction, as McIlvanney’s, Mina’s, and Louise Welsh’s novels demonstrate.
Part of Rankin’s achievement, therefore, is the way he capitalizes on Edinburgh’s dramatic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like topography, making the setting both physically real and thematically revealing of the nation no less than the characters. More a collection of villages than a monolithic urban center, Edinburgh’s divisions are dramatically apparent in the contrast between Old and New Towns. The New Town’s rectilinear layout embodies the ideals of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and its street names (Rose, George, King, Queen, and so on) evidence the wedding of Scotland’s economic, sociocultural, and political destiny to England’s following the 1707 Act of Union. The medieval Old Town looms above, with its subterranean depths and mazelike streets whose very names imply a not quite vanished past: its Tollgates and Canongates, its Lawnmarkets, Grassmarkets, Fishmarkets and, yes, Fleshmarkets.
Rebus’s name is highly evocative as well as appropriate, referring to a kind of picture puzzle. Rebus is himself a puzzle within the puzzle that is each novel. Because the novels take place in real time, starting in the mid-1980’s, the Rebus of Fleshmarket Alley is seventeen years older than when the series began. He is a year...
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