The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Claire MacLeary…

Claire MacLeary

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer Claire MacLeary about her trilogy of Aberdeen set crime novels, Cross Purpose, Burnout, and her latest, Runaway (all published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books) . These novels introduced readers to Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, two middle-aged women who join together to work as private investigators.

Claire and Ali discuss the central characters, how they are a refreshing change from the norm, other people’s reaction to their choice of career, and the development of the relationship changes over the three books. They also talk about the importance of research, the often dark themes of Claire’s writing, the importance of bringing something different to the genre, Aberdeen as a setting, and the distinctive way she approaches her work. It’s a must listen for anyone with an interest in books – crime or otherwise – one which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a writer.

You can read the SWH! review of Runaway here, but before you do I suggest you listen to the podcast as I think the two work together well to give you a clear idea as to Claire MacLeary and her work.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). 

You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

We’ll be back soon with someone completely different. See you then…

Our Friends In The North: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Runaway…

One of the defining characteristics of most successful crime series is to have protagonists who readers look forward to spending time with. This is particularity prevalent in Scottish Crime Fiction. From Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus and beyond, the best crime writers have created characters who are undoubtedly flawed – arguably defined by those flaws – but who carry enough charisma, charm and intrigue to keep us on their side.

It’s with that in mind that we can give a warm welcome back to private investigators Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, whose flaws, while still evident, are less-sensational than an opium or whisky habit. They are back for round three in their fight against Aberdeen’s criminals in Claire MacLeary’s latest novel Runaway.

This time around we find Maggie and Wilma’s relationship beginning to fracture as cases are increasingly rare, often disagreeing as to the best way to go about their business. Imagine Cagney and Lacey, older, wiser, and wearier, but working the slightly less-mean streets of Mannofield rather than Manhattan, and you have some idea as to the women’s dynamic. Not love/hate, more love/exasperate.

When Scott Milne reports his wife Debbie as missing the police aren’t interested so he decides to go private, asking Harcus & Laird if they will help. The two argue as to whether this is a case worth taking on, with Wilma for and Maggie against. When they do it takes them to places which in turn remind them of their past, reassess the present, and make them fear for the future.

Runaway has a distinctly darker tone than MacLeary’s earlier work, commenting on homelessness, the lives of sex workers, and people-traffiking (something which appears to be rife in northern Scotland, also featuring in Douglas Skelton’s latest novel Thunder Bay as well as being central to the plot of the last series of Shetland).

But, as with Cross Purpose and Burnout, Runaway is as much about the drama of everyday living as it is about solving crime. The reason Maggie and Wilma are relatable is because they are so believable. Two suburban middle-aged women working as PI’s is a tricky scenario to pull off, but MacLeary clearly understands these women and their lives.

Whereas Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane, or Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste all have lifestyles which allow them to play the loner, fulfilling crime/noir stereotypes as perfected by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, Maggie and Wilma have responsibilities which many readers will relate to – ones which they take seriously. Family, partners, friends and colleagues, for most of us these are ties which are not easily severed, and they fight for them despite often receiving disapproval, opprobrium, and often condemnation for what they do. Overcoming, or rather dealing with, such attitudes, often from their nearest and dearest, shows true strength and determination.

This recognisable humanity is what makes Claire MacLeary’s novels as notable as they are welcome. She makes nods to, and understands, the tropes and themes of crime fiction but adapts them to her characters rather than the other way round, avoiding cliche and stereotype. This also applies to the way people talk to each other. MacLeary clearly has an ear for how people argue, bicker, and tease, but also understands how they struggle to apologise, explain, or make-up afterwards. It’s as much about what remains unspoken as what is said, and the problems that result from this inability to communicate.

Both women’s life experience comes into its own and it’s their refusal to be overlooked and ignored which gives Runaway a vitality and verve which is rare. MacLeary uses who they are and how others may perceive them as a strength rather than suggesting any weakness, turning people’s prejudices against them. Being underestimated and patronised becomes one of the greatest weapons in their armoury.

What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested at the top of the page, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.

Runaway is out now, published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books.

Begin Again: A Review Of Douglas Skelton’s The Janus Run…

44324943_751513578558785_575901616280961024_n.jpg

As regulars to SWH! will know, crime-writer Douglas Skelton is one of our favourite novelists. He has been a guest on our podcast, and his most recent novels, 2016’s The Dead Don’t Boogie & 2017’s Tag – You’re Dead both featured in their particular years’ ‘Best Of’ roundups. They were taken from his series of Dominic Queste novels, which feature a Glasgow gumshoe obsessed with film, noir, and film noir. Skelton has Queste speaking and acting as if he roams the streets of Brooklyn rather than Barlanark, so it makes complete sense that he has chosen to set his latest, The Janus Run, (a departure from the Queste books), in New York. This move makes for his most exciting novel yet.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Dominic Queste fan, and I hope we hear more from him before too long, but The Janus Run is a proper page-turner thriller, pure and simple – enthralling from start to finish. It feels as if this Atlantic crossing has freed Skelton as a writer. Instead of having characters pretending to be in the movies, this time they are in them. It’s as if he has brought all of his influences to bear – the novels, the films, and the TV shows which he loves are still in evidence, but without the direct references which, while great fun, always felt more than a little knowing. This time round Skelton shows rather than tells. Continue reading

The Quines Of Crime: A Review Of Claire MacLeary’s Burnout…

DSC_0778.jpgWhen writing in any genre, new writers in particular have a balance to try to get right. They want toCP_cover introduce something fresh while still making the writing recognisable to regular readers who expect certain tropes and conceits from their fiction. If you can get the balance right then there is every chance you have a successful novel on your hands.

One of the finest crime fiction debuts of recent years was Claire MacLeary’s Cross Purpose (right). Published in 2017 on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books, it introduced two new crime fighters in the unfamiliar form of Maggie Laird and “Big” Wilma Harcus, an odd couple in a fine and long tradition from Holmes and Watson to the vast majority of recent TV detectives (Morse/Lewis, Scott/Bailey, Creek/Magellen and Hayes/Addison being just a few personal favourites). Continue reading

From Russia, With Love: A Review Of Olga Wotjas’ Miss Blaine’s Prefect And The Golden Samovar…

MBPGS_cover.jpg

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the writer Muriel Spark. You may have noticed – you MUST have noticed – but if you haven’t you soon will as all sorts of events and celebrations are either underway or planned. If ever a writer and their work deserved celebration it is estimable Muriel Spark.

We will be recording a Muriel Spark podcast in the coming weeks to pay our own tribute to arguably the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century, but in the meantime you can find out all you need to know at MurielSpark100.com to plan your year appropriately. So as not to miss out you can follow what’s going on by Twitter and Facebook, or by using the search #murielspark100.

As this is the case, you may think it incredibly canny that Olga Wojtas’ novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, published on Contraband, (the crime imprint of Saraband) arrives in such a timely fashion, but the Spark connections are more subtle than the timing may suggest. The story concentrates on the adventures of Shona Aurora McMonagle, a former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School For Girls, the fictional setting for Spark’s most famous novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Continue reading

Happy Accidents: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talk To Graeme Macrae Burnet…

DSC_0540.JPGOn the latest podcast Ali speaks to writer, and returning guest, Graeme Macrae Burnet. The primary reason was to discuss his latest novel, The Accident On The A35, but the conversation turns to the work of George Simenon, existential fiction, home-town chauvinism, the importance of character, the formative nature of teenage years, the writer/publisher relationship, different approaches to writing, and a whole lot more.

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-09-27-20

Graeme also looks back on life since his second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and all that has entailed. As mentioned, Graeme was on the podcast back in December 2015 with fellow Saraband/Contraband author, Graham Lironi.

On it he spoke about His Bloody Project, which had only just been published, and it’s fascinating to hear what has happened to writer and novel since then. We’re calling the latest podcast a must-listen for anyone with an interest in books, writers, and writing, and we wouldn’t lie about something like that. Continue reading

The Road Less Travelled: A Review Of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident On The A35…

dsc_0532.jpg

How do you follow a cultural touchstone – something which captures a moment, stands aside from what’s around it, and which moves from the reviews to the news section of the papers? If you’re The Stone Roses, after a seminal debut, you lock yourself away for five years in the studio. If you’re Sam Raimi, you basically remake your breakthrough film, Evil Dead, with a bigger budget and call it Evil Dead II. And if you’re J.D. Salinger, challenged to write a sequel to Catcher In The Rye, you admit defeat.

Graeme Macrae Burnet is faced with following his Man Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project, which, partly due to the fact it was published by Scottish indie publisher Saraband, became arguably one of the most famous contemporary novels in the English-speaking world for a time last year. For many this daunting task would be overwhelming, but Macrae Burnet has tackled this potential problem in style by writing his own sequel, and a fine one at that, but to his debut novel The Disappearance Of Adele Bedeau rather than its more famous successor. Continue reading

Going Underground: A Review Of Michael J Malone’s Dog Fight…

519xKfuQP9L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Glasgow and violence – writers have played no small part in making sure the two are seen as closely related. The 1935 novel No Mean City is perhaps the most infamous text, with its focus on the razor gangs of the Gorbals, but you’ll also find plenty of blood, sweat and tear-ups in the work of  writers as diverse as Alexander Trocchi, Frank Kuppner, William McIlvanney, Louise Welsh and Denise Mina, and it’s a list which just goes on. In fact, it is not that easy to think of a Glasgow set novel which doesn’t reference the city’s reputation for being dark and dangerous in some form, and it has become increasingly difficult to find a writer with something new to say.

Michael J Malone’s latest novel, Dog Fight, does just that. Set against the backdrop of illegal underground fights, it is not simply about skelpings and square-go’s – cries of pain and the crack of bones, although there is enough of that to satisfy the most bloody-thirsty of readers. It also examines the reasons that men (and in this case it is men) are drawn to such a world – those on both sides of the ropes. Poverty, blackmail, threats of, and actual, violence are all understandable motivations to fight, but Malone also discusses mental-illness, self-punishment and the complexity of family ties. You may think that this is going to be a book where the good-guys wear white hats and the villains black, but there’s nothing as obvious as that. Motivations are complex, just as they are in real life, and outcomes are never certain. Malone may describe the extreme side of life, but the reasons people find themselves there will be familiar to many. Continue reading

You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket: A Review Of Louise Hutcheson’s The Paper Cell…

DSC_0437.JPG

The novella is a form of writing which has fallen out of favour in recent times, and that’s as bewildering as it is unfortunate. We are constantly told that there is little appetite for epic fiction (fantasy aside). If you happen to have a novel on the go at the moment there is a good chance it is between 60-80,000 words long, something which is as much about finance as fashion.

Another trend from the last ten years has been the happy resurgence of the short story which is once more being taken seriously, especially in Scottish literature with Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales all featuring in the recent Books Of The Year lists. If the trend is towards shorter fiction in general, whither the novella?

It has a laudable tradition – longer than a short story but much more than simply “a short novel”, the best of them stand up against any writer’s longer work. Think of James Joyce’s The Dead, Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – these are among the finest works of fiction ever written, yet some may continue to think of novellas as somehow a lesser literary form, as if quality is measured in quantity. If you are one of those you are missing out as well as wrong. Often concerned with a single idea or theme, novellas are tightly written and edited – clear in thought, intention and narrative. Continue reading

Crime Time: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Writer Douglas Skelton…

DSC_0435.JPG

In the latest podcast, Ali and Ian met up with writer Douglas Skelton, initially to talk about his Dominic Queste novels, The Dead Don’t Boogie and Tag – You’re Dead, but the discussion touched upon so much more.

They talk about Douglas’s ‘Davie McCall’ series of novels, his non-fiction, the importance of secondary characters, Glasgow’s fascination with crime, the influencv_bjIISIe of the novels of Ed McBain, Shane, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the greatest TV show of all time (TM) – Hill Street Blues.

As you would expect, if you have read Skelton’s recent work, there are plenty of cultural references and enough “film buffery” to keep everyone happy, or at the very least the people in the room.

Douglas knows of that which he writes as he has done the hard research for real-life crime books such as Glasgow’s Black Heart and Dark Heartand as such the podcast is a must hear for anyone with an interest in crime writing, but will also appeal to a much wider audience, just as Douglas Skelton’s novels do. Continue reading