Among the more welcome returns in 2017 is that of Glasgow detective Dominic Queste in Douglas Skelton’s new novel, Tag – You’re Dead. If you read last year’s The Dead Don’t Boogie (which was one of our Books Of 2016) you’ll have been looking forward to this since turning the last page. If you didn’t that won’t affect your enjoyment of Tag – You’re Dead which works equally well as a stand-alone thriller. But you should.
That’s not to say that this novel is simply a retelling of the first. Genre fiction has some recognisable tropes which are expected, and which are part of the appeal, but Skelton manages to play with those themes and ideas while at the same time adhering to them. However, where The Dead Don’t Boogie was, at least in terms of plot, a detective and gangster novel, here Skelton introduces no little amount of horror, with a faceless killer on the loose with a taste for mind-games, torture, classical music, and possibly steak pies.
There are clues as to where Skelton is taking a story with the references he uses. In the previous novel they were mainly there to establish the character of Dominic Queste, with plenty of nods to Philip Marlowe and other noir fiction and movies. Those are still present, but the references are widened to include (amongst many others) Halloween, Scream, Silence Of The Lambs and Fallen to prove that Queste is as much pop-culture nerd as he is tough-guy gumshoe – in fact the former has a direct influence on the latter. He is creating his own persona in a manner not too far from The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, except Dominic Queste really commits to the role. Continue reading
Is there a more unreliable narrator than one who is themselves a writer? The idea of a fiction within a fiction, of stories being told, are more pronounced. In Russel D. McLean’s latest novel, Ed’s Dead, struggling writer Jen Carter earns herself the title of “The Most Dangerous Woman In Scotland”, yet even she is unsure whether it is deserved or not. Is she discovering she has innate and previously unused skills as a cold-blooded killer, or is she simply and spectacularly unlucky? If it’s the latter, that’s a hell of a lot of broken mirrors.
It’s no spoiler to say that in Ed’s Dead, Ed dies. He is Jen’s boyfriend, a man who is at one-moment keen to seem her knight in shining armour, the next he is looking around for another potential conquest, doing so in plain sight. Jen is swiftly coming to the realisation that everything he does is what’s best for Ed – what makes him feel good and look good. As his associate Dave puts it, “He’s a dick. But he’s cool too, aye?”. At least one half of that statement rings true to Jen and she decides enough is enough. However she soon finds out that with some relationships, like the mafia, just when you think you’re out they pull you back in. Continue reading
The last few years have seen a real development in the breadth of what I’m going to loosely call Scottish crime fiction. A genre which for so long seemed one-dimensional in style as well as content has become as varied and interesting as any other area in Scottish writing today, arguably more so.
Don’t misunderstand me, there have always been great writers in this genre. McIllvanney, Rankin, Brookmyre, McDermid – they all have a style which is distinctly theirs and which has shaped how we think of modern crime writing. But, in the last 15 years we have had important and genre busting novels from Louise Welsh, Doug Johnstone, Alex Gray, Helen Fitzgerald, Neil Mackay, Mary Paulson Ellis and Graeme Macrae Burnet, with each writer being very different in terms of style and content, but they were all to be found on the programme for the Bloody Scotland Book Festival 2016. Where readers used to perceive stereotypes they can now find variety and fresh perspectives. Continue reading
Last year we recorded a podcast with Graeme Macrae Burnet and Graham Lironi, both of whom had written novels which could be described as crime fiction, but which were vastly different from one another, or anything else published last year. During the discussion both spoke about the problems they had with their work being labelled as in any way ‘genre’.
If this subject interests you, you can still listen to the full podcast here, but the short version is this; on the one hand, if you can be categorised as a genre writer it will arguably help booksellers to market you, and perhaps gets your books into the hands of those who otherwise may not have read them. On the other hand, you risk assumptions being made about your writing which are unfair, or just plain wrong, and which may put off another group of readers. Although you would hope the quality of work would speak for itself, there are prejudices at play, married to the economics and practicalities of selling books, which can be hugely frustrating for writers.
Saraband Books have embraced this apparent dichotomy with their ‘crime/thriller’ offshoot, Contraband. They are the publishers of both Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project and Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, accepting both novels for what they are; brilliantly written, beautifully crafted, and original. Other authors published by Contraband include Neil Broadfoot, Matt Bendoris, and Shelley Day, and it is clear that what they have managed, in a relatively short time, is to become known as a place to find offbeat, interesting and quality fiction no matter how you label it. The fact that His Bloody Project has made the Man Booker Prize longlist this year suggests that how we categorise genre and literary fiction can, should, and perhaps is changing. The only question that should matter is, ‘Is the writing good?’, and this is what Contraband puts first. Continue reading
It is all too rare that contemporary Scottish fiction looks to its own rich past to tell us something new. James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack and John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints are two fine examples from the last 10 years which spring to mind, and there are echoes of both in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel His Bloody Project. Channeling Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg and even Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s a novel which leads you down deliberate and dark dead-ends as Macrae Burnet takes great delight in wrong footing the reader at every turn. Because of that rather than despite it, it is also one of the most enjoyable and involving novels you’ll read this year.
The games commence immediately with the Preface, which has the present day ‘author’ (who signs himself GMB) relating how he came across the memoir of one of his ancestors, Roderick Macrae, written during the latter’s time in gaol at Inverness Castle in 1896. It relates to terrible events which scandalised the Ross-shire village of Culduie in August of that year, and to which Roderick Macrae has accepted culpability. He is asked by his sympathetic advocate, Andrew Sinclair, to commit his version of events to paper, as well as the reasons behind his actions and any mitigating circumstances which he can recall, as Sinclair hopes to prove his client ‘not guilty’ for reasons of insanity.
What follows is a wonderfully vivid and moving account of the life of the young Roderick Macrae, so eloquently written that it explains why many who read it at the time, according to GMB, believed the document to be a fake in the manner of James Macpherson’s Ossian (another nod to Scotland’s literary past). However, there is other evidence as to its veracity, and we are encouraged that what we are about to read is no fiction. What follows, with echoes of the structure of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are various statements, medical reports, and other testaments from some of the individuals who are also involved in this tale to supplement and often contradict Roderick’s memoir. Sympathies shift with every differing point of view as Roderick Macrae’s nature, intellect and morality are examined and pulled in different directions.