The King of Scottish Noir

Who’s the King of Scottish Noir? Ian Rankin. Hands down. Some might say Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, but I see him as the father. In any case, Rankin’s noir output far surpasses that of Stevenson.

Take Rankin’s Inspector Rebus opus. John Rebus is a hard-edge, no-nonsense police detective with a philosopher’s head and heart. He doesn’t always play by the rules. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. 

In the Rebus novels, mostly set in or near Edinburgh, Rankin deploys banter to counter the bleak reality of Scottish crime. He portrays tough criminals who are tougher men. The cops who hunt them are just as tough. Aye, but there’s humour too, of the Scottish ilk. Gruff, understated and, given the juxtaposition, doubly funny.  

At times, the plotting and crime MOs seem over-the-top. Some readers find the storylines overly bleak and depressing. They are cut from the cloth of real life. If you read a Rankin novel, you’ll get punched in the gut, you’ll rail at what humans do to humans. However, if you’re like me, you’ll keep reading. Ye can’nae stop. The King of Scottish Noir will hook you.

See Wikipedia for more on Ian Rankin and his twenty-plus Rebus novels.

Imperium, Then and Now

A few weeks ago, I started reading Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – it’s been collecting dust for years. The six-volume opus brought to mind the decline of a current empire. I’m not gloating. I love the USA. I spent many happy years there. It’s a chaotic yet vibrant democracy, born of lofty ideals but beset by schisms.

Thinking of the contemporary strife, I see no easy path forward. The Liberty Bell is breaking apart. The USA is going to endure more strife. I read Gibbon’s opus hoping to learn things from the Roman decline. I didn’t find many. Gibbon is a past master, but, if you’re looking for modern parallels, give him a miss.

Here’s a gross oversimplification of his opus: military power is power. Every volume highlights martial prowess. The Romans limited their domain to a relatively defensible area, roughly modern-day Western Europe minus Scandinavia, believing their military reach should not exceed their grasp. America is as much a cultural and commercial power as a military power, yet it has bases all over the world. If the British Empire is an example, America will soon relinquish many of them.

The American Empire is declining faster than the British, Roman, Aztec, Incan, or Persian Empires, not to mention many others. Reading Gibbon doesn’t provide much insight into why, other than to suggest that entropy always follows cohesion. The centre does not hold for long. Can’t argue with that.

Final thought. America’s not going anywhere. The end of an empire doesn’t mean the end of a nation.

Turning to the Light – Round II

As noted in ‘Turning to the Light,’ in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I read “brighter” fiction. Here are a few more suggestions. Caveat: Although the titles below aren’t murder stories, as with most fiction, there is death.

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan, 2001. A sweeping fictionalized account of the convict William Gould’s life in 1820s Tasmania. The central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. One of the finest Australian novels.

Dirt Music by Tim Winton, 2002. To continue the Down Under theme, Dirt Music is another modern Australian classic. It sings the raw underbelly of Western Australia in the late 20th century: the money, the greed, and, above all, the power of the land.

Turning to the Light

I don’t know about you, but in dark times I turn away from crime/mystery fiction. I want brighter stories. ‘Bright, AMP? Aren’t you supposed to be a noir guy?’ Hey, bright doesn’t mean soppy. 😉 Here are a few novels that fit the bill for me, and maybe you.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, 2006. At first glance, a simple story. However, it radiates deep emotion. One of my favourite works of literary fiction from the last 15 years.

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952. A timeless tale, told with the direct prose of a fable. The story is mythic, yet it feels absolutely real.

The Colour by Rose Tremain, 2003. A British couple migrate to New Zealand (South Island) during an 1860s gold rush. As with many tales of migration/colonization, the migrants and natives clash (in this case, the British and the Maoris). There is pain and conflict, yet the tone is uplifting.

For more suggestions, check out Turning to the Light – Round II.

Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the ‘Father of Succinct Prose’: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. If Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.

Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime + Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.

Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.

As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.

Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then unravels how it happened. He knows how to tell a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “criminal” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”