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.

Dark Angels

To some, crime noir is a subgenre set in grim urban environments, featuring petty criminals and desperate characters, permeated by a sense of disillusionment. I favour a wider lens. In the North Noir (Detective Naslund) series, crime noir is less bleak. It is more like life itself: not always dark, not always light.

Crime noir is linked to film noir, to movies such as The Maltese Falcon, which was first a novel. In a noir detective novel, the main character is sharp-witted and/or sharp-tongued. No quarter is given. Criminals try to rig the system, but fail.

Of course, noir detectives aren’t lily white. They cross lines, some more egregious than others, which they breach for the sake of efficiency or to apprehend criminals. Noir detectives are crime fiction’s dark angels. They know darkness, but follow the light.

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.”