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.

Poe’s Legacy: Hominid Detectus

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) is best known for macabre stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Tell-tale Heart.” He is regarded by many as the inventor of the detective genre, which has expanded into multiple forms now considered to be sub-genres; for example, crime, mystery, detective, thriller, etc.

In the decades since Poe’s death, hundreds of authors have fleshed out his prototype: Homo detectus, a man or woman with a wide-ranging mind, ever seeking, ever suspicious.

A detective doesn’t believe everything people say. In fact, when on a case, he or she can’t afford to believe anything people say. Although humans like to believe each other — belief builds cooperation; it’s a societal glue — detectives default to the opposite: they distrust others. What a way to live. As a society, we’re indebted to them. While we enjoy each other’s company, detectives probe dark holes and darker hearts.

Northern Lights by Tom Thomson

Bay of Blood retells the story of Tom Thomson’s mysterious death.

“There are many clever details in Potter’s Bay of Blood with close parallels to Thomson’s life and death (1917). However, Potter takes his readers on a fascinating 21st-century chase, with bells and whistles never dreamt of 100 years ago.” ~ Dr. Sherrill Grace, UBC Killam Professor Emerita and Thomson Scholar.

A little winter levity: Why Aren’t Your Novels set in the Winter? They’re Supposed to be NORTH Noir

The first novel in the North Noir series (Bay of Blood) is set in the summer. The next two will be set in the spring and the fall. “Why no winter settings?” you ask. “No blizzards? No frozen bodies? It’s supposed to be NORTH noir.” Valid point. However, I have a reason – based on research. Well, on observation.

The short answer: Not as many murders take place in the winter. “Why?” Because it’s winter. In Canada, outside the cities, things slow down. Call it hibernation.

“Are you telling me that murderers are huddled next to their fireplaces? That it’s too cold to go out and kill someone?” Maybe. Hell, sometimes it’s too cold to go outside. Besides, murderers can’t risk harming their weapons. Take an axe. If you overuse it chopping wood, it’ll be too dull to whack someone. Consider a shovel. If you break the handle trying to clear ice, it won’t be available to crack someone on the head – a dozen times, of course (we’re talking noir, people). As for a shotgun, if you try to fire it at Minus-30, the barrel will explode or it’ll backfire. Forget about rendering it useless for murder. You’ll be dead yourself.