‘Tartan noir’ – you can probably figure it out

April 2, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

Tartan noir is not a term I had heard before a couple of weeks ago — but you can probably figure it out. It refers to crime and detective fiction that is either set in Scotland or by Scottish writers.

It’s not an especially good term either. Tartan as a reference to Scotland is pretty shallow and unsatisfying. Scotland is a whole lot more than a few colorful cross-weaves, although the tourists still seem to get it.

Author Craig Robertson doesn’t like it either, as he confesses in his recent article in The Guardian, but that’s not the point of his article. The point his to select his 10 best Scottish crime novels, and though selecting the 10 best of anything is tricky business, his list contains the usual suspects: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, and the like.

Number one on his list — though he does not like to rank them — is William McIlvanney, about whom he says:

Forensic examination would likely reveal that all Scottish crime novels have a little Laidlaw in their DNA. Powerful, gripping and beautifully written, it uses a brutal murder to shine a light on the city’s dark injustices, both criminal and social. McIlvanney had the enviable ability to use just a handful of words to make acute observations and deliver them with the certainty of a head butt. Source: Top 10 Scottish crime novels | Books | The Guardian

I had never read any of McIlvanney’s books before, and this article prompted me to download Laidlaw, and Robertson is right. McIlvanney’s sentences are worth the price of the book.

McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and he studied English at the University of Glasgow. He was a teacher from 1960 to 1975 when he left the profession to become a fulltime writer. He was a regular contributor to newspapers and was also a football commentator for BBC sports.

While he wrote a number of books of fiction and non-fiction, he is most famous for his crime trilogy Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). Each novel features Inspector Jack Laidlaw, an intellectual cynic who finds himself having to deal with Glasgow’s lowlifes.

McIlvanney won numerous awards for his books but never achieved the fame or financial rewards of those Scottish authors who followed him — and who give him credit for being their inspiration.

McIlvanney died in 2015, but examples of his writing can still be found on a website that he contributed to for several years before his death: www.williammcilvanney.com.

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