The Dark Threads of Tartan Noir
Carole E. Barrowman

[This article was first published in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 24th, 2004] 

We Scots don’t have the proverbial chip on our shoulders as much as we have a wee pile of shite. Our self-deprecating worldview is rooted not only in the severe Calvinism of the Scottish church and its cultural legacies, but also in the centuries long chokehold of Scotland’s neighbors to the south. As a result, the Scottish imagination has evolved to be sharply class conscious, darkly ironic, deeply compassionate, and very cheeky. Growing up in Glasgow, as I did, sarcasm is every person’s birthright. In fact, our humor is so dry it can be a paper cut to the psyche.

This peculiar Scottish imagination has created some of the more astonishing and edgy literature of the past twenty years: Irving Welch’s Trainspotting and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and currently, the Scots are head-butting the mystery genre.

James Elroy may have coined the phrase, tartan noir, and Ian Rankin may be the clan’s current chieftain (a clan which includes Denise Mina, Paul Johnston, Alex Gray and Louise Welsh), but the dark threads of this increasingly popular sub-genre must be credited to two novels written almost a hundred years apart: Robert Louis Stevenson’s "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1886) and William McIlvanney’s "Laidlaw" (1977).

‘A Fine Bogy Tale’

Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s idea for his “fine bogy tale,” came to him in a nightmare, and in the writing of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he created one of the first urban crime novels. Stevenson’s story is an examination of one man’s quest for a balanced moral conscience to guide his actions.

“With every day . . . I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in my field of consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both (82).”

Stevenson’s “bogy tale” is shaped, in part, from his own distinctive biography (he was chronically ill, regularly bed-ridden, yet still managed to affront Victorian society with permissive behavior); however, the particular repressions and the moral absolutes of Calvinist Scotland are the real evils in his story.

When Stevenson was writing, the church of the Covenanters still controlled Scottish culture and anything perceived as a threat to its order was evil. Calvinism defined evil as a terrible monster like Robert Burns’s “auld Nick,” a huge beast, a “towzie tyke, black, grim and large,” lurking at the edges of a civilized society.

Stevenson’s worldview doesn’t deny the existence of evil. Far from it. But like his main character Dr. Jekyll who is “slowly losing hold of [his] original and better self (89),” Stevenson believes evil is no longer the beast lurking in the auld kirk’s graveyard. Instead, we are the monsters. Evil lurks in each of us.

Like every noir writer since then, Stevenson situates evil in the heart of man, and then places that man in the heart of a city. The city becomes a manifestation of the moral hypocrisy and the mock respectability that the noir writer attacks.

When Stevenson introduces us to his city (despite literally setting his tale in London, the city is actually Stevenson’s native Edinburgh), he locates us on a very specific, very middle-class street. A place where the “inhabitants were all doing well” and “all emulously hoping to do better still (30).”

The businesses on this “thriving” street all wear “freshly painted shutters, well-polished brasses, and general cleanliness and gaiety of note.” However, not even a street away, “a certain sinister block of building thrust forward its gable on the street.” This building “bore in every feature the marks of prolonged and sordid negligence (30).” Its door is “blistered and distained” with “tramps slouched into the recess” and “children kept shop upon the steps (30).”

Stevenson hustles his readers along dark damp alleys, in and out of decrepit buildings, and forces us to confront evil in the form of modern urbanization and the monsters it creates: poverty, alienation, class conflict, murder.

Like his descendents in the genre, Stevenson’s classic tale is not without the snarky wit and irreverent Scottish humor that’s as common in Scotland as and dram and a dark cloud.
Stevenson describes a character as “the usual cut-and-dry apothecary, of no particular age and colour, with a strong Edinburgh accent, and about as emotional as a bagpipe (31).”

Another character, Mr. Utterson, a lawyer, reads “dry divinity” until midnight when he goes “gratefully to bed (35).” Utterson’s the kind of man people ask to stay behind after a wild drunken evening so he can “sit awhile . . . sobering their minds.” He’s a kind of 19th century “hair of the dog.”

‘Hanselled with remorse’

Disgust for moral absolutes and disdain for social rigidity are significant themes in Stevenson's novel, and they persist in the writers who have followed him, particularly William McIlvanney. In interviews, Rankin has claimed Kilmarnock-born McIlvanney as a literary father.

McIlvanney’s Laidlaw is the first in a trilogy of crime novels featuring Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw, a rogue philosopher/cop. Jack is alienated from his family and his colleagues, but he embraces the city of Glasgow and all its historical baggage. In Laidlaw, post-industrial Glasgow is the piper, but Calvinism and its evils are still the jig.

“Perhaps it was just that born in Scotland you were hanselled with remorse,” explains Laidlaw, “set up with shares in Calvin against your coming of age, so that much of the energy you expended came back guilt (9).”

Laidlaw doesn’t so much solve crimes as he strips them into submission, first exposing their causes and then confronting their consequences. And in the process, Laidlaw uncovers the secrets of his humanity and ours. Laidlaw’s opening chapter switches up the mystery genre from its opening lines. We’re inside the head of a killer running scared through Glasgow’s streets. But we learn quickly that no one’s actually chasing this killer. Like Dr. Jekyll, the killer is fleeing deeper into the city to get away from himself.

“This was the truth,” thinks the killer. “You were a monster. How had you managed to hide from yourself for so long? (6)”

And yet, in the midst of this character’s terrible epiphany, McIlvanney gives the city its quintessential Scot’s voice. A drunk stumbles into the killer as he dodges along the pavement. But even sozzled, the drunk feels guilty for his shambling gait. He yells an apology at the fleeing killer: “Ah was helping [my mate] to get over his wife. [She] died ten years ago.”

The tenement building the killer hides inside is Scotland, a place “housing old griefs.” And hiding deep inside this decrepit tenement, the killer settles into a damp corner and waits, knowing “[n]owhere in the city could there be anyone to understand what you had done.” But he’s wrong. Laidlaw understands.

“You’re way of life is taught to you like a language,” Laidlaw tells his partner, “but any language conceals as much as it reveals. And there’s a lot of languages. All of them human. This murder is a very human message. But it’s in code. We have to try and crack the code. But what we’re looking for is part of all of us. You don’t know that, you can’t begin.”

Just as Stevenson explores the dichotomy Scots experience because of Calvinism, McIlvanney situates Laidlaw between the two halves. Laidlaw “was a potentially violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding (9).”

Laidlaw keeps “Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol in his desk.” Laidlaw inhabits the terrible paradoxes of a modern urban society that Stevenson first imagined centuries before.

Where Stevenson explores the dichotomy between good and evil, McIlvanney explores the paradoxes. Laidlaw "was a potentially violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding." Fans of Rankin's Detective Inspector Rebus will recognize Laidlaw's brooding melancholy, his compassion for the underclass, and his dark ironic wit.

‘A Scream Trapped’

The most recent and most gripping writer to cloak herself in tartan noir is Glaswegian Louise Welsh. Welsh's "The Cutting Room" is like Stevenson on Ecstasy. Her novel is about a "scream trapped in the atmosphere," a contemporary Gothic tale whose protagonist is an antique dealer, literally searching through Glasgow's past.

"They call me Rilke to my face, behind my back the Cadaver, Corpse, Walking Dead," he says. Rilke lives precariously on the edge of a world that's already on the precipice of society. He is outrageous. He drinks too much. He smokes too much. He is a recovering junkie - "(The rubber bands) caught in my arm hairs, swift visions of mad night" - and a liar. He is also a hopeless romantic.

"I was too old to call it love at first sight, but I had all the symptoms . . . Love is a bloody menace. Oh, but it's fun while it lasts. The world faltered on its axis, then resumed its customary gyrations, a place of improved possibilities."

Rilke, whose motto is "never expect anything," is asked to auction the belongings of a wealthy Glaswegian. "Had I met this man, I would have known myself to be in the presence of evil," Rilke says when he discovers the man's collection of Victorian pornography, including a photograph Rilke believes to be snuff.

Rilke is gay and like Dr. Jekyll must "conceal his pleasures." Ironically, his search for justice for the woman in the photograph doesn't expose the duality of Rilke's nature in relation to his homosexuality. Unlike Jekyll, Rilke is comfortable with the physical side of his being. Instead, Rilke confronts the social and moral decay of Glasgow's past with his own present.