The Sunday Times
Slashers v snobs in literary bloodbath at Edinburgh book festival
The event has been accused of lowering standards with too much gory ‘tartan noir’ crime fiction
As anyone who has read a Scottish crime novel knows, the streets of Scotland’s cities are awash with blood and practically everyone you meet is either a serial killer or a damaged but determined police inspector piecing together sinister clues. Welcome to “tartan noir” crime fiction.
It should have come as no surprise, then, that the annual Edinburgh International Book Festival should include some of Scotland’s most distinguished experts in blood-soaked story-spinning, including Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, among the events it is planning this summer. But it has also sparked a furious row over the literary merits of murder with a Scottish accent.
Festival organisers have been warned that too much crime will diminish the gathering’s reputation at the expense of serious literary offerings. Authors have responded by denouncing the “ill-informed snobbery” of critics who look down on a hugely popular genre.
Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus series is considered a cornerstone of tartan noir, has won awards around the world for his novels and in 2016 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
The row has drawn in Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and a festival regular, who commented last week: “Some people look down their nose on crime fiction and I think that is quite wrong.” Yet McCall admitted he had “no taste for reading about violence”.
He added: “It would be a pity in Scotland if we become fixated with the really noir end.” His latest series, a pastiche of so-called Scandi noir novels, features Ulf Varg, a Swedish detective who deals with “very, very petty little things”. The first novel in what McCall Smith calls his “Scandi blanc” phase is called The Department of Sensitive Crimes. “I am having great fun,” he said.
The same cannot be said of Nick Barley, the director of the book festival, which takes place in August, who is under fire for pandering to popular tastes when he supposedly should be trying to elevate them. Robert McDowell, director of Edinburgh’s prestigious Summerhall multi-arts complex, suggested this year’s festival “has somewhat lost its way”.
The Scottish author Bridget Lawless was sufficiently perturbed by the vogue for thrillers that feature violence against women that she launched the Staunch book prize last year for novels that avoid female victims.
“You could ask: has Edinburgh become another crime writing festival?” she said. “Is that what they are pitching themselves to be? I think it’s feeding a demand — they will probably all be sold out — but if you start listing what each of those books are about, you start seeing a really alarming pattern.”
There will be more than 800 events at the festival, covering everything from children’s picture books to dealing with the world’s water shortages. Yet 34 events are devoted to the crime-thriller, against 18 on the environment, 17 on art and design and 28 on women and feminism.
By contrast, the Hay Festival, the UK’s flagship literary gathering, included just two crime fiction authors this year’, one of whom was the US novelist James Ellroy, the author of LA Confidential and an acknowledged master of literary noir.
Scotland’s crime writers appear in no mood to lay off the blood spatter. Stuart MacBride will appear at an event entitled La Scotia Nostra with the 12th novel in his Inspector Logan McRae series. His latest book opens with the disappearance of an anti-independence campaigner, leaving nothing but bloodstains behind.
“Crime fiction is the most-read genre in the UK, possibly the world, so it’s not surprising the festival has crafted its programme to give more people the opportunity to attend events about it,” said MacBride.
“They’re not daft. Sadly, there remains a lot of ill-informed snobbery that believes you can judge the literary merits of a book by its subject matter.
“Much of [Charles] Dickens is crime fiction. Then there’s Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Brontë, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson — are these writers to be considered sub-standard now?”
He added: “Perhaps we should all get down off our extremely high horses and let people enjoy things.”
It’s no crime to love a killer thriller
Of the many kinds of snobbery Brits enjoy, literary snootiness delivers a particular frisson. It is as if what readers enjoy is inferior to “great world writers” whose works, however improving, they might struggle to get through (Karen Robinson writes).
Crime and thriller fiction is now the biggest-selling genre in fiction in this country. Crime is, of course, a genre, and there is variable quality, from blazing talent to potboilingly generic.
Anyone who wants to read the best of what’s being written today should not exclude crime and thrillers. Take Oyinkan Braithwaite, whose My Sister the Serial Killer plays with a structure that recalls Jane Austen — two sisters, one wild and beautiful, one serious and sensible, in a society that wants women married and respectable — transplanted to Lagos, Nigeria. It is startlingly original, thoroughly writerly in its fresh way with language, but page-turningly readable.
The exploration of a single character through a series of novels is OK when Marcel Proust, Anthony Powell or Karl Ove Knausgaard do it, so why should it be downgraded by the literary snobs when that character is a detective?
Yet the slow development of Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Michael Connelly’s Bosch are great achievements, as the reader can follow the unfolding of a life in all its flaws and complexity, through book after book. Is that a crime?
Karen Robinson is editor of The Times and Sunday Times Crime Club. Sign up at thesundaytimes.co.uk/crimeclub