Scottish Crime Fiction: An Overview

HARD MEN, druggies, and downright dangerous types trip off the pens of Scotland's current clutch of crime writers.

But what Stevenson historically called the 'murderous mixture' is a trait that twists liked barbed wire through the country's long association with the genre.

It could be argued it's something unique to Scotland, and the Scots, that delivers up the perfect ingredients for the crime fiction witches' brew. After all, Scotland is a place with a profoundly gothic sensibility and a dark sense of humour – two aspects which show up in its crime writing again and again.

The country also has a tradition of books telling tales of the more unsavoury side of life, and it's all done with great enthusiasm and relish, not least in the capital city.


Edinburgh has always played comfortable host to Scotland's crime fiction – even when the subject matter is nothing of the sort. In Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner we see murder, rape, adultery, religious mania, bigotry, the supernatural and psychopathy.

The quintessential crime fighter, Sherlock Holmes may have erred on the more genteel, but he too had his genesis in the imagination of Edinburgh-born, Arthur Conan Doyle. That the character requires no description here, or anywhere else, some 77 years after the author's death, is evidence enough of the detective's impact.

Shadow of the Serpent

But, whilst the young Doyle was still toddling about in the 1860s, real-life detective James McLevy, who had a reputation for always getting his man, published collections of his cases. When David Ashton discovered the stories he developed the character of McLevy and his colleagues into a radio play and two recently-published novels, Shadow of the Serpent and Fall From Grace in a kind of bridging of the old and new Edinburgh.

Today, the city of Edinburgh is positively littered with fictional police, PIs and psychopaths. Writers like Irvine Welsh – not often regarded as a crime writer, but definitely an ardent employer of the genre's stock in trade – and Ian Rankin, whose Rebus novels are read world-wide, assure the city's reputation for the modern reader.

Likewise, Allan Guthrie a writer whose books contain both gothic and humorous traits, has recently arrived with a bang. His début novel, Two-Way Split is at turns dark and bitingly comic. His second – Kiss Her Goodbye – gets blacker still, and his third, Hard Man delves further, into revenge, betrayal, loyalty, violence and torture. His books pack in complicated characters – anti-heroes who make you care for them despite the fact that if you met them in one of Edinburgh's dark and mysterious closes you might run screaming.

Guthrie, and many of the city's current crime writers, show a side of Edinburgh that is both familiar and alien – and one the Tourist Board must be most dischuffed at.

The future Edinburgh is of most concern to Paul Johnston's Quintilian Dalrymple, a PI in a failed utopian Edinburgh of the 2020s where most of the UK has been torn apart by drug wars. Lawlessness runs amok – except in the Scots capital which is under the supposedly benevolent dictatorship of the Council of Guardians.

Quint, the protagonist, is a maverick ex-cop who was demoted after refusing to follow orders. He now finds missing people and annoys the Council. The series has been aptly described as ‘Plato's Republic with a body count'.

Quite Ugly One Morning

Former Edinburgh Evening News sub-editor Christopher Brookmyre writes satirical, scatological, hilarious, in-your-face crime fiction.

His books are set all over Scotland but the Jack Parlabane series is primarily set in Edinburgh. Brookmyre sees a tone and then lowers it. The first one in the series – Quite Ugly One Morning – starts off with a turd on the mantelpiece and goes downhill from there. Brookmyre's books have a lot of guts – most of them spilling all over the page.

The city is, of course, Rebus territory – another all-too-famous detective who requires no introduction – but Edinburgh does have other policemen. Quintin Jardine's DCC Bob Skinner has now appeared in 17 books. And another policeman walking Edinburgh's mean streets is Frederic Lindsay's rather grumpy, middle-aged DI Jim Meldrum. The books pair psychological insight with a wit and entertainment that is the hallmark of the archetypal dour Scot under pressure.

Carol Anne Davis' Edinburgh set Noise Abatement is a tale of revenge that should make noisy neighbours everywhere sit up and take notice. And, Edinburgh-born and bred Ken McClure writes medical chillers, many of which are set in Scotland

On the cosier front, Alexander McCall Smith has left the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in the capable hands of Mma Ramotswe and started a new series featuring prim and proper Isabel Dalhousie – a middle-aged lady from the posh part of Edinburgh.

Ghost Walk

Then there's Joyce Holms' Fizz and Buchanan books which feature a rather staid lawyer and his inquisitive young assistant; and Alanna Knight whose most well known creation is Victorian detective Inspector Faro.

There's also a book called The Lamplighter by Anthony O'Neill from 2003 which is set in 1880s Edinburgh and is a tale of murder and grave robbing. And, also on similar front, Robin Mitchell's darkly comic novel Grave Robbers.


Over in the west, Glasgow was pretty under-represented until recently with the exception of William McIlvanney's dark, complex and witty Jack Laidlaw, and Peter Turnbull's P Division – a sort of Glaswegian 87th Precinct. However, all that has changed in recent years.

Glasgow choices now have to include Douglas Lindsay, Louise Welsh and Denise Mina.

Douglas Lindsay's Barney Thomson is a mild mannered Glasgow barber who inadvertently becomes a serial killer. Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room is a very gothic tale of a gay auctioneer called Rilke who is hired to clear out the home of an elderly man after his death, and who finds a collection of violent pornographic photos. A very atmospheric and sometimes harrowing book.

Denise Mina's Glasgow is seen through the eyes of psychologically scarred Maureen O'Donnell in Mina's Garnethill trilogy. These are very dark books, which are humanised by the wonderful character of Maureen who is deeply flawed, completely compelling, and very likeable.

Also in Glasgow, Manda Scott's books feature vet Kellen Stewart. She has also written a thriller called No Good Deed which is set in Glasgow and the north of Scotland. Louise Anderson's first book Perception of Death came out in 2004 and features a female Glasgow lawyer. Set in the penthouses and trendy bars, rather than the seedier side of Glasgow, there's a second one due out next year.

The Riverman

Alex Gray's series featuring DCI Lorimer and Dr Soloman Brightman – a profiler and psychologist – is currently up to number four. Whilst Lin Anderson has a series featuring a female forensic scientist. The first of these is set in Glasgow, the second in Edinburgh, and the third off the west-coast of Scotland.

On the historical front, Pat McIntosh's four books feature lawyer Gil Cunningham and provide a fascinating look at medieval Glasgow. Margaret Thomson Davis, who seems to write historical fiction, has written a crime fiction book called A Deadly Deception featuring an elderly lady in a Glasgow high rise who takes a job as a phone sex operator, creating a character for herself who becomes the subject of a caller's obsession.

As for the men, well, Ian Pattison, the creator of Rab C Nesbitt – Glasgow drunk and husband of Mary-doll – wrote a black comedy called Sweet and Tender Hooligan about a gangster who returns to the city for the first time in years for his mother's funeral. He's a tad worried because he's been sort of exiled from Glasgow since he published his memoirs.

Campbell Armstrong is a thriller writer who also writes about Jewish DS Lou Perlman whose patch is a part of Glasgow's East End called Egypt – a gritty and witty series. William Meikle, a writer of horror and fantasy, has written a book featuring a paranormal PI called Derek Adams which is a horror/crime fiction crossover.

Also in Glasgow, Bill Knox was a journalist and broadcaster who presented the Scottish Television programme Crime Desk. From the 1950s onwards he wrote over 60 books, including 24 featuring Detective Inspectors Colin Thane and Phil Moss of the Scottish Crime Squad – based in Glasgow but some of their cases take them to different parts of Scotland.

And, of course, there's Iain Banks. How can you resist a book which starts: “It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.”? (The Crow Road).

More recently, Mark McNay's 2007 début Fresh is set in a chicken processing plant just outside Glasgow. Sean, the protagonist, is taking care of some money for his psychotic brother Archie while Archie is safely tucked up in jail. Unfortunately, Sean has spent the money and Archie is about to be released early. Grubby, violent, bleak and humorous. And it will definitely put you off chicken.

Other Scottish Crime

The rest of Scotland also boasts its fair share of crime writing talent.

Gordon M Williams, born in Paisley, wrote The Siege of Trencher's Farm in 1969 – a book which was later filmed by Sam Peckinpah as Straw Dogs. On a much gentler note there's M C Beaton's Highland detective, Hamish Macbeth.

Aberdeen is becoming almost as well represented as Glasgow and Edinburgh. Bill Kirton writes books set in a fictional town near Aberdeen which feature DCI Carston, who is quite original among fictional detectives in that he is happily married. M G Kincaid's DS Seth Mornay is a former Royal Marine working in a small, Aberdeenshire town. More recently, Aberdeen is the home of Stuart MacBride's fictional detective DS Logan McRae. The books are filled with violence, sex, dark warped humour all carried out under the Granite City's watchful gaze.

Then there's Marten Claridge, at least one of whose books – Slow Burn – takes place on a Scottish island. Sadly, these books featuring DI Frank McMorran are out of print and hard to find. Another series is a cosy historical series set in 1920s Perthshire featuring a society sleuth Dandy Gilver, written by Catriona McPherson. A historical series is Bruce Durie's Victorian golfing mysteries which are set in St Andrews. Durie also re-created another historical detective – J E P Muddock's Dick Donovan, Glasgow Detective. Muddock wrote over 300 mystery stories between 1822 and 1914, but is largely forgotten today.

Gwen Moffat has written around 35 books, many of which are set in the Lake District, but some of her books are set in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Gerald Hammond has written two series, as well as a number of standalones. One series features a Scottish dog breeder, the other a gunsmith in the lowlands of Scotland.

And in south Scotland, Aline Templeton's DI Marjory Fleming is based in the fictional Galloway town of Kirkluce.

Donkey Punch

Ray Banks while not setting his books in Scotland, writes about Cal Innes, who, like the author, is Scottish, and that Scottishness informs his character. His books are dark, violent and humorous – a trait familiar to many Scottish authors. And, of course, no comments on Scottish crime fiction would be complete without mention of Val McDermid even though most of her books are not set in Scotland. The acclaimed Distant Echo is one exception, and is set in St Andrews.

It's hard to pin down what it is about Scotland that breeds authors who are such excellent storytellers, or who turn to crime with such dark and warped skill, but if it's something in the water, then it must be worth bottling.

  • Cover scan of The Crow Road
    The Crow Road - Iain Banks - Paperback
    Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Relations with his father are strained, his brother is funnier and better-looking than he is, and the woman of his dreams is out of reach.
  • Cover scan of The Cutting Room
    The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh - Paperback
    Rilke, an auctioneer, comes upon a hidden collection of violent erotic photographs. He feels compelled to unearth more about the deceased owner who coveted them. What follows is a journey of discovery, decadence and deviousness.
  • Cover scan of A Deadly Deception
    A Deadly Deception - Margaret Thomson Davis - Hardback
    Set in a Glasgow high-rise, 'A Deadly Deception' centres on Mabel Smith who lives alone. Her selfish parents had used Mabel as a slave and they effectively ruined her life but now they are both dead. Mabel is lonely and bitter and decides that telephone-sex may be a way to make some much needed extra cash.
  • Cover scan of Go To Helena Handbasket
    ...Go To Helena Handbasket - Donna Moore - Paperback
    Wisecracking private investigator, Helena Handbasket, is faced with a lot of tough questions in this case. Can our man-loving, cocktail-loving, food-loving, not-so-very-intrepid heroine answer any of them without leaving a cliche unturned?
  • Cover scan of Kiss Her Goodbye
    Kiss Her Goodbye - Allan Guthrie - Paperback
    When people in Edinburgh need to borrow money, they go to Cooper. When they don't pay it back, they get a visit from Joe Hope. But now Joe's got troubles of his own. His teenage daughter's been found dead, an apparent suicide. Then the police arrest him for murder. But, for once, Joe is innocent.
  • Cover scan of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
    The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith - Paperback
    The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is one woman, Precious Ramotswe, working out of a breezeblock office in Botswana. A cross between Kinsey Millhone and Miss Marple, Precious makes an unlikely heroine as she embarks on a very African mystery.
  • Cover scan of No Good Deed
    No Good Deed - Manda Scott - Paperback
    Orla McLeod knows too much about violence for her own good. She has tried to leave her past behind by retreating to the Hebrides, but then the man who destroyed her family and made Orla the woman she is today is released from prison.
  • Cover scan of Perception Of Death
    Perception Of Death - Louise Anderson - Paperback
    Erin Paterson runs her grandfather's law firm in Glasgow, and is an uncompromisingly aggressive negotiator. But the success of her practice is not echoed in her personal life. When her old school-friend is murdered, events unravel to test Erin's resolve to the maximum.
  • Cover scan of Quite Ugly One Morning
    Quite Ugly One Morning - Christopher Brookmyre - Paperback
    A debut novel from Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre, this thriller exposes the horrific possibilities of corruption within the reformed National Health Service.
  • Cover scan of The Riverman
    The Riverman - Alex Gray - Paperback
    When the dead body of a man is fished out of Glasgow's River Clyde the morning after an office celebration, it looks like a case of accidental death. An anonymous telephone call and a forensic toxicology test, however, give DCI Lorimer reason to think otherwise.
  • Cover scan of Straw Dogs
    Straw Dogs - Gordon M. Williams - Paperback
    American George and his English wife Louise have left the streets of Philadelphia in search of tranquility. At Louise's wishes, they have rented an isolated house in England and are spending a winter in the remote Cornish village of Dando. But their arrival is greeted with suspicion - and hostility.
  • Cover scan of The Sunday Philosophy Club
    The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith - Paperback
    Amateur sleuth Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher who also uses her training to solve unusual mysteries. Instinct tells Isabel that the young man who tumbled to his death in front of her eyes at a concert in the Usher Hall didn't fall - he was pushed.
  • Cover scan of Sweet And Tender Hooligan
    Sweet And Tender Hooligan - Ian Pattison - Paperback
    When Arthur Blaney, Scotland's most notorious gangster, travels back to Glasgow for his mother's funeral he is unsure of how violent his homecoming will be. He has published his memoirs and used them to settle scores and spill the beans.
  • Cover scan of Two-Way Split
    Two-Way Split - Allan Guthrie - Paperback
    Robin Greaves is an armed robber whose professionalism is put to the test when he discovers his wife has been sleeping with a fellow gang member. Robin plans the ultimate revenge, but things go from bad to worse when the gang bungles a post office robbery, leaving carnage in their wake.

About the Authors

Donna Moore

Donna Moore was born in 1962 and led a sheltered childhood in a small English village. A crime fiction fan from a young age, Donna wanted to be one of Enid Blyton's Famous Five and fight crime with the aid of only a basket of cucumber sandwiches and a bottle of ginger beer.

She now lives in Glasgow, where she has a thrilling dual career as a mild-mannered pension consultant by day, and an unemployed superhero by night. For relaxation she listens to Dean Martin and The Ramones, watches screwball comedy and film noir, and enjoys salsa, cha cha cha and merengue - despite having two left feet.

Her first novel, a crime fiction spoof called ...Go To Helena Handbasket, was published by PointBlank Press in 2006

Tony Black

Tony Black is a former Young Journalist of the Year, his crime novel Paying for It is to be published by Random House next year. Ken Bruen kindly praised the book, saying: "[Black's] writing is a joy, in your face, with that wondrous dead-pan humour that only the Celts really grasp". Black lives and works in Edinburgh. More of his writing can be found online at: The Scotsman, Thug Lit, Pulp Pusher, Shots Magazine and is forthcoming in the fall '07 issue of Demolition Magazine.