Showing posts with label Tartan Noir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tartan Noir. Show all posts

08 December 2021

What Remains

I’m not always a fan of a dead writer’s unfinished work being ghostwritten by somebody else; in fact, very seldom.

Islands in the Stream, maybe.  And that was only lightly edited, not actually reimagined.  (Pastiche is a different animal: Sherlock Holmes, Jane Austen and vampires.)  That being said, I’m going to immediately contradict myself, and declare for The Dark Remains.

Back story.

  William McIlvanney wrote three Laidlaw books, along with a bunch of other stuff, before his death in 2015.  He left behind notes and a rough draft for a fourth Laidlaw, and Ian Rankin was invited to try his hand.  McIlvanney is widely considered the eminence grise behind Tartan noir, Rankin the most visible brand name, and Rankin has cited McIlvanney as a prime influence. 

You could, I suppose, make a case for

Tartan noir going back to Macbeth, but for our purposes, let’s set the benchmark at Robert Louis Stevenson.  One of the Rebus books is titled Resurrection Men, which conjures up Burke and Hare, of course, but also Stevenson’s meditation on the anatomist murders, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Stevenson is as much a model for style as material.

  His tone is always reasonable, never hysterical, and the most hair-raising incidents and adventures are served up with a dash of the convincingly commonplace.  Jim Hawkins in the apple barrel.  You hear the echoes in McIlvanney, the flat affect of tone, the undercurrent of violence.  It might remind you, too, of Ted Lewis, a Manchester boy who wrote Jack’s Return Home, the novel Get Carter was based on.  The harmonic below decks is the periphery of despair.

It’s fair to say that if Stevenson wrote romances, then McIlvanney and Rankin are writing

anti-romances.  Laidlaw and Rebus aren’t romantics, in the sense that Chandler’s Marlowe is, nor are they nihilists, like the gang chieftains they so often rub the wrong way.  Not two sides of the same coin.  And not, in other words, a literary convention.  What they bring to the table is something more specific and grave, less of a fashion or a fancy.

This is grounded, as well, in language.

  They lean away from the lyric, not into it.  I don’t mean that their writing is leaden, or pedestrian, far from it, but that it has an earthbound density.  Words have weight.  They’re not to be squandered, but counted out like coin.

Talking about


“It’s a small town.”
“You could paint it in a day.”


“Not so much a city as a hangover.”

Why a woman left her husband:

“He bored me to my back teeth.”

And this:

“Ach, he’s somebody’s rearing.” 

“You’re telling me even arseholes have their good side and deserve some sort of justice?”

“The law’s not about justice.  It’s a system we’ve put in place because we can’t have justice.”

This last is the closest you get to any kind of social commentary.

  Curious, because both McIlvanney and Rankin clearly have opinions, but choose to express them through character and circumstance.  A lot of these people, if not in dead-ends, are headed down one-way streets, or locked into a fated embrace.  There’s something more than a little Manichean about it, with choice playing no part. 

Can you tell where McIlvanney leaves off, and Rankin picks up a dropped stitch?

  Nope.  The voice is consistent.  I think that’s a testament to Rankin.  He doesn’t impose.  It’s still McIlvanney’s story, and feels of a piece, breast to back. 

‘Remains,’ in the title, is used as a verb, not a noun.

  It comes up as a line of dialogue, late in the book: darkness is what we’re left with, when all is said and done.  But you could be forgiven for hearing it differently.  I’m sure McIlvanney and Rankin enjoy having it both ways.

25 August 2021

A Song for the Dark Times

How come Inspector Rebus gets better and better? Lee Child asks on the dust jacket of A Song for the Dark Times, and the plain fact is that the books have only gone from strength to strength.  Rebus doesn’t get stale, because for thirty-odd years Ian Rankin has never phoned it in.

The trick, if we can call it that, is that Rebus isn’t a static character.  He’s thickened, over time, and fleshed out.  He’s also failed, in significant ways.  The chief dynamic in A Song for the Dark Times is his relationship with his daughter, but more to the point, the damage done.  He’s haunted by the very real possibility that he can never make it right.

Then there’s the atmosphere, the environment.  Rebus isn’t a solitary, although he’d give you an argument.  The people around him are no more generic than he is.  The gangster, Big Ger Cafferty, back for another go; Siobahn Clarke, the dogged junior partner, now DI; and Malcolm Fox, first given space in The Complaints.  The departure, literally, in A Song for the Dark Times, has Rebus taken out of Edinburgh and dropped on the windswept coastline of the far North, in sight of the Orkneys.  Not remotely his turf.

There is, yes, a parallel investigation back home, under the watchful eye of Siobhan Clarke, and there are tempting overlaps and odd confluences – how not? – but the engine of the story is Rebus out of his element.  Displaced in the physical world, and on shaky legs, emotionally.  He’s never been demonstrative, our John, but he’s self-aware, and his melancholy here is a sort of bass note, pitched low, not so much heard as felt, as if to name it would give it power.

The story is very much a suitable tangle, the buried past, an uncertain future, a climate of anxiety our only constant in the present.  Rankin remarks in a note at the end that the book was begun before COVID, but the process carried forward into lockdown.  There’s a sense of those dark energies in the novel, a lingering PTSD, something I doubt we’ll shake anytime soon. I don’t think A Song for the Dark Times is meant as a fable, but it can’t help absorbing the oppressive forces of psychic quarantine and illness.