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Another List

I recently came across this list of ten of the best Scottish fiction books. (A bit late I must admit. It was produced five years ago by the Irish Times on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum.)

The ones in bold I have read.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)
Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981)
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (1984)
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (1989)
Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington (1992)
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner (1995)
Black and Blue by Ian Rankin (1997)
Day by A L Kennedy (2007)

Most of the usual suspects appear here. Trainspotting is the only one I haven’t read.

The list seems to be biased towards more modern novels. Remarkable for its absence is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (now nearly 100 years old, however.) I doubt that’s an omission any such list produced in Scotland would make, though.

Two Today

I know I’ve not yet commemorated Chuck Berry. I’ll do so on Friday.

The news came today that Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, has died.

Dexter had at one time the distinction of being the author whose books were most donated to charity shops. (At least in England. In Scotland Ian Rankin fills/filled that role.)

Norman Colin Dexter: 29/9/1930 – 21/3/2017. So it goes.

Looking at the news coverage of the death of Martin McGuiness I did wonder whether the UK was the only country in the world whose media reacted with such an emphasis on his terrorist past rather than his conversion to peacemaking and power sharing. Sinner that repenteth and all that.

(In this context I note Norman Tebbit’s characteristically pungent comments on McGuiness’s death. Anyone would think that Tebbit had never done anything in his life that warranted citicism. Some of the policies he supported as a government minister caused grief to tens – hundreds – of thousands of his fellow citizens – and perhaps the premature deaths of some of them. The tone of his comments suggest he feels McGuiness’s adoption of peace was not genuine. Well, Ian Paisley had much more reason to suspect McGuinness of duplicity yet managed to find common ground. Paisley’s son explicitly acknowledged the change in McGuiness’s attitude. Fair enough Tebbit’s wife was severely injured by the IRA so he has a pressing reason for his contumely but she wouldn’t have been in that hotel if she wasn’t his wife. Then again Tebbit has never been known for acknowledging the viewpoint of his political opponents.)

Whatever, McGuiness was one of the most prominent Irishmen of his times.

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness: 23/5/1950 – 21/3/2017. So it goes.

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

Canongate, 2003, 300 p. One of both the 100 best Scottish Books and Scotland’s favourite books.

The Cutting Room cover

A narrator known only as Rilke – I don’t believe we are ever vouchsafed his given name – is an auctioneer and valuer for a struggling auction house in Glasgow. He receives a call to inspect the contents of a house for clearance and complete the sale quickly. The contents consist of good stuff and could save the auction house’s finances. In its attic there are rare first editions of notorious books but he is asked by the deceased’s heir – an elderly sister – to destroy them. Amongst them Rilke finds some disturbing photographs which appear to show the murder of a young woman. Intrigued by this mystery he spends most of the book trying to investigate the photographs’ origins instead of looking after the house-clearance. This brings him into closer contact with the shady side of Glasgow life than is healthy before the mystery is resolved.

The Cutting Room is written with a literary sensibility, is full of well-drawn characters and has many fine descriptive passages. While it does yield the satisfaction that detective/crime fiction provides it goes beyond that. It is a novel, pure and simple. (Well, actually not that pure – and not really simple either.) And Rilke is an unusual protagonist for a crime novel. As a debut novel I found it more accomplished than Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses and James Oswald’s Natural Causes. I’ll be reading more from Welsh.

Pedant’s corner:- the Great Western Road (I’ve only ever heard this referred to as Great Western Road; no definite article,) each others eyes (each others’ eyes,) burglarised (No! The word is burgled,) two missing end [and one beginning] quotation marks, our monthly sail (sale,) “in a herd that shook the ground with the weight of their hooves” (leave aside the fact that herd is singular so it should be its hooves, it isn’t the hooves’ weight that shakes the ground, it’s the buffaloes’,) thrupney bits (yes that corruption of threepenny was pronounced that way, but it was always spelled thruppenny,) asshole (arsehole,) a boy had watched “the first moon launch”, dedicated himself to space exploration, twenty years later became an astronaut, only to vomit copiously the whole time in mission after mission; his “hermetically sealed sick bags still orbit the moon” (that would be “the first moon landing” not launch, plus; the last orbit of the moon was in 1972, only three years – not twenty – after the first. Those sick bags might be in Earth orbit but would be nowhere near the Moon.) “Other ungodly titles lesbian are known by” (lesbians; but it was in a pamphlet, these are notoriously misspelled,) “aren’t I?” (Grrr! The speaker is Scottish; she would say “amn’t I?”,) shtoom (usually spelled schtum or shtum,) “I was coming warn you” (coming to warn you,) the Ukraine (the speaker is Ukrainian; they just say Ukraine, no “the”,) medieval.

Black and Blue by Ian Rankin

Orion, 1997, 399 p including 2 p Afterword and 1 p Acknowledgements.

This novel appears in both the 100 best Scottish Books list and in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

 Black and Blue cover

It is the eighth of Rankin’s Rebus novels and sees Inspector John Rebus, banished to Craigmillar for various indiscretions, and investigating the suspicious death of Allan Mitchison, an oil worker who had made unfortunate connections. It is not long before Rebus is once more ruffling feathers, both of his superiors and of the criminal fraternity. His nose for the truth and the links he makes to a current serial killer nicknamed Johnny Bible (because of the similarities of his murders to the famous Bible John case of the 1960s) leads Rebus to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Shetland and an oil-rig in the North Sea. Meanwhile he is incidentally trying to deal with his over-fondness for alcohol and also being stalked by a TV crew looking into a possible miscarriage of justice from early in Rebus’s career. It’s all admirably well plotted and suitably twisted and turned. If a bit too much when Rebus himself is questioned for one of Johnny Bible’s murders.

Where it broke down for me was the interpolation into the story of “Bible John” himself, returned to Scotland from time spent in the US where he had married, now an executive in the oil business, not at all pleased that some upstart is stealing his thunder, and whose viewpoint we inhabit at the end of several of the chapters. I think my unease would have been the case even without the renewed interest in Bible John which struck between the writing of Black and Blue and its publication and the later possibility that Bible John was/is convicted killer Peter Tobin. To me it seemed Rankin portrays his “Bible John” as a more intelligent, even thoughtful, individual than he in fact was/is.

On Aberdeen’s dependence on oil money Rebus reflects that the oil won’t be there for ever. “Growing up in Fife Rebus had seen the same with coal: no one planned for the day it would run out. When it did hope ran out with it.” True as far as it goes. Except the coal didn’t run out: there’s still plenty coal under Fife or the Firth of Forth. It was government policy to shut mines – mostly to destroy workers’ rights and trade union influence.

Yes, it deals with one of the most high profile Scottish criminal cases of the twentieth century and has Tom Nairn’s dictum on the conditions for Scotland’s rebirth as a section’s epigraph but I can see no compelling reason why this book should be in a top one hundred.

Pedant’s corner:- halogen orange (of street lights? Sodium orange, yes,) there were a couple (was,) there were a few (was,) a team were (was,) – the text is littered with singular nouns followed by plural verbs – Geddes’ (appeared several times, yet once we had what I would prefer, Geddes’s,) there were dozens fit the description (fitted,) popadums (it’s usually poppadums,) Stevens’ (Stevens’s,) disks (even for computers the British English is still discs,) dishels, (???) thirty-five mils (mil; an abbreviation subsumes its plural, even when it’s written as it’s spoken,) ‘Laying low.’ (Lying low; but it was in dialogue and lying low appeared in text later,) Forres’ (Forres’s,) sat (sitting,) McIness’ (McIness’s.)

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

Orion, 2011, 227 p.

This is courtesy of my not-quite-yet-but-might-as-well-be daughter-in-law. She now has a box set of Rankin books and so this one, a 2011 reissue of a 1998 edition of the first Rebus novel from 1987, came our way.

As crime isn’t really my thing I’ve never read any Rankin before – I have encountered the TV adaptations – but I thought it might be interesting to compare this to James Oswald’s Natural Causes.

Knots and Crosses is a strange one and wears the author’s literature background heavily. An incidental character is named Laidlaw in honour of William McIlvanney’s eponymous detective (McIlvanney is a literary star worth following, an antecedent of Tartan Noir,) the words laughter and forgetting at the end of a sentence are repeated immediately as the whole of the next. To be fair the introduction to this edition admits the referencing may be over the top, not to mention the occasional off-nesses of tone (“the manumission of dreams.”)

As the book focuses firmly on getting into various characters’ heads the crimes seem almost incidental, their relationship to John Rebus forced. The climactic scene was also interrupted by an unnecessary info dump to allow an over-egged simile.

It all washes down easily enough though. I got through it in two sittings.

As far as a comparison between Oswald and Rankin is concerned perhaps the main difference is that Oswald knew he was writing in the crime genre. At the time of Knots and Crosses Rankin may have been intent on writing a novel featuring crime.

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