Sunday 28 February 2010

Sleepy Sunday Summary

A short interview with Alexander McCall Smith. And a Precious Ramotswe prequel, written in Scots. Which seems weird, given that Precious is from Botswana.

Paul Brazill interviews the "darkly handsome" Tony Black over at Pulp Metal Magazine. Having just finished reading the third in the Gus Dury series, LOSS, which made me cry, I am extremely glad to hear that I won't have to wait too long for the next one as LONG TIME DEAD is out in July.

What a great group of tutors for the Arvon Foundation's Scottish location - including Val McDermid, A L Kennedy and Alan Bissett. Nice. And, talking of Val, well done to her for being shortlisted for the LA Times 2009 Book Prize for A Darker Domain. This was another book I read and loved in February.

Sandra Ruttan over at Spinetingler Magazine read and loved Russel McLean's THE LOST SISTER. Yet another one I read in February. And loved it as much as Sandra.

Fancy dinner with Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan? Better enter this by Tuesday then. Oh, and you have to be in Beijing.

Writing asks Karen Campbell 7 questions (pdf file).

Gillian Galbraith will be talking about writing on March 25th in Loch Leven.'s latest reviews include Craig Russell's THE VALKYRIE'S SONG and Liam McIlvanney's ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN.

I'm off to my new screenwriting course tomorrow after work, and very much looking forward to it, so back on Tuesday.

Friday 26 February 2010

Gruesome, Handsome and Radge-some

A few choice links before the weekend festivities start. Since I have been poorly sick all week, for me that will consist of a nice cup of tea, tucked up on the sofa watching DVDs. Bliss.

I recently linked to this article in the Sunday Times about how Waterstones mistakenly recommended Stuart MacBride's SAWBONES as a suitable read for 8 year olds. SAWBONES is "The story of a serial killer who tours the United States murdering young women, it opens with the sentence: “Soon as I see the police in the rear-view mirror I know we’re f*****.” Over the next 113 pages it uses the F-word and its variants 89 times. The plot includes three male castrations, references to oral sex, limbs being amputated and one attack on a girl by a vicious dog." (Many thanks to the Sunday Times for giving my mother a job counting swear words, by the way). Waterstones recently apologised for their 'terrible mistake'. And now, here's that evil, child-corrupter, Stuart MacBride himself with a very funny post on the subject.

Leither Magazine interviews the "darkly handsome" Tony Black. You can read the article at the 'continue reading' link, but if you're looking for more darkly handsome photos, you will find one on page 17 of the actual magazine. I had one blown up for every room of my flat (just kidding, Tone - I only put one in the kitchen).

Fancy a copy of Denise Mina's SLIP OF THE KNIFE? You can get one here if you're lucky (and happen to live in the US or Canada).

If you're on Twitter (Dad, you don't want to know, trust me), excellent Glasgow author Karen Campbell has just joined. You can follow her by adding @writerkcampbell. Karen is also one of the Tesco Bank Summer Reads, which will be launched at the Aye Write Festival next month.

Irvine Welsh once "conned tourists on spooky tours". Since then, he's moved up in the world and will shortly be appearing at Adelaide's Writers' Week.

And finally, one of my favourite short story sites - Byker Books' Radgepacket Online - has just updated with some new and very fine stories from Julie Morgan (that's my good mate and partner in crime at UK conferences, Jools), Paul Brazill, and Nick Boldock. Byker Books are...ahem...not quite in Scotland hailing, as they do, from the North East of England, but if I were to stand right on the border between Scotland and England and throw a brick really, really hard...well, OK, it would probably go about three feet, since I am a girl and cannot throw anything more substantial than a hissy fit. Besides, those guys at Byker Books are tough, and might thump me if I threw a brick at them. Errrrr...and Dad - you might not want to read those stories, OK?

Thursday 25 February 2010

The Case of the Mysterious Roses

Since I sometimes talk about my strange encounters on Glasgow's number 62 bus, I thought I would mention the strange-but-nice happening as I travelled home from a hospital appointment yesterday. I was sitting next to a woman who was carrying a couple of bags of shopping and a bunch of pink roses. I was listening to my ipod when she tapped me on the shoulder. We exchanged a couple of polite sentences about the snowy weather and the filthiness of the bus windows and then lapsed into silence again. When she got up to leave she thrust the bunch of roses into my hand. "Here, I want you to have these" is what I think she said. I was too gobsmacked to properly register and all I could manage was a shouted "Thank you" as she got off the bus. I came home with a smile on my face.

I wish I knew why she gave them to me. Could she just not be bothered to carry them home? Had she bought them, only to remember that all her vases were already full? Had they been given to her by a man she'd just dumped? Had they been given to her by a lover and she was wondering how to explain them to her husband? Was it some test (that I presumably failed)? Was she just a really nice woman who likes to surprise people? Have they been coated in some horrible slow-acting poison that is now working its way through my system? I've plumped for the 'really nice woman' theory. If you don't hear from me again, you'll know I was wrong.

And now, on to the links.

2010 is the year to be cultured in Fife. I'm saying nothing about 2011... UPDATED: Please don't let this put you off. Fife is a lovely place to visit. Link courtesy of anonymous Fifer (who I will simply refer to by the anagram CLEANS LEMURS).

An interview with young adult novelist Gillian Philip over at, another with Peter May at The Big Thrill. And Charles Cumming talks to Crimestoppers.

Louise Welsh in Beijing on March 13th.

Alexander McCall Smith tells The Hindu that he likes writing
. Well, with umpteen squillion books a year, that's a relief.

Win books by Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith at a charity ceilidh. And, talking of Ian Rankin, he tells a newspaper in Sri Lanka how, as a child, he used to make up stories about an imaginary pop group called The Kaputs. Bless.

Controversy continues over the future of Scottish publishing.

I love this story - a woman tunnels her way out of a Dutch prison with a spoon (no mention as to whether it's tea, dessert, or table). The article says the woman had 22 months of her sentence left to go. I wonder how long she had left when she started (via @crimeculture).

And, finally, from the Herald Diary:

"We hear the folk in Airdrie are in a state of shock over the news that guns used in a gangland killing were found dumped behind a library in neighbouring Coatbridge last week.

They had no idea that Coatbridge had a library."

Tuesday 23 February 2010

"A novel like a few handcuffs"

Maxim Jakubowski tells Crime Time about what's coming up from MaXcrime. It made me jump up and down and giggle and hug myself. I've now been banned from Tesco. It feels lovely, but very weird, to read stuff like that about myself. Maxim is a star.

Don't crime fiction authors get around? Here's Alexander McCall Smith on video in Canberra. And Irvine Welsh will appear in Perth on February 27th. That's Perth, Australia, while Philip Kerr goes to Adelaide. Russel McLean, on the other hand, travels all the way to Kirkcaldy on March 15th.

And, here in Glasgow, lots of Aye Write events. Allan Guthrie and Denise Mina on Saturday 13th March, Louise Welsh on Wednesday 10th, Manda Scott on Saturday 6th, and Christopher Brookmyre on Sunday 7th.

Alexander McCall Smith interviewed in The Age and says he will never employ a ghost-writer. And here, an interview from SOS Children's Villages for World Orphan Week.

Iain Banks discusses TRANSITION.

Excellent, I get to use Babelfish again. Helen Fitzgerald's DEAD LOVELY in Germany. "A novel like a few handcuffs - hard, sexy and binding. Helen FitzGerald was social female worker in the execution of sentences. Then it began to write: uncompromisingly, amusingly, badly, fast." Don't worry Helen, that word doesn't really mean badly :o) And isn't this description of the plot most intriguing? "But their verb eatingness makes their marriage a purgatory from grind and generation inability. As the three friends on a tent route by the Scottish Highlands to times correctly switch off want, go everything inclined. Krissie and Kyle fall themselves neck over head into an affair and Sarah of rock. But that is only at the beginning of the Höllentrips, with which nothing remains in such a way, as it was." Sadly, I do believe that Verbissenheit means 'determinedly' rather than 'verb eatingness'. Shame. And the verb eatingness goes so well with Helen's previous profession which is, if you remember, " social female worker in the execution of sentences." Well, I've heard her after a couple of glasses of wine and can confirm that, after being too social, Helen's sentences can sometimes be most improperly executed.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Why I Enjoy Crime Fiction

Here's an interview with Alan Bissett. Lovely bloke, and I adored THE INCREDIBLE ADAM SPARK. I agree with a lot of what he says. I do, however, take exception to this comment (I'm posting the whole bit because he is at great pains to say that he is not against crime fiction, or crime writers per se):

"While it’s absolutely not a comment, for me, on Crime authors themselves – who are writing passionately within a genre for others who are passionate about it, and that’s a good transaction for me – I do think it’s the case that Crime fiction has taken over Scottish literature. It gets a huge amount of attention on shelves, at festivals and in the broadsheets – because it’s supported by massive bookchains and supermarkets – and that makes it more difficult for those of us who aren’t writing in that genre to break through. Scottish literature in the 80s and 90s was on fire – you only have to look at the names of Kelman, Leonard, Lochhead, Gray, Galloway, Smith, Welsh, Warner, McLean, Kay, Butlin, Banks – who were utterly fearless. These were the people who gave me a real sense of what it meant to be Scottish and working-class. Without them, I’m only half a person. That’s absolutely a tradition I want to keep alive. Unless the younger generation find those same reserves of energy and will to pass on then a really significant Scottish culture will be crushed. There seems to be signs of that happening, with things like Gutter magazine, Cargo Press, Two Ravens and the spoken word scene (hello, Golden Hour!), but I really don’t think the Crime genre is the place where Scots are going to discover a renewed sense of purpose about their nation. No disrespect to those writers, but as good as they clearly are, that’s just not their remit."

First, I don't think that crime fiction has taken over Scottish literature, secondly, Scottish crime fiction is a broad church which encompasses all aspects of Scotland and Scottish society and culture. At least two of the authors mentioned above (Welsh and Banks) write what I would class as crime fiction. And not all of those authors mentioned above give me a sense of "what it means to be Scottish and working class". I'm also not sure why it's important that Scottish fiction should give Scots "a renewed sense of purpose about their nation". Knowledge, understanding and enlightenment perhaps - it's just the word 'purpose' I'm not sure about.

Not all Scottish crime fiction is about Mrs McTwee discovering a dead body in the scullery of her Morningside home, or a Highland police force investigating the theft of a sporran. The two most recent books I read were Russel McLean's THE LOST SISTER and Tony Black's LOSS. Both of them made me cry. Between them they deal with family secrets, domestic abuse, loneliness, fear, betrayal, guilt, alcoholism, trafficking, the economy, despair, poverty, pain and loss. I defy anyone to read either of those books and tell me that they don't reveal something about what it means to be Scottish and working class. Or just Scottish. Or just human. And not just McLean and Black - how about Allan Guthrie? Karen Campbell? I could go on.

For me, the reasons I love crime fiction are many and varied. Crime fiction can tell so much about life, society, how people live and the human condition - all wrapped up in a plot that is thrilling and entertaining. I don't need a happy ending - often, I don't want a happy ending. I don't read for the puzzle, or the mystery, but the fact that there is a crime is a great focal point. There are varying degrees of solution and resolution - but it's how the characters deal with the situations they are put into that fascinates me. We're thrown into their lives at an extraordinary time, we see how their lives are affected, and what they do. And not just their own lives, but how that ripples out into society - their family, friends, colleagues - anyone who is touched by the crime, no matter how remotely. The victim is at the centre but the wider impact of one particular crime might be far-reaching.

A crime is a good way of getting onto the page a wide and deep approach to characterisation that says a lot about society and humanity in quite a short period of time. I love noir and dark and bleak, but I also want hope and warmth amidst all the carnage. I want to see the characters' souls shine through despite the dreadful things that are happening in their lives. I don't want just black and white and shades of grey. I want colour and vibrancy. Even if things turn out badly, as in the deepest, darkest noir, the best crime fiction gives me that humanity.

The crime fiction genre is huge and varied and wonderful. There are a lot of books out there that I find dull and bland or at the other end of the spectrum so gory that I need to wash the blood off my hands after I've read them. I don't enjoy books where crocheting cats with a degree in astrology solve the murder, but I have friends who do. I don't like books which make me feel I could carry out an autopsy if pushed, but I have friends who do (I'm not sure which of those groups of people scare me more by the way). I even have friends - and a partner - who don't like crime fiction (shock, horror). There is something for everyone and, like most people, I don't want to exist on boiled rice all the time, but neither do I want a juicy steak at every meal.

What I do want is characters who come alive on the page, people I can care about, a thrilling read; I want to be entertained, to learn something, to laugh, to cry, to have my emotions engaged. Sometimes I want to lose myself in someone else's world, sometimes I want to try and gain insight into why people in my world act as they do; and sometimes I just want to know which one of my work colleagues is a velociraptor. (Thanks to Eric Garcia's basil addicted dinosaur PI, I can even take a guess at that).

For me, crime fiction gives me all that - and more. With crime, there's a lot at stake. An author can take such huge subjects such as justice, morality, truth, right and wrong, good versus evil and look at how those subjects affect their characters, and they can write a great story to boot.

And then the charming Michael Malone sent me an e-mail to ask whether I'd seen a review in the Glasgow Sunday Herald which said of a crime fiction book that it is " let down by the thing that trips up most detective novels, namely undistinguished prose."

Well, phphphphthththththt to that. Again, I could give a whole list of authors whose prose is superb. I've read crime fiction which has 'undistinguished' prose. I'll go so far as to say that I've read crime fiction with crap prose. But I've also read prose in so-called literary fiction that is unmitigated shite (sorry Dad). Every genre has its good and bad examples and to dismiss a whole genre with a sneering comment like that boils my piss (sorry Dad). Oh, and Glasgow Herald? Why not let someone who actually enjoys crime fiction review the bloody crime fiction? That way, neither your reviewer, nor I, will have a need to be grumpy.

I just know that I love reading crime fiction for the same reasons I enjoy all good fiction - great writing, great characters, a thought provoking and entertaining plot. A good tale, well told. That's all I ask.

Well, I was going to do my usual Sunday links, but I seem to have ranted on pointlessly far too much, so links in the next post instead.

Friday 19 February 2010

Rock Star or Writer?

A video interview with Ian Rankin on his recent trip to India. And a print interview on writing whydunits rather than whodunnits . He then tells the Hindustan Times that crime writers want to be rockstars. He's right. I always wanted to be a drummer with the Ramones. However, after Tommy Ramone left they turned me down and gave Marky Ramone the job. Then Richie Ramone. Then Marky Ramone again. They even had Elvis Ramone for a short while. But they refused to take Donna Ramone. Maybe it's because I can't play...

As part of the Alibi Crime Writing Competition, here are some tips from Stuart MacBride. I'm with him on the 'what do you call yourself' thing. I've never called myself an author (I don't suit smoking jackets), or a 'writer' - I just find it impossible to do. Sometimes I manage to mumble "I...errr... I write... but I have a proper job too". I feel like a pretentious fake, as though someone (probably my mother) will scream "Look at her, the lying little bint, calling herself a writer when she obviously can't string two decent words together." Anyone have any suggestions as to what I am? Hmmmm, maybe I should rephrase that. What, dear reader, should those of us who feel weird using the designation 'author' call ourselves?

If you're a Kate Atkinson fan, here's a chance to win a prize (if you live in the US). And, on the subject of an offer you can't refuse, Declan Burke (who's not Scottish but he's a top bloke and a wonderful writer and those two things count) is experimenting with 'crowdfunding' his GONZO NOIR aka BAD FOR GOOD. I was lucky enough to read it and it's sheer genius - very funny and very clever.

Alexander McCall Smith on his addiction to tea.

When is a book review not a book review? When it just mentions what the author dreamed about last night.

Irvine Welsh is coming to town. Well, as long as your town is Melbourne, that is.

And, finally, this guy is obviously an Iain Banks fan. He's also totally bonkers and totally brilliant (he's also no relation).

Wednesday 17 February 2010

"I have felt a bag of compliments"

Allan Guthrie is interviewed over at Liberi de Scrivere, with thanks to the lovely Paul Brazill. Paul also sent me the official translation but, quite frankly, Al makes much more sense if you run his ramblings through Babelfish. Here he is answering a question on how he got started writing, courtesy of Babelfish "My first history is appeared in the newspaper of the school, when I had five years. Me memory that was be a matter of a pic-NIC, but I do not succeed to remember all the details. I have written my first novel, when I had nine years." All I can say is never ever go on a pic-NIC with Allan Guthrie, otherwise he might utter the quote in the title of this post, and you wouldn't want him to feel your bag of compliments, would you?

I can't say that I understand all the ins-and-outs here, but a row breaks out in Scottish publishing over...well, I'm not sure quite what, it all seems like reinventing the wheel. And I agree with one of the commenters. I love the site, and what's the point of replacing it with something else? And another stramash involving Creative Scotland.

Fallen behind on Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street? Catch up here. And, talking of Alexander McCall Smith, after all his recent travelling, his next book launch is much closer to home.

Edinburgh libraries are holding loads of crime fiction events as part of their Crime In The City programme.

An interview with Tony Black in Crime Time.

Alan Cranis reviews Ian Rankin's DOORS OPEN for Bookgasm.

And, finally, money for old rope?

Monday 15 February 2010

Mystery of the Broken Commandments

Well, I am still having computer and time issues, so here is another piece of nonsense. Normal service will resume on Wednesday.

In 1928 Ronald Knox, who was tired of some of the detective story trends of the day, laid down his rules for detective fiction. Some of them sound really strange to today's reader. So, a few years ago, I decided to give myself the challenge of writing a story that included all the elements you're not supposed to have. First, though, Ronald Knox's original rules:

The Ten Commandments of Detection, laid down by Ronald Knox in 1928:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues upon which he may happen to light.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

And now, the story. With apologies to...well, just about everybody. And, by the way, I used most of these names subsequently

The Mystery of the Broken Commandments

Standing in the library at Soddem Hall, I twirled my luxurious moustache and turned to my loyal, but slightly stupid friend Dimm. "Dimm, I have an unnacountable intuition that there is a murderer on the loose at Soddem Hall this weekend."

Dimm blinked his beady little eyes as he attempted to process this information. "Really Warmwater? What makes you say that old chap?"

I pointed with a flourish at the body lying on the library floor in front of us - a curious, south American dart protuding from its throat.

"This, Dimm. Lord Stiffy Stiffington, cut down in his prime by the hand of a madman."

Dimm started in horror. "Good Lord," he said "Stiffy Stiffington - a stiff? How did it happen?"

I puffed out my chest, "Well Dimm, as usual, I guess it will be down to me, Luke Warmwater, famous detective, to solve this ghastly and mysterious crime." I bent down and picked something off the floor. "A-ha. And here, if I'm not very much mistaken, is my first clue."

Dimm moved closer and peered at the object in my hand. "What is it Warmwater?"

"Nothing to trouble yourself with, my dear simple little friend. Now, if you could just pull the third candlestick from the left, you'll find yourself in the secret passage which is the short cut to Sir Hugh Geego's bedroom. Kindly go and tell his Lordship we have a situation."

Dimm opened the secret passageway but hesitated before he entered.

"Yes, what is it Dimm?" I said tersely.

"Oh....probably nothing old chap...a thought just passed through my mind but...well, it's of no importance." He shuffled off into the passage and his footsteps echoed along the stone floor. As the secret door closed behind him, I distinctly hear the rattle of ghostly chains and a shiver ran down my spine.

Before I had time to dwell on the fate of my old friend, the door opened and the beautiful but cold Aurora De Greasepaint entered the room. She was carrying a letter addressed to me.

"Butler gave me this Luke, he found it in the secret passageway between the pantry and the scullery."

I tore open the envelope and read the letter. It was very brief. 'It was me wot done it - signed, Mr Wright.'

Aurora laid her hand on my arm. "Oh Luke," she said. "You've solved the murder. My hero."

I narrowed my eyes. "Miss DeGreasepaint - how did you know there's been a murder?"

"Well, apart from the dead body at your feet, I was in the secret room next door and heard you talking."

"Secret room next door? What secret room next door?"

"You know - the one with all those white things. The cold white thing, the white thing that gets hot, and the white thing that fills with water."

"My dear woman - that's not a secret room - that's a kitchen. You young ladies of today have things far too easily."

She pouted. "Well, anyway, that's where I was, and I heard you talking. And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to browse around the attic, where I heard some mysterious noises earlier." And with that she pulled out a copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, causing the fireplace to spin round and reveal a secret passage leading up to the attic.

Alone at last, I inspected the body on the floor. His lips were parted in a grimace, and lilac froth gathered at the corners of his mouth. I sniffed cautiously. Just as I thought - Lord Stiffington had apparently been poisoned by an obscure south American poison known only to the 8 remaining members of a remote people who lived on the edge of Lake Titicaca. And, of course, to me. At that moment, a scream rent the air. I ran to the door and pulled it open. There, in the hallway lay the body of Aurora De Greasepaint who, only minutes before had left the library through the secret passageway. How could this be? Had the mysterious Mr Wright struck again?

The scream had brought the house's inhabitants running - Sir Hugh Geego, my friend Dimm, Lady Helena Handbasket could it be? Aurora de Greasepaint. I rubbed my eyes. Had I taken too much opium the night before? Aurora's eyes widened and she put her hand to her mouth and swooned, collapsing to the floor next to the first Aurora de Greasepaint.

"Sal Volatile!" I cried.

"Yes sir?" a timid maidservant curtseyed.

"What do you mean 'Yes sir?'? I want smelling salts - sal volatile."

"But I AM Sal Volatile sir. That's me name. Sally Volatile."

At that moment Aurora groaned (the second one - the swooned one not the dead one).

"Miss de Greasepaint," I said "You're dead...but you're can that be?"

"It's my twin sister," she whispered, "Smilla DeCrowd." And promptly fainted again.

I paced the floor. Butler handed me another note on a silver salver which I tore open (the note, not the salver - I'm an intelligent detective after all) 'It was me wot done that too - signed Mr Wright'.

Dimm frowned, "I say old chap..." he started. We all looked at him. "Oh...errrrr...nothing."

"I see how this happened," I said. "You see this thread I picked up earlier that I kept to myself as the most important clue to this whole business? Well, it was attached to a blow gun concealed in the bust of Ghengis Khan on the mantlepiece. A piece of cunning machinery inside using the coils of an alarm clock, a fish slice and a bicycle pump meant that a dart loaded with poison shot out and killed Lord Stiffington."

Everyone gasped in stunned amazement. "By jove Warmwater, I do believe you have it." Dimm beamed. Then the light in his eyes faded. "But that can't be right..."

"Whyever not Dimm?" I asked with some annoyance.

"Because Luke, I saw you stab Stiffy in the throat with that dart myself. I just never realised what I had seen until now."

Everyone gasped and took a step backwards. As I prepared to flee through the secret passageway concealed by the heavy velvet curtain in the corner, the front door opened.

"Aha" said Sir Hugh Geego, "the mysterious Mr Wright I presume?"

"No...Wong. Inspector Wong from Hong Kong. Arrest that man."

Friday 12 February 2010

Life of PI

Since I am still having computer woes, I'm taking the lazy option again today. I once did an interview with a PI, which was in the wonderful Crimespree Magazine. So I thought I would post that in lieu of a proper blog post today.

Picture the scene - the backstreet office building looks unloved and dejected. You walk up the dimly lit staircase and inhale the scents which hint at bodily functions you'd rather not dwell on too closely. Actually, it's more than a hint - the smells take you by the throat and assault your nose like a world class boxer. The door to the Private Eye's office is battered and scuffed and the letters on the opaque glass spell out hopelessness and the end of the line, as well as the words 'Pr vate Inve tiga or' in peeling black letters. Inside the office the decor could politely be described as minimalist and eclectic - an ancient desk decorated with scratches, heel marks, cigarette burns and the odd bullet hole, a couple of mismatched and uncomfortable chairs, a coffeepot standing on a gunmetal grey filing cabinet in the corner. The Venetian blind which should be on the window is lying in a heap on the floor, but it doesn't matter because the streaks of dirt on the window filter the light like a moth-eaten blackout curtain.

Behind the desk sits the world-weary, lone-wolf PI we know and love from crime fiction - a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Jim Beam in the other, his feet up on the desk. He's wearing a rumpled suit, shoes that have seen better days but so long ago that they don't remember them, and a face that has the lived in look of a doss house. There's a knock at the door and the beautiful and mysterious dame walks in and spins the hard-bitten PI a sob story he can't refuse. Within hours the PI has been beaten up, shot at, warned off by the police and stumbled over a dead body or two.

Now rewind. Erase all those pictures from your head... well, all except one maybe.

Here's the reality. I interviewed the founder of an investigation firm with an office in a town not far from Glasgow - let's call him Sam, and let's call his Company Spade Investigations. First of all, he doesn't call himself a PI - they're Corporate Investigation, Risk and Security Consultants. The office is an upper conversion of a sandstone building in a business street. There are seven rooms including a boardroom and training room, a technical and forensics room, and a surveillance room.

I was intrigued by the technical and forensics room so I asked Sam what went on there and he told me they use a lot of technical equipment, including cameras for covert installations, GPS tracking systems, video and audio surveillance equipment, counter surveillance and debugging. “One of our directors - Q, as we call him - walks around wearing a white jacket, with pens in the pocket, and thick glasses; talking about gadgets.”

They also carry out computer forensics work - retrieving hidden and deleted data from hard drives, and from the memory cards from digital cameras. As well as being used to investigate pedophiles it's also invaluable from a commercial point of view - fraud, embezzlement, industrial espionage, theft of intellectual property: “We can investigate cases where executives have left companies and there are covenants in place to restrict practices.”

The firm has 22 employees, including 4 administration staff and they have offices in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They have their own brochures, issue a regular newsletter, hold corporate events and, believe it or not, have just hired a PR firm. In fact, before me, Sam had just been interviewed by two local papers.

Most of the investigators either have police or military backgrounds. Sam's own background is military and I asked him how he'd got started in the PI game:

“About 17 years ago I decided to contact as many investigation companies as I could and one of them gave me a job. I worked for a year and a half as an investigator until I decided I could do it better myself.”

So he did. He formed Spade Investigations 15 years ago. Initially, there was a fair amount of the traditional PI type work - tracing people, tailing people and a lot of private work, but they gradually built up the corporate side of the business and 10 years ago they started to specialise. They still do the private work though, never turning down any job if they have the capacity to take it on. The variety of work is very wide - “ranging from basic trace enquiries - we had one request - from an American who was trying to contact someone he'd stayed with in 1939, just before the war - to the other end of the scale of major corporate theft. We might send someone in undercover, install covert cameras, and have 4-6 guys on a surveillance plot.” The cameras would be installed at night or, if the workplace is open 24 hours, then they send people in dressed as electricians to install the equipment.

And did they find the man from 1939? “Yes, surprisingly.” says Sam, “Sometimes it's easier to find someone who's been away from the place a long time than it is to find someone who just moved recently. The best period to try and trace someone is if they've been away from a place for a year or so. It's more difficult where they've been away less than a year, or more than 20.”

“We have lots of interesting cases but to me it's a job. It's actually one exciting job after another - if you came in and looked through the files you'd find lots of things to interest you, but its difficult for me to pinpoint one because I do it every day.”

Spade Investigations carry out work for insurance companies and legal firms, and also any company with a lot of employees or stock. They investigate personal injury type claims “lifestyle reports on individuals - for example if someone's working when they're not meant to be working.” Some of this type of case takes them abroad. Sam's been to Spain on personal injury cases for example. “You're working hard but it's a different environment. Your subject may be going out for a meal at 10pm. So it's different and there's a bit of a holiday feel to it. It's quite glamourous sometimes.”

Building up a list of clients is very difficult because of the nature of the work. “You have to very gradually build up the trust and hope you can get repeat work.” Word of mouth is important, and having a good reputation is vital.

The company also does “close protection work, hostile environment training - we did some for people going out to Iraq - safety awareness, anti-ambush drills.”

Having been mugged three times, I wondered if I could get some tips from an expert on personal safety. Sam asked me a couple of questions about where I live, what I do for a living, where I go and his advice was:

“Carry a panic alarm - always. Be aware of your surroundings. Before you leave your flat, look out of the window and see who's about. For example, in cases of stalking, if someone's watching you, then YOU should be able to see THEM. Make sure you have nothing valuable on display when you go out and have your handbag positioned across your body. You might want to carry two purses - one which is viewable and one which is hidden, then you can give up the obvious one. Stick to well lit routes with people about, and try and be within shouting distance of people at all times. Never take the lanes. Always have a safe place to run to.”

So how does someone set up as a Private Investigator?

In the US most of the States require PIs setting up in business to be licensed. At present, there is no requirement for PIs in Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, or South Dakota to be licensed but many of the cities and counties in those states may have their own licensing requirements. It would appear that all you need to be licensed as a private investigator is to be 18 years of age, of sound mind and with a clean criminal record (how reassuring). In some states there's also a requirement for an applicant to serve an apprenticeship with a licensed investigative firm and/or pass an exam.

In the UK there's no requirement to be licensed at present, although Sam explains that this is going to change -- “legislation is currently coming in to English law which covers wheel-clampers and door stewards. We expect legislation in England to cover investigators in 2006 and Scotland shortly after that. Until then, anyone can start up in business as a Private Investigator.”

As for training, well, Spade Investigations are ahead of the game. “Training's not obligatory but should be undertaken by anyone who wants to stay in business” was Sam's opinion. The Company in fact provide training to other investigators. They recently held a surveillance course where the morning was theory and the afternoon was spent out on surveillance, being shown the equipment, and mobile surveillance in action. When I wistfully said I'd love to go on something like that Sam told me I could - they have another course in the next few months, and anyone can go on it. I asked him to sign me up.

As the boss of the Company, Sam's day is taken up mostly with looking after the business side of things - marketing and PR, accountants, bank. The Investigators' routine is different “They might start around 6 or 7am if they're on surveillance, either following the person, or at the location that's being watched, and they'll finish about 3 or 4 in the afternoon depending on requirements.” Usually there are between 2 and 4 people on one surveillance. All the Company's vehicles have communications fitted and the investigators have all their equipment for the day with them - covert camera, body camera, Palm recorder, change of clothes, binoculars, and a kit to enable them to put video equipment in an empty car in locations where an occupied vehicle would stand out. They also have food and drink of course, and my delicate question about necessary bodily functions was met with an “I'll leave that to your imagination.”

Real life professional investigators like Sam have a good relationship with police on the whole. “Some policemen realise it's a good career to go into after leaving the police force. Some still perceive us as doing the job which the police should be doing. But this really isn't the case. The police don't have the time to investigate everything and we deal with the sort of cases they wouldn't really get involved in.” Would he ever be called upon to solve a murder? “Definitely not - that's a job for the police.”

I asked Sam what the best and worst aspects of the job were:

“Best - achieving something for the client that has been quite hard to achieve for them; maybe a difficult situation where we've really put ourselves out to get a result. Worst - a client who doesn't have an appreciation of all that we've done.”

A lot of their work is potentially dangerous “ but we know how to turn and run. People don't know who we are so they don't know what they're dealing with. But if someone starts to guess we're onto them then we'll pull out.”

I asked Sam if he had one piece of advice for a budding PI looking to start out in the business:

“Do your homework about the market and don't assume that there's money to be made. If you're not a business minded person - don't do it.”

And what about the attributes of a good investigator:

“Bags of integrity, bags of commitment, a good sense of humour and staying power. We'd also look at previous training and experience.”

By this point in the interview, I was contemplating a career change and asked Sam if the firm had any female investigators. The answer was no, but not because they didn't want one:

“I've tried my damnedest to get one. I'd love to employ one - a female investigator would be a big benefit to the company provided she fulfilled the minimum requirements.”

I asked if he'd ever thought of employing a short, fat, unfit, middle aged woman with a good sense of humour. He was kind enough to say that none of that would matter but my biggest stumbling block would be that I don't drive. “You need to be strong on mobile surveillance. If you're chasing someone you need to have quick reactions on the roads.” I had a fleeting thought of getting on the Number 62 Bus and saying to the driver “Follow that car”, but it looks as though the life of a PI is, sadly, not for me.

Sam doesn't read detective fiction, and he doesn't have time to watch TV, too busy walking the walk, but I asked him about the traditional view of PIs:

“That preconceived idea of the 1970s - smoke filled offices and overcoats - isn't true; although there is still an element of that, where someone is maybe a one man organisation and his old pals from the police force will pop in for a cigarette and a chat. But we're so high tech and PR aware that it's really not like that at all. We're so far advanced and our equipment is more James Bond. For the public, the work of the Investigator often conjures up romantic images - a lot of which are a load of rubbish.”

So what about that beautiful and mysterious female client? Does she ever walk into the office?

“Sometimes,” said Sam, “but not very often.”

And on that note, I let him go back to walking those mean streets.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Revenge of the Killer Bee

Well, I was going to leave it a few days before posting this, and get back to the aim of the blog which is to post about Scottish crime fiction. However, I have had a traumatic evening and no time to do a proper post. My lovely little teeny tiny laptop just flashed up the blue screen of not-very-well when I switched it on. I've lost some documents (not much fiction as I'm very careful about e-mailing it to myself when I write anything. However, I've lost an article I was writing on my trips to Alaska and, worst of all, loads of photos. I'm gutted about that. Anyone have any suggestions for a good place online to store photos?

So I'm back using my clunky old laptop that takes about half an hour to load up, and I'm not joking. So I thought I would just post about killer bees to cheer myself up.

So, as with yesterday's post, this was another conference with work. The conference centre we were staying in was a stately home which was absolutely gorgeous - if you could ignore the not particularly unobtrusive 1970s grey concrete addition which is where the bedrooms and the lecture rooms were. The views were gorgeous - all rolling countryside and lots of green stuff (that wasn't graffiti and mouldy kebabs). Beautiful scenery and nature and fresh, clear air. Well, unless you had my bedroom of course. My bedroom was in a cul-de-sac which overlooked four skips, and a multi-story car park. And the skips were full. So the beautiful scenery and fresh clean air were out. It was like being home. However, I did have some nature. Too much of it in fact. As well as the rat which I'm sure I heard scrabbling round the skips at 3am, there was the Killer Bee the size of a golf ball which decided to come and visit me while I was doing my ironing. It wasn't so much a bee, as a hawk.

We arrived about 5pm and arranged to meet in the bar at 6, so I had a quick shower and was busily ironing, while wearing only my underwear (this is probably too much information, but it's relevant to the story). I'd opened the window as it was really warm (I couldn't decide on the lesser of two evils between a boiling hot room, or the delightful smell of rotting garbage in the skips). All of a sudden I heard this really loud buzzing noise and this Killer Bee the size of a tennis ball came flying in the window straight towards me.

Now, I don't know whether you've ever had a Killer Bee the size of a basketball up in your face singing "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" but it's a bit scary. So I screamed like a big girl and lashed out. Unfortunately, it slipped my mind that I was doing the ironing at the time so I ended up flailing around with a hot iron (set to cotton - this fact seems irrelevant but I can assure you it will be important later). The iron was steaming, and the Bee wasn't best chuffed either. If it had been buzzing angrily before, it now turned it up a notch. And it was so close to my face that I could smell its breath. And, let me tell you, it hadn't been eating honey. I think it had been bin diving. It was fixing me with its beady little eyes, and drawing back its harpoon-like sting, when one of my sweeps with the iron caught it and it fell to the floor.

Via my foot. Just before the bee the size of Liechtenstein landed on my foot, I jumped backwards, knocking over the ironing board which, in turn, knocked the chair towards the window. Since it looked as though the chair back was going to crash into the window I jumped forward to grab the chair, overbalanced into the television, turning it on with my elbow. The ironing board crashed to the ground, I fell onto the bed, the chair in one hand and the hot iron (remember the hot iron?) in the other. Unfortunately, since I had several things to think about at once, I neglected to hold the iron away from anything it might damage and it ended up burning a hole in my bra (the bra was silk, the iron, if you cast your mind back, was set to cotton). Even more unfortunately, it just so happened that I was wearing it at the time. Ouch.

Silence descended, apart from the steaming of the iron, the occasional weak buzz from the bee, and the gentle sizzling of my flesh. After composing myself and putting the iron down safely on something that wasn't attached to me, I picked the bee up using my conference programme and gently hurled it out of the window into the skip below. Then I finished getting ready and went down to the bar.

When I walked in, the conversation stopped and they all turned round and looked at me. One of my colleagues said "Donna, I believe you're in the room next door to me."

"I am? How do you know that?" I said.

"Well, it might have been the shouts of 'bugger off bee' followed by ten minutes of crashes and screams that gave it away. It couldn't be anyone else really."

So there you have it.

Oh, and despite my mum's protests I am doing a charity zipslide... errrr... slide. Should anyone get the urge to sponsor me you can find the details, including photos of last year's event, here.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

The Building That Wouldn't Let Me Leave

I was at a conference this weekend so am a tad behind (seems to be my permanent state this year), so, since someone reminded me of the time when I got my leg stuck in a banister at a conference, I thought I would do a lazy blog post and tell the story.

This conference had been arranged for some time. The building we were having it in is a club/restaurant place in an old building. What we didn't know is that, in the time between the conference being booked and being held, the owners of the building decided to have it completely overhauled, so when we arrived there were workmen, dustsheets and paint tins all over the place.

This place is a big old building on about 4 floors with a huge stone staircase and high ceilings - dark, old and pretty scary when you're the only people in the whole place, apart from the workmen and a couple of skeleton staff (not literally skeletons, but I wouldn't have been surprised to have heard the clanking of chains and seen the odd ghostly nobleman wandering round adjusting his codpiece). Because our course had been arranged for a while the building's management had decided to go ahead with it, but, other than our group, the rest of the building was empty. No problem.

The course was going well and, during the break at lunchtime, I went out into the hallway to use my phone. I was standing on the staircase, talking on the phone, and I had shoved one of my knees in between the ornate metal uprights that made up the banister of the staircase. At the end of the phone call, I switched my phone off and tried to move away. Whoops - my knee was stuck. I whimpered, tugged at my knee and swore. I must have looked like a modern-day Mrs Rochester as I flailed on the staircase moaning ""

Eventually, I managed to prise myself free - but not before one of the builders had run up the staircase to see what was wrong. Just in time to see my leg pop out of the banister like an overstuffed sausage. I waved gaily and rather hysterically at him, before running back into the room where the meeting was being held, my face rather flushed.

By the end of the day I'd calmed down and I stayed behind at the end to chat to the course trainer about something. We left the room - he went downstairs and out of the building, I decided I needed to go to the loo before going home. So I did. And there I was, happily going about my business, when I heard a noise that sounded like the main door leading to the loos being slammed. I thought nothing of it... until I came to leave. The door leading out of the ladies was locked. I was trapped. I had visions of the builders going home, only to resume work in a couple of months time, and finding my skeleton lying on the floor, my last message scrawled in lipstick on the mirror 'I wish I had more lipsti...'

I knocked tentatively on the door, feeling just a tad silly. No response. I knocked a bit harder. Silence. I swore for 5 minutes before remembering I was a modern, independent woman. I pulled out my trusty mobile phone and dithered over whether I should dial 999 or ring my Dad. Since my Dad was 400 miles away and I really wanted to get home for my tea, and imagining that the fire brigade had more important things to worry about, I dialed the switchboard of the building I was in. After what felt like half an hour the phone was picked up.

"Oh thank God", I said "please could you come and let me out of the toilet."

Silence on the other end of the phone, then a tentative voice "Errrr.....who is this?"

"Well, my name's Donna, but that REALLY won't mean anything to you. I'm stuck in the loo, please could you let me out."

"Where are you exactly?"

"I'm standing by the sink."

"No...I mean which FLOOR are you on."

"Oh, right....ummmm, the floor where the training course was today."

Silence again. "Is that the woman who had her leg stuck in the banister by any chance?"

Yes indeed, my knight in shining overalls was the same workman who'd seen me stuck in the banister earlier that day. I like to think his shoulders were shaking with the cold as he freed me and wished me a safe journey home, but I'm afraid that it was laughter.

Actually, that reminds me of another conference story when I was attacked by a Killer Bee. But that one makes me look even more ridiculous (is that possible?) so maybe I should just draw a discreet veil over that one.

Monday 8 February 2010

News, Reviews and Interviews From All OverThe Globe

The Decatur Daily likes Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland Street. While over in Jaipur, blog Gora! Gora! Gora has an excellent wrap-up of the final event. His passport will be getting loads of stamps this year as he is over in Minneapolis in April.

The Calcutta Telegraph questions Ian Rankin, who then talks to the Economic Times, The Hindu, and then to the Times of India about how there's even a crime in cricket. After all that talking, he'll be thirsty, so he'll be looking forward to this event at the Caledonian Brewery on March 4th then.

The Scottish Premier League quiz Christopher Brookmyre about his love of St Mirren. And, still on football, it may just be me but the phrase "The supporters from the north east were crammed into the Val McDermid Stand" strikes me as funny. And Val McDermid is also involved in this project to get older people reading and writing - I am trying to get my Dad to enter the competition.

Crime Beat in South Africa looks at cities as the backdrop for crime fiction, including Tony Black's Edinburgh.

Publishers Weekly enjoyed Ray Banks' NO MORE HEROES. And so they should - it's a brilliant read.

John Welsh in the Independent with an entertaining look at the perils of writing Irvine Welsh meets Jane Austen for the BBC.

M C Beaton is being read a lot recently. First of all, Joe Barone enjoys DEATH OF A VALENTINE, while the lovely Sally from Oz, reviews DEATH OF A CELEBRITY.

Gillian Galbraith visits North Berwick on February 25th,

And, finally, somebody thought that Stuart MacBride would be suitable reading for eight-year olds - without actually reading the book. Oh deary, deary me.

Sunday 7 February 2010

What I Read In January

January was a busy month, what with editing OLD DOGS and doing the programming for Crimefest, so I didn't get as much read as I would have liked. But here's what I did read.

THE OSSIANS - Doug Johnstone

Published: 2008
Setting: Scotland
Protagonist: Connor Alexander
Series?: I presume it's a standalone
First Lines: '"Connor, I don't know why I let you drag me to the stupidest places."'
Indie guitar band The Ossians are on the verge of signing a major record deal and their lead singer Connor decides that now would be a good time to tour Scotland, going to some of the dreariest, bleakest places - in winter. Connor - self-destructive and full of himself - spends most of the tour drunk or high on a cocktail of drugs. But this is definitely not what you would typically consider a rock and roll lifestyle with its series of tedious gigs in seedy venues. And, unlike most tours (I would hope!) the tension mounts with drug dealers, stalkers and gun-toting Russian sub-mariners. I didn't like Connor at all - he's got a chip on his shoulder the size of a bag of King Edwards - but I really loved reading about him and wanted to know what would happen to him. Connor has led a pampered, rather empty, middle-class life and the tour seems to be a search for the holy grail of his own identity, as well as that of Scotland. A thought-provoking and fascinating read. And really good fun. I will definitely be looking out for more from this author.

BURIAL - Neil Cross
Published: 2009
Setting: England
Protagonist: Nathan
Series?: Standalone
First Lines: 'The doorbell rang. Nathan had a feeling - but he dismissed it, muted the TV and went to the door. There stood Bob; hunched over, grinning in the darkness and rain. Saying: "Hello, mate."'
Nathan is happily living his life when someone he would rather forget turns up to tell him that they're digging up the woods. You know then that Nathan has a secret. And a big one it is too. Jump back ten years or so and Nathan is working in an unfulfilling job on a late night talk show hosted by a has-been. He's also in an unfulfilling relationship which is on its last legs. So he decides to take his girlfriend to the annual party put on by his boss, before he dumps her. There he meets Bob - a weird guy he met once a few years before and things get out of hand in a particularly nasty way. The description of the crime is brutal and uncompromising and the book is a chilling and unsettling look at guilt, torment and restitution in a tortured mind.

Published: 2006
Setting: Britannia, AD117
Protagonist: Gaius Petreius Ruso
Series?: 1st in series
First Lines: 'Someone had washed the mud off the body, but as Gaius Petrieus Ruso unwrapped the sheet there was still a distinct smell of river.'
Ruso is an army medic with the Roman army in Britain. His family has huge debts, he has problems with his new hospital administrator, he's somehow managed to buy an injured slave girl, his house is full of mice and puppies, and someone is going around murdering dancing girls from a local house of ill repute. This is not my usual dark and twisted fare, but I really enjoyed it. The cast of characters is interesting and well-drawn, there are some lovely touches of humour, and I loved the historical details which are seamlessly included and don't feel like a history lesson. The setting is really well done and I am really glad I was leading a book discussion on this one, or I might not have picked it up.

Published: 2009
Setting: Bristol
Protagonist: Jenny Cooper
Series?: maybe 1st in a series
First Lines: 'The first dead body Jenny ever saw was her grandfather's.'
Jenny Cooper is a lawyer getting over a traumatic divorce and wanting a break from family law, so she takes a job as Coroner after the death of the previous incumbent. Her predecessor's most recent cases were a 14 year old boy whose death was ruled as suicide while in custody in a secure training centre, and the apparent heroin overdose of a 15 year old girl. Jenny's curiosity is piqued by certain circumstances surrounding the two deaths, and she also becomes unconvinced that her predecessor died of natural causes. Jenny has her problems (including eating Temazepam like Smarties) and for the first half of the book things felt a tad slow, with too much dwelling on her personal circumstances, but things heat up in the second half, and the thoughtful depiction of a system overburdened with bureaucracy and corruption was interesting.

Thursday 4 February 2010

It's All Alexander, Except For The Bits That Are Ian

Loads and loads about Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin today.

The Independent with a brief review of Alexander McCall Smith's TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, while the author himself "defends his upbeat view of Africa". And more here on his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival. And the Indian Express on the Number 1 Ladies Man.

From the same publication, an article on the 'lumbering presence' that is Ian Rankin. And an interview with Ian Rankin himself from his Lit Sutra tour, and the Times of India on the man who had "no interest in crime fiction". And he will be one of the stars at Barcelona's Semana de Novela Negra festival. At least, I think that's what it says. Meanwhile, the Review Broads give a thumbs up to DOORS OPEN, as does Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times.

Closer to home, you can see Louise Welsh in Pitlochry on 5th February and at the University of Strathclyde on February 11th. And if you're in London on March 12th, how about going to see Ray Banks, Cathi Unsworth, Toby Litt and Courttia Newland for "a night of crime fiction, comic art, and music of a darker hue."

Allan Guthrie, with his agent hat on, has been very busy recently. First of all he gets Doug Johnstone a two book deal with Faber. The first one is called SMOKEHEADS - described as 'Sideways meets Shallow Grave with a hint of The Wicker Man'. Nice. I'm really looking forward to that - I read Johnstone's THE OSSIANS recently and found it most excellent. Then he and Christa Faust do a deal with Hard Case for the next Angel Dare book. And Christa gets a new tattoo to celebrate. Christa is my heroine (but don't worry Mum, I celebrated my deals by bursting into tears and having a nice cup of tea). And thirdly, Al signs up the funny and charming Helen Fitzgerald as a client. Congratulations to all.

And, talking of Helen Fitzgerald, here's an excellent podcast interview with her, where she admits to googling herself (hi Helen!).

Tony Black talks to the Aberdeen Press & Journal about loss and LOSS.

Ian Pattison says he is nothing like Rab C Nesbitt. Before he sobered up, Rab C's favourite drink was Buckfast, so thanks to my friend Yvonne for pointing me in the direction of this article from the New York Times, about Scotland's Buckfast Triangle. I particularly liked this quote:
'Mr. Miller was hard-pressed to articulate what he likes about Buckfast. “You get used to it,” he said.' Yes indeed. It takes a little getting used to, since it tastes like a mixture of cough syrup, petrol, half a ton of sugar, and a soupcon of warm sweat. And the only reason you do get used to it is because each sip destroys a handful of brain cells.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

From Noir To Cosy in 12 Easy Stages

A blog post from the lovely Dorte asking 'What is noir?' (a question to which it appears there is no definitive answer) leads me to this not altogether serious route from noir to cosy.

Noir fiction has our protagonist spiralling down into the pit of despair, thrown there by a mocking Fate, who then stands at the edge of the pit shovelling dirt onto the head of the protagonist until he is half-buried. Fate then throws the shovel down into the pit and the hapless protag reaches out for that glimmer of hope, only for it to whack him on the head and kill him. Noir for me ends with the characters going to prison/becoming alcoholics/ betraying each other and their own morals (if they had any to start with) - mostly a one book deal (after all, who'd want to put the poor sucker through all that again?)

Add a wisecracking sidekick, a couple of shoot-outs and the love of a good woman for our PI who decides he's going to kick the booze, and you have a hardboiled tale.

Add a nasty serial killer, a morgue, some sharp knives and a know-it-all woman with a degree in pathology, who just happens to be a cordon-bleu chef and you have a forensic thriller.

Give your serial killer a quirk and have him choose victims who are blue-eyed women with one arm who he drowns in a vat of hot chocolate while narrating The Rime of The Ancient Mariner. He then ties her to the bed and draws a picture of a squirrel on the wall and scatters rose petals around the bedroom floor, because he was burned by a scalding mug of hot chocolate when he was a baby, force-fed to him by his mother Rose, a Women's Royal Navy Sailor, who lost an arm in a bizarre accident involving a rabid squirrel. Add in a few italicised passages from the viewpoint of the killer and you have a psychological thriller.

Include quotes from an obscure Turkish poet left at the scene of the crime (the poem, not the poet), have the killer be a master chess-player and chuck in a discourse on philosophy every six pages, and you have a literary mystery.

Throw a lawyer into the mix who uses his courtroom skills to unveil the bad guy, despite the fact that his extra-curricular investigations puts his own life in danger, and you have a legal thriller.

Give your lawyer an acquaintance who's a cop with a passion for justice at the expense of his home life, who's been divorced six times, is driven by the job and who relaxes with a glass of beer and some jazz music on the stereo at the end of a case and you have the loner cop book.

Give him some mates, a few jokes, a couple of attractive female colleagues, an annoying senior officer, too much paperwork and some inter-departmental squabbling and you have a police procedural.

Introduce your newly optimistic and upbeat policeman to a nice widow with a penchant for sticking her nose in where it's not wanted, and who always seems to be tripping over dead bodies and you've got an amateur-sleuth mystery.

Give Ms Nosy a clever, mystery-solving iguana as a pet, a hobby knitting bird tables out of left-over wool, then throw in a recipe every couple of chapters and you have a cosy.

Make the iguana talk, and give him the starring role, or give the heroine the ghost of a dead relative to contend with and you have a paranormal crossover mystery.

Transport the whole shooting match back to 1665 and dress them in pantaloons and bustles and have them declaim "Gadzooks" and "Oddsbodkins" every now and again and you have a historical mystery. Well, you might have to lose the iguana...

So, dear Reader, what is your favourite sub-genre and why?

Monday 1 February 2010

Crime Fiction Has Made Me A Horrible Person

I fear that reading crime fiction has made me callous.

A couple of years ago, I was once brought to a crashing halt (quite literally, since the guy walking behind me crashed straight into me - well, he shouldn't have been walking that closely behind, should he - anyone would think he was one of those collar sniffers*) by an advert for one of the local papers in the window of a shop near me "Clydebank man shot in girlfriends' lovers' garden." Was my first thought "Oh the poor man"? Or "How shocking"? No, it was "How many girlfriends? How many lovers? How big was the garden?" A misplaced apostrophe or two can make me forget about the human element. And so, apparently, can a few drops of blood.

I went out onto the landing of the flats where I live to discover a trail of blood drops - drying, but still shiny - going up the stairs. Each landing had a little pool of the stuff, while every few stairs had a drop or two. Did I rush to find out if anyone needed urgent medical assistance? Did I pull out my phone to call the emergency services. No, I did not. I pretended I was in an episode of CSI "Was this person standing still, or were they moving?" I thought. "Are the splatters directional?" "Where is my lovely white lab-coat?"

As it turned out, those CSI jobs are safe, anyway. The only injury was a minor burn as my upstairs neighbour tripped as he walked up the stairs with a container of coffee. All I can say is that it's a jolly good job I never aspired to a career in medicine.

But on to the proper news. Ray Banks get a starred review in Library Journal - and quite rightly so - for the excellent NO MORE HEROES. And a review of the Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith, who will be launching his new book in The Edinburgh Bookshop on 3rd March.

The Times has an article on the social concerns of the thriller and how the distinction between crime fiction and literary fiction lies in their relative attitudes to language. Oh dear, that doesn't bode well, does it? The author of the piece has nice things to say about Aly Monroe, amongst others. However, this paragraph did annoy me a tad:

"Generally speaking, however, the distinction between crime and thrillers on the one hand and "literary" fiction on the other lies in their attitude to language. Many crime novelists seem indifferent or unaware that it might be a good idea to have a view of the matter at all, and the result is work that suggests that the writer believes he or she can operate in some medium which exists prior to, or instead of, language." I also have to admit that I've read the second of those two sentences about seventeen times and I'm still in the dark.

Louise Welsh and Dan Rhodes appear in Edinburgh on 10th March (not as if by magic, I hasten to add, but at Blackwell Bookshop on South Bridge).

More from India with Rankin on Rebus. And, talking of India, Irvine Welsh narrates a documentary about a charity whose aim is to build a home for Dalit children.

Another article on Ian Pattison's Rab C Nesbitt. And more on the Booktrust project to encourage the over-60s to read.

*The collar-sniffing incident: I was down in London on business and there I was, happily tootling up the escalator at Liverpool Street Station when I felt someone pressing really, really close behind me. "Hello", I thought, "Either you've pulled, Donna, or you're getting your pocket picked." I've had relationships with people who got less intimate on a first date.** Before I could do anything, I then felt a nose on my neck. Since it wasn't cold and wet, I didn't think it was a rather tall Golden Retriever, so I squealed like a big girl, turned round, and walloped the bloke behind me with my handbag. He looked at me as though it was ME in the wrong.

"What?" he said. "I was only sniffing your collar" (as if this was the most natural thing in the world).

"Oh, and is THAT supposed to make it sodding better?" I belted him in the shins with my suitcase (I was aiming for higher but the escalator suddenly flattened out) and stalked off feeling aggrieved. I'm not sure why these things always seem to happen to me, but they do. I was once flashed at in a Parisian cemetery...

** Dad - that's just a joke, by the way. I've never been on a first date with anyone who tried to get intimate. In fact, you can just assume that I've never been on a date, OK?