Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Today It's All About A Beardy Scotsman

Today I'm handing over the blog to one of my favourite people - Russel McLean - author, bookseller and mushroom vomiter extraordinaire.

Russel is doing a blog tour in conjunction with the US launch of THE LOST SISTER. Here's an excellent review of it over at The Drowning Machine, and my own thoughts on it are in this post.

And if you want more Russel (and why wouldn't you, for heaven's sake?) here's the post from the first stop on the blog tour, over at Central Crime Zone.

Over to you, Russel (and please try not to vomit, I just hoovered the blog).

Good morning. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. I am not your usual host, the fabulous Donna Moore. No, Ms Moore has graciously allowed me to invade her blog today as part of my ongoing blog tour to promote my latest novel, THE LOST SISTER which has just been released in hardback in the US. This is my second day on tour and I was trying to figure a suitably Scottish topic to talk about. I had one all planned, but there was a question someone had asked me yesterday that had been sticking in my head all day, one I felt I had to try and answer.

The question was this:

Why write about Dundee?

Place can be everything in a novel. It can affect the way you look at your story and your characters. Certainly, when writing THE GOOD SON and its sequel THE LOST SISTER, place began to play a very important part in my thinking.

The place, of course, was Dundee. Scotland’s fourth city. The home of “Jam*, Jute and Journalism”. I’d been here for a few years as a student. When I was younger, I remembered coming to the city, usually on a shopping trip with my parents to Debenhams. But it never made a huge impression on me.

Not until I accepted a place at the university and found myself living here full time.

I was a country boy, so even though Dundee is by an standards a small city, it felt big to me. The variety and sheer number of buildings was fascinating. The services, the senses of different communities within one place was so different to where I’d grown up. I admit that the discovery of take outs just down the street resulted in a fairly rapid weight gain.

I had been here for three years when I started writing about the city. I was still a student, still an outsider, but I was discovering layers to the city by then. When I first moved to Dundee, many people had warned me that it was “a dangerous place”, that I’d be mugged in a week. I hadn’t been, but I understood that the city was changing. New buildings were going up every day. New money – this was the late nineties, after all – was being pumped into developing services and creating a new Dundee, a new City of Discovery that looked to the future.

Given how this new Dundee jarred with a certain generation’s view of the city, I figured that this would make it an interesting place to write about. Especially as I had just turned to writing crime stories and had an instinctual feel that the best crime stories emerge from environments undergoing change.

The challenge I faced, of course, was fidelity to the physical reality of the city. One of the lessons I soon learned was to become overly concerned with such minutiae was to invite failure. While it might please some people that you get every pacing stone on every street in the right place, you can become obsessed with such details and lose what it important to fictional storytelling: the soul of a place.

The Dundee I write about is a place emerging from its industrial past. The Jam, Jute and Journalism days are long gone. The city has been trying to find its place and now that new industries – computing, medical research – are rising, there is a struggle between the old and the new Dundee that lends itself perfectly to the crime stories I wish to tell.

There is something, too, about the physicality of the city. It is not a giant, looming city like Glasgow. It is a city that moves from old, dilapidated tenements and horrific 1960’s architectural mistakes to the new-money glass and steel structures like the DCA and the new Overgate Shopping centre with barely a pause. There are large areas of greenery near housing schemes. There are mansions near rickety blocks of flats. There is no clear division other than the sometimes artificial east/west divide that many people have mentioned in relation to the city. And at the centre of it all, the Law Hill looms large, visible from so many places.

Every day, I find something new in the city, a corner I never knew existed, a story I file away for later use. There is more history here than one might expect. From electric street lamps to lickable postage stamps (no, really), there is a history of invention and innovation here.

And of course, there is crime. An entire book, The Law Killers, was written upon true Dundee crime. It became a national bestseller. But I don’t want to talk about that today. We’re only on day two in our blog tour and I want to save the true Dundee crime for a later date.

But to return to the question: why write crime novels in Dundee?

Not just because no one else was doing it. But because the city itself is fascinating, exciting. Because it is free from cliché in a way that Edinburgh and Glasgow are not. And because, the more I learn about the city, the more excited I am by it.

The Lost Sister is out now in Hardback from St Martin’s press in the USA.

*except its not jam, its marmalade. But “marmalade, jute and journalism,” doesn’t have the same ring.


  1. Excellent stuff, Russel. Here's wishing you big sales. LS is a cracking read.

    (If you can add another date to your VT why don'tcha pop over to mine?)

  2. I went to Dundee for the day in 1981. Bought a skirt. Looked at the boat. Vaguely recall a museum of sorts.

  3. Hi Michael

    Cheers, man. The tour's pretty big at the mo but one of these days, when I've recovered, I'm always up for guest posting places.

    Bookwitch - Dundee in 1981 was a hugely, hugely different place. We're about to get the new Victoria and Albert museum installed and so much of the centre has been regenerated. Especially the Overgate mall which would have been a block of concrete when you visited and is now all glass and steel and modern curves.

  4. Michael - it's a great read!

    Bookwitch - do you still have the skirt? 1981? Was it a puffball? :o)

    Russel - all glass and steel and modern curves...just like you :o)

    Naomi - thank YOU!

  5. No, it was a floaty Indian affair. Purple. And no, I got rid of it, along with the waistline. Whatever that is.
    New Dundee. OK, let's hope the child gets into St Andrews then, and I can go have a look.