Mysteries Set in Edinburgh

Feb 22, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Travel

by Harriet Tyce

Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t set The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Edinburgh, but he could have done, and his hometown heavily influenced him in the writing of it. The story of two extremes, the dark and the light, shows above all else the two faces of Edinburgh – New Town and Old; fur coat nae knickers.

Many people have heard of the International Edinburgh Festival, of the legendary Hogmanay parties held every year. The Georgian architecture of the New Town is beyond compare, with some of Europe’s most beautiful streets there to be found. The Old Town is redolent with history, the romance of Mary Queen of Scots, the splendour of Holyrood Palace, and the dark majesty of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, the volcanic rocks that overlook the lot.

What many people don’t know is the fact that despite all its charms, in the mid-eighties, Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe, riven with heroin abuse. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting captures the bleakness of this time brilliantly, cut through with a biting humour. To this day Scotland has an exceptionally high number of drugs deaths – in 2022, the number of fatalities due to drugs rose by a fifth in Edinburgh.

The city’s a contradiction in itself, riven by class and economic inequality. A whited sepulchre – its picture postcard face hides its dark underbelly.

A perfect setting for crime novels. I can’t remember writing anything I’ve enjoyed more than the passages of my new novel It Ends At Midnight which are set in Edinburgh in the years 1989-1990. A time of teenage shenanigans, discovering pubs, boys, and alcohol for the first time, and rampaging through the streets of my childhood that are still so real in my memory. But even underlying this is a grim toxicity, events that happen in that past which cast shadows over the present, leading to the tragedy of the deaths with which the novel opens.

Death is always close in Edinburgh. The history of the Old Town may be rich, but it’s also full of horror; take, for example, the Witches’ Well by the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, a memorial marking the site where over 300 women were burned to death as witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Or Mary King’s Close, a narrow street off the High Street, where legend has it that it was bricked up to prevent plague sufferers from leaving, who died in immolation.

To get a sense of the Old Town, read Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan. It is set in a tenement building on the Royal Mile, the story unfolding across nine decades. Entirely contemporary, it’s also full of the history of the place and the horror. Not a crime novel, but full of darkness, and a brilliant book.

For a more traditional crime novel, Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes opens with a corpse found in Mary King’s Close. His Rebus series is set in Edinburgh, making great use of the history and topography of the place. Through the twenty plus novels that make up the series so far, it’s possible to get a sense of the changes in recent years of Edinburgh’s development, though unable fully to escape its history. I have heard Rankin say that one of the strengths of writing police procedurals is the ability to cut across all class and social strata as the police officer investigates crimes that know no boundaries, and in this, the two faces of Edinburgh are pitilessly revealed.

A sense of this can also be gained from James Oswald’s All That Lives, where the author finds what links the discovery of a centuries’ hidden body in an archaeological dig in Edinburgh’s Leith, a second body only thirty years old, and a series of violent drug deaths – it’s a gripping interplay of the old and the new, with more than a nod to the supernatural.

A gentler read is Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series, in which the amateur sleuth is a philosopher in her early forties, who lives in the south side of Edinburgh and works as the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. It’s as charming as it sounds but still a demonstration that malice and darkness are never totally absent even from the most civilised of surroundings.

Irvine Welsh is not the only author to use such mordant wit as he writes about the darkest of subjects. Chris Brookmyre employs this, too, in the Parlablane series that opens with Quite Ugly One Morning, where a macabre murder story is told with savage humour. There’s a dark humour, too, to the Skelf series by Doug Johnson, centered round a family of undertakers based in Edinburgh which opens with the book A Dark Matter.

And to bring us entirely up to date, I’d recommend Heather Darwent’s The Things We Do To Our Friends, a jet-black slice of dark academia revolving around a toxic friendship at Edinburgh University – its picture postcard face hides its dark underbelly.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up earlier this month.

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Harriet Tyce was born and grew up in Edinburgh. She graduated from Oxford in 1994 with a degree in English Literature before gaining legal qualifications. She worked as a criminal barrister for ten years, leaving after having children. She completed an MA in Creative Writing – Crime Fiction at UEA where she wrote Blood Orange, the Sunday Times bestselling novel. It was followed by The Lies You Told, another Sunday Times bestseller. It Ends At Midnight has just been published to critical acclaim. She lives in north London with her family and two dogs. Follow Harriet on Twitter and Instagram @harriet_tyce

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


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