by Terry Ambrose
Video interview with Scottish mystery author Catriona McPherson at the end of this post.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may not have been the first Scottish mystery writer, but he’s certainly one of the most well known. Doyle, who began writing short stories while studying medicine, eventually opened his own practice, but soon returned to writing fiction.
The book-writing landscape has changed dramatically since Ward Lock & Co. purchased the first Sherlock Holmes novel for £25 in 1886. Today’s roster of Scottish mystery writers runs the gamut from self-published and debut authors to international bestsellers.
In what almost appears to be a grand Scottish tradition, several of today’s Scottish writers became sidetracked during their days of higher education. For instance, Ian Rankin, who has won multiple awards for his novels, including a Diamond Dagger, and an Edgar, says on his website that he, “spent three years writing novels when he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish Literature.”
Denise Mina, who has also won multiple awards for her writing, seems to have followed a path similar to Rankin’s by focusing on writing a novel while pursuing a PhD. Mina said, “I wanted to use the subject of my PhD as a topic in a crime book to disseminate the ideas in it. PhDs aren’t anyone’s preferred reading, are they? The topic was the ascription of mental illness to female offenders, so that became Garnethill.”
Scottish mystery writers also have a tendency to leave the homeland. For instance, internationally acclaimed author Peter May, who writes several different series, now resides in France. He said, “I am often asked why a Scot would abandon his home country for France and in response I always ask, “You mean apart from the weather, the food and the wine?”
Another Scottish mystery writer who now lives elsewhere is Catriona McPherson. McPherson obtained a PhD in linguistics from Edinburgh University and has held what she calls “proper jobs,” but has never been happier than she is as a writer. She recognizes that her move from Scotland came with tradeoffs.
“Living in California, writing about Scotland, has hindered the research process: all trips to look at castles or lochs start with a twelve hour plane journey. On the other hand, it’s been great for my career. There are just so many more people here and so there are more crime fans. Overall, given the wonders of the internet and the fact that I had racked up forty-four years in Scotland before I moved, I think it’s been a good thing. Also, I can grow oranges.”
McPherson has noticed some differences between readers here and on the other side of “the pond.” She said, “There’s certainly a sub-genre of themed cozy in the US which doesn’t really exist in the UK. We have Alexander McCall Smith, whose books are gentle and violence-free, but we don’t have…small-town coffee-shop and hat-shop mysteries. The noir tradition is another sub genre much lustier in the US than the UK.” Because McPherson doesn’t write themed cozies or noir, she hasn’t been affected by her geographical change. One issue that has affected McPherson, however, is the universal issue of time. Typically, the longer writers are in the business of writing, the more they are expected to produce. Some of the bestsellers have insulated themselves well enough and are able to write at their own pace. However, those who are working their way up the ladder must write their next book on a timetable and follow the mantra “publish or perish.”
McPherson is matter-of-fact about her dilemma and offers advice to new writers. “I have to write quicker now that I’m under contract and there are editors, designers, reps and ultimately, readers waiting for the finished books. It’s a wonderful ‘problem’ to have, but I always advise debut writers to savor the creation of the first book. No one else has an opinion and you don’t have any criticism to react to–it’s a precious, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Have you read any of these authors? Do you have a favorite Scottish mystery writer?
Video interview with Catriona McPherson, along with Simon Wood:
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.
Click on this link to purchase any of the books mentioned.