Friday, June 27, 2008

Scottish Mysteries: McIlvanney, Mina, Jardine

Dave's the official mystery pro here at Kingdom Books, and I handle the poetry -- but that's only one side of things. I've been reading mysteries for as long as Dave has, and he's far quicker at researching a poet's life than I am. At any rate, things work out well.

I mention this because while Dave cut his eyeteeth on "noir" among mysteries, my early reading was thoroughly British, to the point of knowing various pen names and probably reading (alongside my mother) every John Creasey and Agatha Christie available by, say, 1964. Only recently have I noticed that "British" in those days meant "English" to my mom. So the realms of Scottish mysteries are a fresh delight to me.

Some years back, one of our clients woke us up to William McIlvanney's stunning Glasgow series featuring Jack Laidlaw and his mates. McIlvanney is better known in Scotland as a noted poet, but LAIDLAW (1977) won the British Crime Writers Association (SWA) Silver Dagger Award. You can tell the subgenre right away by knowing that Ross McDonald praised the book upon publication. McIlvanney's crime novels are dark, moody, unpredictable, and give a Glasgow version of the depression and darkness of police work that Henning Mankell also paints.

Denise Mina, also of Glasgow, brought out her seventh crime novel this year (2008), titled SLIP OF THE KNIFE in the US, and THE LAST BREATH in the UK (2007). Her ear for dialogue is magical, and the books are gritty, dark, violent, and sometimes shockingly funny. I'll do a full review of one of her books later.

Entirely new to me this month (you know, there are so many mysteries that this could keep on happening...) are the police procedurals of yet another Scottish author, Quintin Jardine. Jardine is from Edinburgh and now also lives in Catalan at times; I've placed one of his photos at the top of this post, but Jardine's self-images on various web sites and in his books are wildly divergent, from grizzled and grim to bright public relations star to the very urbane one here. The characters in his books range over the same wide diversity.

There are two Jardine series. The one I dipped into this week is his longer series, 18 books so far, featuring Deputy Chief Constable (at least, that's his rank in HEAD SHOT, the 2002 volume I started with) Bob Skinner. Bob's a well-respected supervisor with long, deep friendships, and a streak of mellow affection that contrasts with the darker Mina books. SKINNER'S RULES was the first Skinner crime novel, in 1993; this year AFTERSHOCK came into print. Although it wouldn't be a disaster to start in the middle of the series, as I did, the books refer often to events in their predecessors -- so it's probably better to begin with SKINNER'S RULES. Luckily, these are in paperback, which makes it less costly to work from the older volumes forward, and then if you decide you have to own the full hardcover series, they're still around.

Jardine's other series is a first-person set, featuring Oz Blackstone, also a Scot and fond of golf as well as investigation. The first two of these came out under a pen name, Matthew Reid: BLACKSTONE'S PURSUITS (1996) and A COFFIN FOR TWO. A 2004 reprint brought these two together under Jardine's name. Most recent, the ninth in the Blackstone series, is FOR THE DEATH OF ME (2005); number ten is expected soon.

Okay, let me double back to HEAD SHOT, the 2002 Bob Skinner police procedural that I picked up. I suspect this might be the least favorite of all the Skinners for American readers, actually, because a chunk of the action takes place in the US, diluting the "foreign" feel of Jardine's work. Jumping the main character from upstate New York to DC and through a maze of FBI and local jurisdictions just isn't as much fun as following the side plots back in Edinburgh, where Mario McGuire is confronting what it means to be both a rising police officer and heir of an Italian family business. I especially like the notion McGuire promotes, that the Mafia presence in Scotland is a thing of the past. What a wonder to live in a place small enough where that assertion could be true! Still, I'm not quite convinced... and neither are the Scots around Mario and his highly competitive wife. What the US dilution of Bob Skinner's investigation lacks in tang, Mario McGuire's increasingly dangerous situation more than makes up for. And it's clear that Skinner's plans for his department have kicked a lot of this into gear.

I got more and more involved with the book, and when I hit the totally unpredictable ending, I literally gasped. Jardine knows how to put real power into his plots, and his characters can make your heart ache.

Here's one quick snippet, from a phone conversation Bob Skinner is having en route to the big crime scene that's taking him to America, to a tangle that involves his own in-laws there:

He heard a heavy sigh. "Okay, I give in. What's with the 'Play it again, Sam'? What did you mean by that?"

Skinner chuckled, but grimly, without a trace of a smile. "It's my suspicious mind at work; the whole thing made me think of Casablanca, my favourite movie. Remember where Bogart says, 'Of all the gin joints in the world, she had to walk into mine'? Well, my friend, tell me this. Of all the vulnerable lakeside cabins in the great United States of America, why did this guy have to walk into Leo Grace's?"

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