Tartan Noir

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Tartan Noir is a form of crime fiction particular to Scotland and Scottish writers. It has its roots in Scottish literature but borrows elements from elsewhere, including from the work of American crime writers of the second half of the twentieth century, especially of the hard-boiled genre, and of European authors.

Roots and influences[edit]

The United States crime writer James Ellroy coined the name when he described Ian Rankin as "the king of tartan noir" for a book cover.[citation needed] Ian Rankin actually gave himself the name when he asked Ellroy to sign a book for him and said "I'm a big fan and I write tartan noir". Tartan noir draws on the traditions of Scottish literature, being strongly influenced by James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These works dwell on the duality of the soul; the nature of good and evil; issues of redemption, salvation and damnation amongst others. The Scottish concept of the "Caledonian antisyzygy", the duality of a single entity, is a key driving force in Scottish literature, and it appears especially prominently in the tartan noir genre.

Modern crime writers have also been influenced by 1930s and 1940s United States masters of the hard-boiled genre, particularly Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Allan Guthrie's work shows their influence, as does some of Ian Rankin. More recent American authors who have influenced Scottish writing include James Ellroy, whose focus on police and societal corruption has proven especially resonant with Rankin.

Scottish crime writing has also been influenced by European traditions. For instance, Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret goes after the criminals, but refuses to judge them, seeing crime as a human situation to be understood. William McIlvanney's novel Laidlaw (1977), with its lead character of Inspector Jack Laidlaw, seemed to have been influenced by Maigret. The social criticism in Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Martin Beck detective series appears in many works of tartan noir, such as the dark novels of Denise Mina.

McIlvanney's Laidlaw novel has been called the first novel of the tartan noir genre, given its combination of humanism and police procedural. While Laidlaw is critically important, and a novel that inspired many authors, the TV series Taggart established crime in a Scottish setting in the popular imagination. Glenn Chandler, creator of Taggart and writer of many of its early stories, may have been inspired by Laidlaw. Both share a Glasgow setting and involve the investigations by Glasgow police into murders.


The world-view of Tartan Noir tends toward the cynical and world-weary, typically "hard-boiled". Many of the protagonists in Tartan Noir stories are anti-heroes, with readers not automatically being expected to sympathise with them – an illustrative example appears in Ian Rankin's Knots and Crosses when Inspector Rebus blatantly steals bread rolls and milk from a shop, without apology or remorse. The main characters often go through personal crises in the course of the stories, with these crises often forming a key part of the story. The main character frequently has personal reasons for dealing with the crime, whether from personal history or a sense of right and wrong. Val McDermid's presents her character Lindsay Gordon as being motivated by the murder of a friend and homophobic jibes about the death of her former lover as impetus to catch the murderer.


Literary critics discuss whether the genre is a viable one, or one created by publishers seeking a unique selling point for an audience tired of much US and English crime fiction. William McIlvanney has said that the whole genre is "ersatz."[1]

Critics question whether a genre can encompass such a wide range of authors, reaching from Val McDermid to Ian Rankin; some also dislike the name. Charles Taylor has noted that the term has an "inescapably condescending tinge", noting "it's a touristy phrase, suggesting that there's something quaint about hard-boiled crime fiction that comes from the land of kilts and haggis." [2]

Tartan Noir writers[edit]

Landmark Tartan Noir titles[edit]


  1. ^ Kelly, Stuart (27 August 2006). "A writer's life: William McIlvanney". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  2. ^ Taylor, Charles (22 February 2004). "Paint It Noir". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 August 2017.

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