Edinburgh International Book Festival
20th August 2019
Lin Anderson, well known in Scotland as a Tartan Noir crime novelist and screen writer, has just published Sins of the Dead, her fourteenth book in the Rhona McLeod series. She is also the cofounder of Scotland’s annual festival of crime writing, ‘Bloody Scotland’. Anderson was born in Greenock, but with her latest novel located on the Isle of Skye in the west of Scotland, it was an inspired move to pair her for a discussion with fellow crime writer Jacob Ross. Currently living in Leeds, but born in Grenada, Ross has just finished ‘Black Rain Falling’, a crime novel set in the ‘fictional’ Caribbean island of Camaho. Following on from The Bone Readers, Black Rain Falling is the second book in his four-book series, the Camaho Quartet. The name is a nod to ‘Camerhogne’, the original Kalinago people’s name for Grenada. Ross has been a master of the short story form for several decades now, and is a polymath of the literary world; working also as an editor, creative writing tutor and judge. Al Hunter confidently chaired a lively and playful discussion that successfully drew out the author’s motivations and struggles in the process of writing crime fiction.
There are strong similarities between the protagonists of each book, though carrying out their work on either side of the Atlantic. Rhona MacLeod and Michael ‘Digger’ Digson are both forensic scientists, who have sidekicks with their own strong and memorable characters. There are also similarities in both authors’ approach to language and their defence of their use of local dialect in their writing. Ross has been speaking of this for many years, suggesting that the reader should not be patronised in order to enjoy a book. Anderson spoke of her jealousy at the musicality and rhythm of Caribbean cadence and yet both shared their fights with agents and publishers to keep important words and phrases that, if replaced with standard English, would lose the nuance, the emotion and the exactness of the cultural reference. Ross appealed to the sophistication of British readers who delight in the beauty of a different turn of phrase and will willingly work a little to understand unfamiliar words. Anderson shared her insistence that the evocative Scots word ‘boaked’ could and would not be replaced with the English word ‘gagged’. The conversation turned to the liberal amount of swearing in both books, and knowing both Grenada and Glasgow pretty well, I know it would be hard to ‘keep it real’ without some effing and blinding. Chair Al Senter wondered whether our more liberal times allowed for this, and the audience chuckled at Ross’ 85 year old mother’s disapproval, exclaiming that “I did not bring you up like that!”, but Ross pointed out the irony in taking offence at taboo language while simultaneously enjoying gory details of grisly violence. Often writers mention the strange freedom that comes with the death of their parents, and for Anderson the embarrassment had come from writing about sex.
Ross began his writing career with several collections of short stories, and began to move across to novel writing with his 2008 novel Pynter Bender, about a blind, mystical young boy growing up in Grenada during the oppressive regime of Grenada’s first Prime Minister Eric Gairy. He confessed to being rather snobbish about the ‘crime genre’, of which he knew little until he turned to writing crime fiction. A choice made from noticing that the Caribbean had no crime novels to speak of, even though, as he said wryly, ‘we certainly have the resources’. He remained sceptical about two thirds into writing the novel, when he was struck by the huge range of possibility that the genre gives to comment on everything from relationships and society to human nature. At the bidding of his doctor son, he took on the formidable task of thoroughly researching the world of a forensic osteologist, a challenge that he surprisingly began to relish, having been a biology teacher once upon a time. It wasn’t just the intricacies of human biology that fascinated him, but the changes in the law that required evidence rather than mere suspicion to try a case adequately. He was also fascinated by the instances where loyalty and justice are in conflict, which forces some tough questions about reality. Also a former teacher, Anderson grew up with a protective Detective Inspector father and took a forensic science course at Glasgow University, the experience and knowledge of which endears her to forensic scientists who appreciate the authenticity of her stories. They were both invited to read from their books. Ross’ new book, Black Rain Falling, is not available until March, so we were only able to snatch a tantalising glimpse of book two, which reveals much more of the proper but formidable character Ms Stanislaus.
Ross instead read from the beginning of The Bone Readers where he hints of the struggles of Digger the reluctant forensic scientist, instantly plunging us into the heated atmosphere of a murderous fight in ‘Camaho’. Known for his sparse style honed from writing short stories, no word is wasted. Anderson’s pieces were inspired by a walk with her friend’s dog on the Isle of Skye. The rich description of the pieces transported us to a forlorn area up in the woods, where the hoarse call of the bird and the dog’s insistent whining made us shiver in anticipation. It was a relief to meet a happy looking Blaze the collie and its owner mingling with the crowds at the book signing table a few minutes later.