We have said before in these columns that the early to mid-nineties in Scotland was one which was politically bleak, no matter what your persuasion was. The victory of the John Major led Conservatives in 1992’s UK election saw Labour victorious in Scotland, and with no power in the rest of the UK, the promised rise of the SNP fail to materialise, and, if you were a Tory, you could have held your victory celebration in an Edinburgh phone box. Many Scottish writers responded to this dire situation by writing about characters who couldn’t see a way to change things, so didn’t bother trying.
Prime examples of these are Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’ and, explicitly, Duncan McLean’s misunderstood ‘Bunker Man’, all of which we have already discussed, but I can only think of two who had novels which dealt with the political landscape head on at the time, promoting direct action; Iain Banks’ 1993 novel, ‘Complicity’ and Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’. Both books are filled with anger and frustration towards Scotland’s political impotence and how that was being taken advantage of by politicians and big business alike. What separates the two is that Brookmyre makes you laugh out loud while doing so.
Brookmyre has said that his writing was influenced by Carl Hiaasen, Robertson Davies and Douglas Adams, but there is comparison to be made with Irvine Welsh, (few writers can write a scatological scene as these two can), and also William McIlvanney. ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ has been called ‘the book that gave us Tartan Noir’, but McIlvanney was arguably writing that before anyone even knew what it was, and with Jack Parlabane, Brookmyre created a central character who could stand toe-to-toe with McIlvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’.
Parlabane becomes involved with a brutal, and downright weird, murder case which has happened in his building, and leads him to begin an investigation which uncovers the sort of corruption which is surely inevitable when you bring in capitalist-minded businesses to be involved in your national health service. But, the inevitability doesn’t lessen the anger felt when it occurs, and for all that Parlabane crosses all sorts of lines to get to the bottom of the mystery, you are always on his side as those he comes up against are so repulsive and amoral.
Aside from Parlabane, all the characters are bold enough to be recognisable and memorable, but Brookmyre avoids stereotypes by playing with them, and with the readers’ expectations. If you have ever seen the Steve Martin movie ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Brookmyre is aware of the conventions associated with noir and crime fiction, and he gives them a very modern, Scottish twist.
There is only one place we could go for this month’s musical interlude, and that is to the legendary Warren Zevon, as a track from his 1991 album ‘Mr Bad Example’ gives the book it’s title. Here is it playing over the opening of the 2004 TV adaptation of ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, with James Nesbitt as Jack Parlabane:
I hadn’t read ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ since it was first published, and I was worried that it wouldn’t have dated well, but, the odd reference to Zalman King and Norman Tebbit aside, it is as relevant today as it was then, and a timely reminder that Scotland had long years with no political power to speak of, and how that was repeatedly abused as we were used as the testing ground for all sorts of unappealing acts and political experimentation. Brookmyre was right to be angry, and we should never allow that to happen again.
Brookmyre has gone on to become one of Scotland’s most reliable and readable writers, someone who never lets you down, something else he shares with the aforementioned, and sadly missed, Iain Banks, but ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’ is where it all began, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already. If that’s the case, I advise you to get the latest edition, published by Abacus in 2013, which has a fascinating Introduction from Brookmyre explaining the background to the book, and just what a personal undertaking it was. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be furious, and you’ll probably never eat a rum truffle again. But one lesson you should definitely learn is to never fuck with a Scottish landlady, especially when it comes to her dug.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: I thought a timely novel to look at next month would be Candia McWilliams’ ‘Debatable Lands’, her prize winning novel from 1994 which looked at the questions of Scottish devolution which were raging at the time.
Set in the South Pacific, the characters each have their own stance on what devolution would mean, and, indeed, they come to embody them. Looking back to those debates as Scotland decides its future should be enlightening and informative; at least that’s the plan.
Photo credit: Tom Sayer Design