Scottish writers have had an obsession with the nature of evil since they first placed quill to parchment. ‘Good’ is all very well, but the devil has all the best tunes, and the most charismatic representatives. Much of this interest is a result of culturally deep rooted religious belief clashing with a more folk tradition, but also comes from the need to examine just what men will do (and it is almost always men). The best examples of such stories ask questions of the reader often concerning the supernatural versus the psychological. This perhaps explains the success of ‘tartan noir’ and writers such as Val McDermid, Alex Gray and Ray Banks in modern crime fiction, as the ground work has already been done by their predecessors. The successful runs of Ian Rankin and Denise Mina on the ‘Hellblazer’ comic book series is another example of this, where anti-hero John Constantine is the ultimate fallen angel. When it comes to bad men, Scots seem to understand them only too well.
Another successful crime writer is Frederic Lindsay, probably best known for the DI Jim Meldrum detective novels, but it is his 1984 novel ‘Brond’ that most easily fits into a Scottish literary legacy which includes Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Banks’ ‘Coimplicity’, Irvine Welsh’s ‘Filth’ and Louise Welsh’s latest novel ‘The Girl On the Stairs’. Brond opens with a scene of terrifying, casual brutality which sets the tone horrifically.
The central protagonist of Robert, a student at Glasgow University, sees a murder but due to his fevered illness is not sure if it is real or in his mind (sound familiar)? In the next 200 odd pages Lindsay races through poverty, nationalism (Scottish and Irish), religion, sex, and violence. Sometimes the writing is laughably over the top (a scene where Robert thinks of himself as a mass murderer, surrounded by his dead corpses, after he knocks one off in the bath springs immediately to mind), but this is more a case of Lindsay’s tongue being firmly wedged in his cheek rather than any major failing.
Like the best pulp fiction there is a visceral quality to the writing, particularly with reference to what happens to the hapless Robert who has to deal with projectile vomiting, burst appendix and ‘burst toes’ as his life falls apart before everybody’s eyes. A certain reading would have it that he is being punished for the unrequited lust that propels him through the novel, the emotion which causes him to over come his fears rather than any sense of right or a new found courage.
The style of writing is Louise Welsh crossed with Robin Jenkins in that there is a disturbing, gothic flavour to the story, but it also has Jenkins’ love of detailing the failure of human nature. Everyone in ‘Brond’ is flawed, but only some seek redemption. The almost mute giant, Primo, has some terrible secrets from which he is trying to escape or atone for, and it is notable that the character most comfortable in his own skin is the one who not only accepts his immorality and the resulting actions, but revels in them.
That character is the titular Brond, and he is one of the great figures in recent Scottish writing. In the 1987 Michael Caton Jones TV version on Channel 4 he was magnificently portrayed by Stratford Johns with a performance which captured the easy menace of Lyndsay’s ‘Brond’. The thriller (which you can read about here was also famous for introducing John Hannah to the screen, a mixed blessing some may say, but he is perfectly cast as the innocent and often feckless Robert. It is interesting how closely the drama stuck to the source novel, and if you get the chance to watch it I highly recommend it.
No music to speak of in the novel, but as Robert is studying English at the local Uni I thought I’d pick a band at least one of whom was on the same course. I need little excuse to post The Blue Nile, and this is that little excuse. A great Glasgow band for a great Glasgow novel. This is ‘Stay’:
I may be overstating things to say this is a great Glasgow novel, but it is one where the city plays a great part. Lindsay takes the reader from the Reading Room and Quadrangle of Glasgow University to the bedsits of the less salubrious parts of the city, lending them equal menace. This is a city where no where, and no one, is safe. If you don’t know where to start with Scottish crime fiction, if the sheer volume of books from the big names seems off putting, then I would suggest that ‘Brond’ is the perfect place as it touches upon themes which you will be familiar with from other Scottish novels. ‘Brond’ is pulp fiction in the best possible way and once again shows that Glasgow can be the perfect setting for the most terrifying of tales.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.
Next Month’s Novel: Tom Morton has been a regular radio presence in music lovers lives for many years. He is one of those rare DJs who plays, and writes about, music without prejudice and he has apparently spent time on every radio station the BBC owns, bar 5-Live Extra, in the last 20-odd years.
In 1994 he wrote a semi-biographical novel ‘Red Guitars In Heaven’ which looked at those twin Scottish obsessions of rock n’ roll and religion. Add in some sex and drugs to the mix and you have something for everyone. An unexpected treat.
- Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
- George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
- Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
- Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
- Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)