DAME Muriel Spark, who would have been celebrating her 100th birthday today, was the “crème de la crème” of novelists and a “literary phenomenon”, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told an audience of the writer’s fans last night.

Addressing a full Usher Hall in Edinburgh at a celebration to mark the centenary, Sturgeon revealed she had been a long-term fan of Spark.

She said: “Like many, I devoured Spark’s novels in my teenage and student years. Having just recently started rereading them, I am discovering all over again the sheer joy, entertainment and rigorous intellectual stimulation that they provide.

“It’s hard, I think, to sum up the work of Spark – multi-layered, complex and yet somehow totally accessible. On one level, quirky stories and gripping mysteries that draw the reader in and transport us to a world that can seem much simpler than the one we inhabit today.

“And yet ... and yet ... She offers an exploration of moral and philosophical issues that leaves you thinking long, long after the last page.”

The National:

The First Minister revealed that one of her favourite novels of the 22 written by Spark is The Driver’s Seat.

She said: “Even now, almost 30 years since I first read it, I’m not entirely sure I fully understand it. It still provides the curious mind with endless potential for interpretation as well as great enjoyment – truly the mark of a literary phenomenon.

“Faith – very often through the eyes of the convert – mortality, sanity and insanity, reality and illusion. These are just some of the themes that recur time and again throughout her work.

“I’m rereading Memento Mori just now – a glorious reminder of her ability to be hilariously comical, usually in a deadpan, dare I say it, quite Edinburgh way, and also deeply dark, very often on the same page.”

Spark was also highly topical, the First Minister said: “The Abbess of Crewe – perhaps the best political novel I’ve ever read – was surely motivated by the Watergate scandal and published while it still dominated the headlines.

“Up-to-the-minute topicality at the time and yet – with surveillance and political intrigue as its core subjects – still hugely relevant and resonant almost half a century later.

“Her characters burst on to the page fully formed – and yet, one of the things I love about her work, she leaves much to the reader’s imagination to piece together their past lives and, also, for those lucky enough to survive her pen, their futures too.

“And all of this created in prose that is truly lyrical in its beauty and craftsmanship – reminding us that while she will be remembered and celebrated best as a novelist, she was first and foremost a poet.

Calling Spark “truly the crème de la crème”, the First Minister read a passage from her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Novelists Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith also joined in the celebration to give readings last night at the event by Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Co-host Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo about his friendship with the author, said: “Muriel once said that Edinburgh was a place that couldn’t possibly understand her, but she might see things differently now because if nearly 2000 people are prepared to come out on freezing night, somebody must be understanding her.

“The shade of Muriel hangs over us and she would have loved this celebration and all the things that are taking place in this centenary year. It’s quite incredible what has happened – suddenly everyone is talking about Muriel Spark.”