PURE. Dead. Brilliant. The Glasgow acclamation for anything of worth, from a perfectly formed chip to a sublimely rendered song. It can be applied without reservation to what must be called the success story in Scottish literature.

The Scottish crime novel is pure in its distillation from revered sources, dead only in its concern for dark mortality and brilliant in its execution. The depth and range of modern Scottish crime writing is astonishing. Tartan Noir is exuberant, diverse and powerful.

The genre and its practitioners will be celebrated at this weekend’s Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling. It is an event that also reflects on international writing but it does give one pause to consider just why and how Scottish writers not only punch above their weight in crime fiction but have stuck a collective, stunning head on it.

An investigation of The Strange, Enduring Life of the Scottish Crime Novel cannot be exhaustive, given the peculiar talents, styles and motivations of the writers, but several points stand out. Two witnesses can be called for the prosecution of a particular stain of Caledonian writer.

The first is Liam McIlvanney, who is shortlisted for the William McIlvanney prize at this weekend’s festival for his stunning novel, The Quaker. The second is Lisa Gray, a Glaswegian writer who has just signed a two-book deal to join fellow Scots such as Chris Brookmyre, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Peter May, Quintin Jardine, Stuart MacBride, Malcolm Mackay, Caro Ramsay, Manda Scott, Louise Welsh, and Graham Macrae Burnett as a published writer under a very flexible crime banner. This list is indicative rather than comprehensive but it testifies to the hold that Scotland has on a popular strand of fiction.

The National:

Liam McIlvanney, a professor at the department of English and linguistics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, offers convincing reasons for the appeal of crime fiction to the aspiring writer.

“I had always written fiction,” he says, “but I tended to write these wee, elegant vignettes that didn’t go anywhere. Crime fiction allowed me to finish a book. There was the strong, clear linear plot. There is also the attraction from an academic’s point of view that you might actually sell some books. I spent 10 years writing Burns the Radical and it comes out in a university edition of 800 copies. You can write a crime novel in a considerably shorter timeframe and hopefully it sells.”

He also teaches a course on Tartan Noir in Otago so cites the tradition of dark, sometimes Gothic influences in Scottish fiction.

The Quaker, a novel set in the 1960s Glasgow of Bible John and serial murders, is marked with motifs and themes that are part of a larger hinterland. There is a duality about his main characters and McIlvanney states: “That duality partly comes from Scottish literature itself. Scottish crime fiction is not a new development. It emerged from that tradition of Gothic fiction: James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott. Scottish crime fiction quite consciously draws on that. Rankin’s first Rebus novel (Knots and Crosses) is a brilliant rewriting of Jekyll and Hyde.”

McIlvanney’s course features the work of Hogg and Stevenson but also of John Buchan, Josephine Tey, Ian Fleming, Muriel Spark as well as the still-writing McDermid, Mina, Rankin and Abir Mukherjee.

Crime fiction, of course, also offers the writer the scope to investigate a variety of themes. Liam’s father, William, often said that the creation of Laidlaw, the eponymous hero of his influential novel, allowed him to say things he could not in poetry or even in his other novels.

The publication of Laidlaw in 1977 was significant for a generation of writers. First, it showed – if any proof were needed – that crime fiction could be literary fiction. Second, it proved that the detective novel could range far from the geographical confines of Chandler’s Los Angeles or Holmes’s Baker Street.

The National:

McIlvanney senior was consequently christened the godfather of Tartan Noir. It is a crude shorthand for the influence

he wielded and continues to have on the nation’s writers, but it does offer a sincere, if clumsy tribute to his importance in Scottish literature. He formed the almost personal renaissance of a genre after the death of those such as Tey and the then relative obscurity of Alexander Trocchi whose Young Adam is a Glasgow ‘crime novel’ but one that goes, like Laidlaw, beyond the confines of police procedure or the whodunnit.

AFTER McIlvanney, the deluge. The prize for best novel of the year at Bloody Scotland is named after him and he is cited as mentor, influence or inspiration by the generation that followed him.

“I don’t think there’s a single Scottish crime writer who hasn’t been influenced in one way or another by William McIlvanney,” says Lisa Gray, whose debut novel, Thin Air, will be published next year.

“But the big thing for me, as a woman, was the number of female Scottish crime writers who have not only had success but also have enduring appeal. Writers like Val McDermid and Denise Mina [pictured below] have been writing books for decades and are still in huge demand and winning prizes and still very much at the top of their game. As a Glaswegian woman, I looked at the likes of Denise, Alex Gray and Lin Anderson and thought ‘maybe I could do it too’.”

The National:

She posits other reasons for the rise of Tartan Noir. “As a nation we’re pretty small but it’s never limited us when it comes to creating things. Whether it’s scientists, inventors or artists, we have always more than held our own,’’ she says.

“It makes sense that we might be quite good at telling stories too.”

But why crime fiction in particular?

“The weather probably has a lot to do with it,” she says. “Those long winter months filled with darkness and cold and rain definitely lends itself more to writing about dark deeds rather than a fun, sunny beach. It’s probably why Scandinavian crime fiction is also so popular.

“With a city like Glasgow, in particular, there’s this perception of violence and danger but we also have a reputation for having a cracking sense of humour and it’s a contrast that works well in crime fiction. You need a bit of lightness in there too and Scottish crime writers do this particularly well.”

Gray, however, has set her new book in USA. “My first attempt at writing crime fiction was a book set in Glasgow about a Bible John copycat killer in the 1980s. It was called The New Testament. A couple of chapters in, I realised it wasn’t very good.

“Thin Air is about a woman who went missing as a toddler and didn’t know for 25 years that she was a missing person. I just felt Scotland was too small a place for that scenario to be realistic. It seemed better suited to the far bigger landscape of the US. Also, it’s the first in a series about a private investigator called Jessica Shaw and I liked the idea of giving her a bigger geographical playground to operate in.

“It was always going to be a risk setting a book in America as a UK writer – and quite audacious too – but I knew other writers who had done it really well including fellow Glaswegian Mason Cross and fancied giving it a go myself.”

Liam McIlvanney, in contrast, has placed his novel [pictured below] with a compelling certainty and authenticity in Glasgow of the 1960s. “Yes, it a distinct step for me,’’ he says. Brought up in Kilmarnock and now living in Otago, he says there was “a special attraction about writing about a place you don’t really know”.

The National:

He added: “Rankin did not know Edinburgh well when he started Rebus. It could be quite inhibiting for me writing about Kilmarnock because, in a way, you know too much about it.

“But if I am writing about Glasgow I become more alert about the things that make it distinctive. Writing from New Zealand, too, gives me a sense of distance that can clarify the subject.”

The choice of locations differ for McIlvanney and Gray. But they are linked not just by a Caledonian background and upbringing but by a literary tradition. This weekend will see a celebration of that at Bloody Scotland. McIlvanney’s The Quaker is not only up for the major prize but offers the promise of more from the book’s hero and the author. Gray, meanwhile, prepares for her debut.

The world of crime fiction continues to speak regularly, fluently and persuasively in a Scottish accent.