Sandra Ruttan with Russel D. McLean
THE GOOD SON: Debut Scottish crime fiction author Russel D. McLean on the challenges of breaking new ground in the PI genre and why Scotland consistently produces outstanding crime fiction authors.
Sandra Ruttan: Describe the moment you fell in love with crime fiction.
Russel D. McLean: I don't know that I can point to a single moment. Like most things in life it happened almost by accident - - it’s in the same way I can't say when I stopped playing with GI Joes or reading The Beano.
I know that at some point in my later teens, my dad gave me Elmore Leonard novels (Mr Majestyk and Get Shorty stand out in my mind) and I read them and liked them. A lot. I sought out more books, got other recommendations and realised one day that I was picking up the crime stuff over and above my first love of science fiction.
So it wasn't a moment as much a series of discoveries that gradually
resulted in a long standing love affair with the genre.
SR: In the UK the reign of Agatha Christie eventually gave way to the overwhelming popularity of police procedurals. There hasn't been a rich tradition of darker UK-based PI novels. What inspired you to write a PI novel that's set in Scotland?
RDM: I think I just loved PI novels. Matt Scudder, The Contintental Op, Nameless, Spade, Archer, Marlowe.... all these guys made a big impression on me. But I didn't think I could write a PI novel set in New York or LA or whatever because... because so many guys had done it better. To be honest, it wasn't until I started writing Scots PI stories that I realised what a thin tradition we have of these things. Mostly we write about coppers. Or journalists. We don't have the PI tradition here. So that inspired me further, made me feel that I could write something different, that I could transplant that kind of myth into the Scottish culture without making it jar.
Did I succeed?
I hope so.
SR: What were the challenges you faced using this subgenre and setting?
RDM: Like I said, it’s not a tradition in Scotland to write a hardboiled/noir PI novel. So I guess I had to watch and not simply make it "Marlowe goes to Dundee" or whatever. I had to acknowledge the history of the genre without simply repeating or parodying it. And I had to make it believable within the setting I'd chosen.
SR: The original manuscript for THE GOOD SON was considerably longer than the published version, is there a scene or element that got cut that you wish you could have kept in?
RDM: The short answer is, no. Not from 91k version, anyhow.
That particular incarnation of the novel - written to please an agent I thought might represent me - was appalling. It was written to appeal to an agent I though might want to represent me and what I learned was this: if you fake it with writing, people can tell.
When I went to agent Al I sent him a 66k version of the novel which still had several of these third person sequences I'd slotted in to make it more "thrillery". We eventually decided to trim those completely and while I did like a few of the scenes involving aging hard-man David Burns, they weren't necessary to the book and I don't miss them at all now.
Maybe one day I'll write a book about the old bugger and bring those sequences back. But I'm making no promises.
SR: Laura Lippman once said "There are experiments within crime fiction, but they tend to be experiments within the form; we still color inside the lines, but our skies might be red, our grass blue. More calibrations than experiments, playing with small changes and readers' expectations to push and pull the form a little." Do you agree?
RDM: More and more reluctantly, yes, I think I'd have to agree.. There is tremendous room in crime fiction for different kinds of stories, but the demands of genre as a mainstream venture mean that anything that strays too far outside the lines can become a difficult sell. Mind you, even colouring within the lines, there is a great deal of variety to be found and it’s writers like Lippman who show how this kind of thing can be done expertly.
SR: Since the younger UK crime writers have been clearly influenced by the American crime novel and seem to be writing PI novels now, do you think the UK crime novel will follow similar growth patterns as the US crime novel did in the wake of the popularity of the PI novel?
RDM: It’s a hard call to make. It really is. I don't know if I have an answer.
I hope that we will see a lot more variation in UK crime novels, I'll say that. For the past few years there have been a lot of new and exciting authors who have excited readers like me who were bored with the conservatism that had developed in the crime market over here. But these things are very hard to predict and the movement is currently only a swell, a tiny stone dropped at the edge of a very big pond. So I think what I'm saying is, I hope so, but I can only wait and see.
SR: Do you feel any pressure to write something more commercial?
RDM: I don't know. If we can define commercial I might be able to tell you. I think that commercial is in the eye of the beholder so.... no, I don't think I do. Frankly, I think the world would be boring if we all wrote and read the same books.
But I do hope I'm commercial in the eyes of my intended audience!
SR: Scotland has produced some of the greatest dark crime fiction authors, such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Allan Guthrie, Stuart MacBride, Ray
Banks, and lays claim to exceptional up-and-comers such as Tony Black and yourself. What is it about Scotland?
RDM: There's something about Scotland, isn't there?
We're a depressing bunch of bastards.
It’s all the rain. And the depressing history of the downtrodden. And the fact we have such appalling diets.
Seriously though... I don't know what it is. Something in the water, maybe?
A while ago, we were accused as a nation of writing bleak books. But why stop doing what you're good at? We're a dour people. But we counter that with a nice line in humour and a bleak fatalism that refuses to take itself too seriously.
SR: What do you attribute the popularity of PI novels in Ireland to?
RDM: Aside from the fact they seem so damn good at it, you mean? Ken
Bruen (Taylor) and Declan Hughes (Ed Loy) in particular make me green with envy. I think its something to do with the political landscape there.
The fictional PI is a political animal. Standing apart from the traditional authorities, he exposes lies and truths in equal measure. And I think given the political and social changes in Ireland - and to a lesser degree in Scotland, too - the fictional PI might just be starting to resonate not just with writers but readers, too.
SR: In your day job you work in a bookstore. How does your experience on the retail side of the book industry help you as an author?
RDM: I don't know that it helps or hinders really. I think it helps me to see what sells and to who and getting that kind of front line experience beats second guessing or hiring focus groups to take a wild stab in the dark about what sells to who and why it does.
And I love doing events with authors, which has probably helped as well in certain ways.
SR: You've had a few months to absorb the publication process and the experience of having your debut novel released. What's surprised you most?
RDM: That anyone's reading it. That we're almost on a third reprint in the UK. That it’s coming out in the US in beautiful hardcover this December (plug plug plug, my transatlantic friends). That some people really do write unsolicited emails to tell me how much they enjoyed the book (and also point out minor errors in the Scottish justice system displayed in the novel).
But mostly I'm surprised every day that I'm doing this. Fourteen years, or thereabouts, since I first set to be some kind of novelist, I now have a book on the shelves. People are buying the book. People who are not my friends, who have never met me in their lives, are buying the book, are reading it, are enjoying it. And that, dear God, that is the most surprising - and the most wonderful - thing about this whole damn enterprise.
SR: For five years you published fiction online through Crime Scene
Scotland, and you continue to publish reviews and occasional interviews there. How has Crime Scene Scotland helped you with your writing career? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being actively involved in the community before having a book deal?
RDM: I think it’s helped in a lot of ways. Doing the fiction and editing there helped me work with other writers and polish my own writing skills (and my own diplomacy skills!). And doing the reviews has opened me to new authors and to new ways of looking at novels.
I don't know whether being involved helped or hindered to be honest. A little of both, but I have no comparison to not being involved, so... I think you have to take the path that works for you.
SR: You've been part of the online crime fiction community and an active participant at conventions in the US and UK for several years. How do you feel participating in the community has helped prepare you for publication? Are there things you'd recommend aspiring authors do or avoid doing as they seek an agent or book deal?
RDM: I think, as I said earlier, I've just kept my eyes and ears open over the years and learned the best way forward. I've seen people make mistakes. And I've seen people do good. And I've tried to work out why both things happened.
All my advice to aspiring authors is simple (because I don't know that I'm the kind of person who's sage enough to be giving advice):
write. the. damn. book.
That last one is the best piece of writing advice I ever had. Some people who profess the wish to be writers talk about their book all the damn time.
Tell anyone with half an ear the ins and outs of the plot and the characters. By the time they're done, there's no need to write the book because they've already told a million people.
So, yeah, before you do anything else, before you start querying agents or awkwardly giving that pitch in the convention elevator, I truly recommend that you do this:
write. the. damn. book.
And make it the best damn book you possibly can. Before it gets edited into something even better.
Sandra Ruttan is the author of WHAT BURNS WITHIN, THE FRAILTY OF FLESH and the forthcoming LULLABY FOR THE NAMELESS. A displaced Canadian, she lives in Maryland with her partner and two children, where she wrestles with her addiction to Utz crab chips.