Islands to die for

“It was a dark and stormy night …” I wonder how many stories have opened with those famous words? Words first penned by American author Washington Irvine in 1809. Although much parodied, it’s an opening phrase that was used to great effect by Madeleine L’Engle in her ground-breaking novel A Wrinkle in Time, a book that had a profound influence on me as a child. L’Engle opened the door to a whole generation of children in the 1960s onwards with her stories that combined science fiction and fantasy with the spiritual and questions of good and evil. The first in a series, the book went on to win many literary awards and be dramatised for stage, radio, television and film.

That question of good and evil, right and wrong and the responsibility we hold for our actions and words, has stuck with me ever since. And it’s a question that’s been with humankind from the word go! Cain and Abel, those murderous Greeks and Romans and every ‘civilisation’ before and since has been built upon murder and violence. Curiously, but also happily, murder is far, far less common today than at any other time in the past – so perhaps we’re learning!

It’s also an issue that’s at the heart of much literature, in particular the crime genre. Add an island to the mix and you have a winning combination. Long used in literature as settings for dark deeds thanks to their enclosed and isolated communities, islands been used to great effect by authors as varied as Homer, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton!

Scotland, with its wealth of islands, has long been fruitful territory for crime writers, perhaps the best known being Peter May and Ann Cleeves, featuring the Hebrides and Shetland respectively. But there are many others and in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at novels by two Scottish authors, Lin Anderson and Craig Robertson, who use distinctive and very different island settings for their characters’ dark deeds!

We tend to think of islands as idyllic holiday destinations, but pick up a crime novel and you’ll find an able author can turn them into something very different indeed. A safe haven or a sinister setting? Have a read of this article and then decide!

“There’s been a murder…!” Bute Noir Investigated

Mass murders approach the unsuspecting citizens of Bute!Last weekend the Isle of Bute basked in sunshine, its worthy citizens little realising that a ferry-load of mass murderers, psychopaths and serial killers (both male and female) were about to set foot on their beloved island: unaware that a gang of killers was about to hit the streets of Rothesay, the capital of this peaceful west coast island.

From California to Govan they came, each with their own unique and perfected methods of murder. Each with their own preferences for death and carnage. But thankfully on this occasion no blood would be spilt, for these desperadoes kill not with daggers or guns, but with the pen!

Californian Alexandra Sokoloff and Glaswegian Chris Brookmyre get to grips with hard questions from the audience in Rothesay Library

Thus it was that journalist-turned-crime-writier Craig Robertson and his band of Tartan Noir friends arrived on the island for the first ever Bute Noir crime writing festival and what a success it was!

Organised jointly by Craig, along with Karen Latto of Print Point (Rothesay’s wonderful bookshop) and the library’s Patricia MacArthur, the talks were hosted across three venues: by Karen at Print Point, by Kevin Baker at Rothesay Library and by Anne Spiers at Bute Museum.

Library staff kept us all fed and watered!

The topics ranged from the serious to the comic – from the grim reality that lies behind much of crime writing, to “squirrels on steroids, heads in fridges and the perfect writing paper…!” to quote the island’s newspaper, The Buteman.

The visiting authors looked at what lies behind the personalities of serial killers; discussed the way different women approach crime writing (‘Deadlier than the Male?’);  debated the extent to which locations add to the realism of a novel; talked about the writing of the ‘cosy’ crime novels that many readers also appreciate; then brought the festival to a hilarious finale with a ‘Question of Court’, when Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste and Michael J. Malone pitted their wits and literary knowledge against the sharp minds of Caro Ramsay, Douglas Skelton and G.J.Brown.

Prepare to be afraid, very afraid!

Prepare to be afraid, very afraid!

The island played its part too as the Bute Noir programmes and posters all featured the atmospheric and eerie photograph of the road to the Dhu Loch, taken by talented Bute photographer John Williams. The evocative image of a dark and winding road through trees, leading to an unknown and mysterious destination, was just the thing to get your imagination going and send a shiver or two down your spine!

This inaugural Bute Noir was a good mix of gentler crime, alongside police procedurals and the darker Tartan Noir: with a slice of the mysterious and the supernatural thrown in as well. The turnout for all the events showed just how much interest there is in all aspects of the process of writing – from the original spark of an idea to the final published book.

Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste, Michael J. Malone, quizmaster Craig Robertson, Caro Ramsay and Douglas Skelton get reay for a trial of wits in a 'Question of Court'

Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste, Michael J. Malone, quizmaster Craig Robertson, Caro Ramsay and Douglas Skelton get ready for a trial of wits in a ‘Question of Court’

All in all, a great success and if you missed meeting these dealers in death this time round: fear not – They’ll be back!!


Find out more at:

How unique is Scottish Crime Fiction by Allan Martin

Bute Museum