FOR the second year some of Scotland’s finest criminal minds gathered in Cromarty to pay tribute to the best literary genre in the world.
Which is not "literary" fiction — quote marks always necessary, according to Stuart MacBride — but crime.
"The best crime novels balance everything," the Aberdeen writer declared.
"They balance plot, balance place, character, dialogue. It’s all those great pillars of writing holding it up."
MacBride may have been preaching to the converted, but the enthusiastic take up for the second Cromarty Crime and Thrillers weekend, well up on its inaugural year according to the organisers’ initial estimates, was in itself an indication of the popularity of crime fiction among readers.
Especially that particularly Scottish but perhaps hard to define Caledonian variant Tartan Noir.
For its second year, Cromarty again had a selection of some of its most popular practitioners.
Joining MacBride, the creator of the darkly humorous Logan McRae series set in Aberdeen, were Alex Gray and Lin Anderson, both of whom set their crime series in Glasgow, as well as Ian Rankin, the only returning author from the previous year.
Co-opted as a Scottish author was Ann Cleeves on the strength of her Shetland series recently screened by the BBC, although she also writes about her native England in her Vera Stanhope series, currently being shown on ITV with Brenda Blethyn in the title role.
The weekend began with what is already a Cromarty tradition — the murder mystery dinner.
This has proved so popular that it is now being staged twice, first for locals and second for visiting conference guests.
It also meant a change of role for Rankin, himself counted as one of the locals with a home in the town, from murder plotter to murder victim.
Fortunately the creator of Inspector Rebus was resurrected in time for the weekend talks and panels, culminating on Sunday when all four authors came together to talk crime and just what is meant by "Tartan Noir".
One thing it is not is the type of genteel whodunnit associated with Agatha Christie and her kind.
"I was brought up on Agatha Christie where there is no blood, no horror and people get bumped off for the money or the manor — none of the stuff we write about," Anderson said.
Not that Scottish crime is all grit and gore. As Rankin pointed out to groans from the audience, crime fiction is a Broadchurch.
"Tartan Noir is a good marketing slogan, but it doesn’t sum up the diversity," he pointed out.
"You can have Mma Ramotswe and her No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, you can have hard and gritty, there are crimes in Glasgow and the Western Isles, there’s a lightness of touch if you want it, historical crime if you want it or books set in the future."
And humour. Alex Gray recalled laughing so much at one of Christopher Brookmyre’s books that she fell off her sun lounger — an experience unlikely to be replicated by your average dour Scandinavian thriller.
Forensic anthropologist Sue Black needs no lessons from the professional storytellers when it comes to balancing humour and horror.
In the Inverness-born scientist’s illustrated talk in Cromarty Old Courthouse — an environment uncomfortably close to being at work, she admitted — she could go from the hilarious to the harrowing in the space of a single slide.
"In the London bombings we had 56 dead, but 1500 body parts," she revealed.
"In effect we were dealing with human jigsaws. There is no way to 100 per cent identify anybody. People say: what about DNA? Well, it might be a one in a million chance or one in a billion, but it is still probability based."
Even mothers fail to recognise their dead children, so the job of identification falls on the forensic anthropologists who take every care to ensure families receive the correct body of their loved one. If not, that will be two families who are distressed, Black pointed out.
It seems you cannot rely on anything found on the body to give the correct identification, no matter how intimate. A pair of dentures found on a dead down and out in a Glasgow park turned out to have been through three owners.
And if you do not want to find anything nasty in the woods, do not get a dog — 60 per cent of bodies are found by people walking their dog.
Not for the squeamish, even if images of live people’s body modifications produced more horrified gasps than images of corpses, the importance of Black’s work was underlined by a slide featuring some of the murderers and paedophiles convicted by the evidence produced by Black and her colleagues.
Which is why, even though she deals with death, disaster and some of the most horrific crimes inflicted against the living, Black can still claim her job is "great fun".
"It gives you a sense of perspective," she stated.
"You know what? I don’t care if the hoovering doesn’t get done or there’s a scratch on the car. After something like the tsunami or Kosovo, all you want to do is go home and hug your kids."
The crime writers, however, prefer to keep their crime fictional.
Asked by the audience if they had ever met a murderer, some owned up to meeting likely murderers on prison visits — though it is apparently not good form to ask what your captive audience are in for.
Rankin did admit that he had turned down an invitation to meet Moors Murderer Ian Brady "because you do not want that man in your head", but had visited an inmate on a Texas Death Row, who had used his 12 years in solitary confinement to educate himself.
"The I went back to my hotel room and read the crime reports and though: ‘Fry, you bastard, fry!’" Rankin added.
No, when it comes to murder, crime writers are happier to deal with fiction rather than fact, which does not prevent them from enjoying a little revenge when the opportunity arises.
Asked if any of the authors had done that, Gray owned up that someone in next year’s book was set to meet a deserved demise.
"I was on a flight when this red haired hooray henry sat behind me," she said.
"He was a loudmouth, obnoxious and telling people at the top of his voice how terrific he was. I couldn’t believe it when the stewardesses gave him more drink. Then I understood when he promptly fell asleep. But I thought to myself: I’m going to kill you! And I have!"
* Cromarty Crime and Thrillers Weekend is already scheduled to return next year with provisional bookings for three more top Scottish crime writers in Denise Mina, Louise Welsh and Christopher Brookmyre — an apt choice as Brookmyre has probably killed and maimed more characters in and around the Black Isle than any other author (see One Fine Day in The Middle of The Night for details, the book that made Alex Gray fall off that sun lounger).