by Calum Macleod
A TALK about death is not usually a topic that gets lots of laughs, but laughs are to be expected when one of those doing the talking is Inverness born forensic anthropologist Professor – and now Dame - Sue Black.
The tone was set early for her appearance at Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s festival of crime writing, where she appeared alongside colleague Dr Richard Shepherd. The UK’s leading forensic scientist, he has conducted 23,000 post mortems in a career that has also included advising on 9/11, the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the death of Princess Diana.
That may be a lot of death, especially when taken in tandem with Sue Black’s career, which has covered murders, natural disasters and war crimes, but the talk was far from morbid.
Asked to explain the difference between their two jobs Sue’s response was: “He drives a sports car and flies a plane and I don’t.”
However, she couldn’t resist another playful dig at her old medically trained pal, adding: “We’re scientists – and they would like to be.”
But Richard wasn’t going to let these comments go unchallenged, justifying his bigger wage packet with the tongue in cheek comment: “I do a lot more work. I have to deal with the whole of the body, she just has to look at the bones.”Held in the Albert Halls, the largest venue used by Bloody Scotland, the turnout on a Sunday morning suggested an appetite for crime fact as well as fiction with an impressive turnout for a Sunday morning, but when the talk did turn to real life murder, the conversation took a more sombre and sensitive tone as Sue herself pointed out, they might use humour as a way of dealing with their work, but there is always a serious side and that is never forgotten.
The job of scientists is to find answers, so perhaps it is understandable that for Sue Black, the greatest mysteries are the ones that could not be solved, like her home town’s disappearance of Renee MacRae and her three year old so Andrew or the murder of Lanarkshire schoolgirl Moira Anderson in 1957.
“Someone out there is responsible for the deaths of Renee MacRae or Moira Anderson,” Sue said.
“For me, these cases are really important because they have not been resolved. You talk to families where someone has gone missing and their lives have gone into a stutter. Everything keeps going back to the day that their daughter or son went missing. When you deliver an identification (of a body) it’s always bad news, but there is always a kindness in this news because it means they can move on.”
In contrast, her involvement with the investigation into the identity of the 11th Lord Lovat – “the Old Fox” – or at least the body buried in the family mausoleum at Wardlaw in Kirkhill after his execution for involvement in the 1745 Jacobite Rising was “so much fun”.
The identity of the body in the coffin was revealed in a live broadcast with television presenter and historian Dan Snow.
“Would we have done all that if we had known the body in the grave was a 25-year old women? Of course we would,” Sue laughed.
Fictional crimes in the Highlands also got a mention from debut author Margaret Kirk in the Local Crimes For Local People panel, as she summed up her new Inverness-based crime series as “the North Coast 500 with bodies”, an area with a big attraction for the modern crime writer – no CCTV coverage and a patchy mobile phone signal.
“That’s an absolute gift for a crime writer,” she said.
But she also added that she wanted to present Inverness as a fast growing modern city, getting away from the typical outsider’s view of a quiet, dull place dominated by Nessie and tartan and seems to have succeeded according to her favourite review which read: “If you get away from the horrible murders and disembowelling, she makes Inverness sound a wonderful place to visit.”
However, she seemed to have uncovered little about her home city as surprising as fellow panellist Hania Allen’s discovery about Dundee, the setting for her novel The Polish Detective. Setting the action around a fictional Druid cult in Dundee, which her research had convinced her did not exist, it was only at her book launch that she discovered that such a cult did exist – from a neighbour who lived next door to one of its practitioners.
They were not alone in showing that Scotland’s successful criminal crime wave is confined to our bigger cities.
The popular Ann Cleeves returned to talk about her hit Shetland series and other books, while Denzil Meyrick spoke up for Argyll as a suitable location for skulduggery.
Carrbridge resident Lin Anderson also revealed an unexpected consequence of carrying our research at Aviemore’s annual Thunder in the Glens Harley-Davidson – after a short ride on a fast machine, she has become a Harley-Davdson owner herself,
A new face at the festival – in company with a very familiar one – was former Raigmore Hospital anaesthetist Marisa Haetzman, who has now written her first novel alongside her husband, one of the most familiar figures on the Scottish crime writing scene, Chris Brookmyre.
Under the Parry name – borrowed from a 16th century French pioneer – they have co-written their first book together, a historical thriller set in Edinburgh in 1847 and drawing on research Marisa conducted for a Master’s degree in the history of medicine. But this was not just a case of Marisa doing the research and Chris turning it into a novel.
“Marisa had done all this research and got fed up waiting for me to finish writing other books and started writing it herself,” Chris said.
“While she was writing, she was so immersed in the medicine of the time. She would ask: ‘Is there too much of this?’ And I would say: ‘No, this is box office because it was just so dark.’”
“All the cases are based on real cases,” Marisa added.
“If you think we are making things up to be really disgusting all the time, that’s not the case.
“One thing we really want people to get from this book is that they should feel very grateful for living in the 21st century.”
If you are a crime fiction fan, though, Bloody Scotland might have you thinking that way already.
There was room for serious debate – this year fictional violence against women was much discussed in the wake of the launch of the controversial Staunch Prize for books without any violence against women as well . But as with Sue Black’s appearance, there was plenty of laughter too, whether on the panels, or more light-hearted events like the always sell out Crime At The Coo cabaret/session, or newer additions such as the Two Crime Writers And A Microphone podcast from Steve Cavenagh and Luca Veste.
This year the irreverent podcast ventured into panel show territory with a crime writers’ version of the BBC’s Would I Lie to You? with various star crime writers including Val McDermid and Chris Brookmyre – who also turned up as members of the rocking all star band The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, revealing unlikely and sometimes downright fictitious secrets.
Not all the biggest star names were primarily known as writers. Joining bestsellers Peter James and Irvine Welsh on the programme was Frank Gardner, better known as the BBC’s security correspondent, there to talk about making the transition to crime writer, while Hamish MacBeth creator MC Beaton was joined by actress Ashley Jensen and other members of the staff and crew of Sky TV’s adaptation of her Agatha Raisin books.
As always, there was an international outlook with guests from New Zealand and Scandinavia, but one of the New Zealand visitors was of special relevance. Most Scottish crime writers, directly or indirectly, acknowledge a debt to author William McIlvanney as the founding father of “Tartan Noir” with his novel Laidlaw.
The McIlvanney Prize, named for the late Bill McIlvanney, is presented to the best Scottish crime novel of the year.
This year the award went to McIlvanney’s son Liam, a New Zealand resident author and academic for his novel The Quaker in a very literal acknowledgement that Bill McIlvanney had inspired a whole new generation of authors – and his legacy is in safe hands.