RARA-AVIS: UK: Byrne, McDermid, Mina, Turnbull

From: K Montin ( kmontin@total.net)
Date: 01 Jul 2002

[I don't think I'm sending this twice, but just in case--sorry, technical difficulty.]

Moving from least to most hardboiled:

Ruby, by Gerry Byrne. A London social worker-turned-management consultant becomes an unwilling detective, trying to find the missing stripper/perhaps prostitute Ruby Tuesday. Almost all the women in the story are lesbians; some are drag queens. The story on the whole is rather unsatisfying. The killer is unmasked, but unpunished, for very cynical and, I think, unrealistic reasons. But others may disagree. I kind of liked the characters and there were a few surprises along the way, but I can't say I really liked the book. It was promising but failed. Some very facile pop psychology incorporated. I can see a series in the making. Not exactly hb, but not too cosy, either.

Val McDermid, Report for Murder. Report was her first novel, and it's pretty easy going. A famous cellist that no one likes is murdered at a Derbyshire girls' school. The amateur detective is lesbian feminist socialist tabloid journalist Lindsay Gordon. Her sidekick is her new love at first sight. They're trying to find out who really did so they can get their mutual friend, the prime suspect, off the hook. It moves right along but about nine tenths is dialogue and for some reason I started to get a bit tired of it. Lindsay lives in Glasgow, so her other adventures are probably set there.

Garnet Hill, by Denise Mina, is set in Glasgow. It's not a police procedural or typical amateur detective story. A woman wakes up one day to find her boyfriend murdered in her living room. At first she's a suspect, but even after she isn't anymore, she continues her own investigation into who killed him and why. Her best friend is a tough, leather-wearing motorcycle-riding counsellor in a battered women's shelter. (In a restaurant, the waiter tells her she's sexy. She says "Get us a fucking waitress." When the protag says she was rude, she says, "Well I guess the important lesson for him to learn is that I'm a fucking rude woman and he should stay out of my way.") There is a theme of doctors' sexual exploitation of patients, especially mental patients, and another theme of the aftereffects of incestuous abuse. Not exactly a happy ending, but there's a light in the distance. I'll definitely look for her other books. I think this was her first. Colloquial Glaswegian--keep Al's address handy.

Peter Turnbull's And Did Murder Him is a Glasgow police procedural. A heroin addict who lives in a squat with a bunch of other heroin addicts is found murdered in alley. It's a pretty good plot. The action follows the three shifts of detectives and their bosses over the days that it takes to solve the crime. For once, I had a good idea whodunnit before it was officially revealed, but that probably means I was supposed to, because I'm usually lousy at figuring them out.

Val McDermid, The Mermaids Singing, written 10 or more years after Report for Murder is totally different, really gruesome, in fact. There's no one hero, although it's more or less a police procedural with the emphasis on Carol Jordan (the name is too reminiscent of Lindsay Gordon), a competent and ambitious and detective inspector. There's a serial killer who leaves mutilated bodies of men in the gay cruising area of Glasgow. The chapters alternate between the police view of things and accounts written by the killer, describing step by step the process of stalking, kidnapping and torturing the victims. The homemade torture devices are based on some from the Spanish Inquisition, updated with electricity. Really horrible. Anyway, as far as plot goes, it's pretty tense and hard to figure out, but I sort of wish I hadn't read it because it's very disturbing. It won a British crime writing award, possibly the Golden Dagger. You have been warned.

Having just read three books by Scots all set in Glasgow, I've been thinking about the dialect transcription problem. These three authors were all very light on the "phonetic" transcription. Occasionally a character would use an expression like "dinnae" but for the most part, the spelling was fairly standard (although in one book they say och and in another auch). References were made to some people's accents, but examples weren't given. For instance, in Report for Murder, Lindsay Gordon doesn't sound Scottish to another woman who also comes from Ayrshire, and it is mentioned that occasionally she reverts to speaking with the accent she had picked up at Oxford but dropped. But if you haven't a clue what an Ayrshire accent sounds like, you won't find out here. In And Did Murder Him, one of the characters is posh but the others aren't, yet only the vocabulary gives it away, not the pronunciation.

I like a few indicators of accent, although I know that it can be condescending when done wrong. It's educational. Someone mentioned Mark Twain: he actually explains in the preface to Tom Sawyer, I believe, that not all his characters sound the same because he has taken pains to represent about 14 different dialects (can't check the exact number right now). That's a real feat, and valuable historically.

It's not true that only "lower class" people's accents are marked: occasionally you'll come across someone who says "gel" for "girl," for instance, although an author's criterion for indicating a pronunciation as nonstandard is probably "different from mine."


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