After swanking it up this year with Rankin and McIlvanney at the Harrogate Crime Festival, I ended a great day by going to dinner with Scottish-based crime writers James Oswald and Russel McLean, both of whom admittedly sat as far up the table from me as they possibly could without actually eating their dinner on the fire-escape. However, by scrawling death runes on napkins using tomato sauce and then passing them along the table, I did manage to scare Russel McLean into doing this interview for Dead Man Talking.
McLean is the author of the excellent J. McNee private investigator novels, ‘The Good Son’, ‘The Lost Sister’, and ‘Father Confessor’ as well as a book of short stories called ‘The Death of Ronnie Sweets (And Other Stories)’ He hails from a small village near Dundee, has a beard, wears his hat at a rakish angle and sometimes bashes innocent bystanders on the head with his travel bag. Despite these glaring flaws you should dash off to your nearest bookstore and add him to your collection. He's really rather good.
|Strachan McQuade R.I.P.|
|Russel McLean P.I.|
McQuade: Today I am interviewing yet another writer with a beard, Russel D. McLean, who sets his gritty tales of crime fiction in the grotty city of Dundee. To make McLean feel at home I’ve arranged to hold this interview in the middle of the Tay Road Bridge. Thankfully neither of us drove here on a bus containing more than sixteen passengers, thus avoiding £1.40 on the toll charges. Hang on, I’ll just wait until this large truck passes by before commencing with the interview as I can barely hear myself speak over the slipstream of the traffic as it is.
McLean: Oh dear God, we’re going to die!
McQuade: Oh stop shaking, McLean, we’re perfectly safe here on the dividing barrier. Righto, let’s start.
I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of well-known writers whose work is linked with Dundee. Let’s see, there’s William McGonagall, whose fine prose still sends a shiver up my spine. (Editor - last seen on a park bench in Harrogate – McQuade's spine that is, not McGonagall) DC Thomson who wrote stirring adventures about a desperate, big-chinned cowboy named Dan. And now you, McLean. For those disputing my arithmetic, the answer is Yes, I do only have three fingers on that hand, a dog buried the other two. Anyway, my first question is this – seeing as they built a new Tay bridge in tribute to McGonagall’s epic work ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, and erected a statue to Thomson’s cow-pie munching anti-hero, Desperate Dan, what sort of lasting monument should mark the work of Russel D. McLean?
McLean: Probably a pub. Or a beer. Yes, my own beer would do quite nicely. Brewed here in the city, of course. Either that or a giant statue of my beard. In fact the more I think about it, let’s go with the bronze beard....
McQuade: A big bronze beard? You do realise people might mistake that a tribute to Sophia Loren? Or even Lulu, come to that.
Instead of foisting yet another maverick Detective Inspector upon the world, you have embarked upon a more traditional approach to crime writing by casting your J.McNee character in the time-honoured mould of a Private Investigator or PI for short. (Editor - in Dundee presumably pronounced as Peh) Was this a conscious decision to hark back to the golden age of Crime Noir? Or were you simply too lazy to acquaint yourself with modern day police procedures like other harder working writers do? Oh, and was that Lorraine Kelly who just passed us driving a Ford Capri?
McLean: I doubt it was Lorraine. She only ever uses the airport. I believe they’re planning on renaming it Lorraine Kelly International...
But, yes, as to the question, it was actually deliberate. I couldn’t think of any other Scottish PI’s, and I figured that I could try and do for Dundee what Lawrence Block did for New York, what Chandler did for LA and what Hammett did for San Francisco. Lofty ambition, no? Whether I succeeded is up to the reader, but I do think the PI can go places that a traditional police detective can’t. With McNee I get to cross some lines that Rebus and Rankin never could, and I like that idea. Someone who believes in justice but does not necessarily have to follow the letter of the law. Oh, and the research was still important. Real investigators have their own procedures and sets of ethics. So I was very lucky to have some help from a man named Peter Heims who was one of the oldest active investigators working at the time, and a really nice guy who let me ask him all kinds of dumb questions. He died this year, which was a real shame and a loss to the investigative community. Of course, as Peter himself pointed out when I was talking to him, McNee is not a real investigator and there’s a lot of stuff he does that a real investigator would not do, ethically speaking. But dramatic licence is part and parcel of a compelling crime novel, and I hope that everything’s underpinned with a sense of reality that comes from the conversations I had with Peter.
McQuade: Barely heard a word of that due to the traffic but I imagine it made some sort of sense. Your three McNee novels, ‘The Good Son’, ‘The Lost Sister’, and ‘Father Confessor’ have titles that show a distinct underlying pattern, namely in playing upon references to immediate family members. Is this a quirky co-incidence? Or can we expect the next one to perhaps be called, ‘The Lacklustre, Short-Sighted Cousin’ or ‘The Shifty Uncle Nobody Talks About Because He Was Once Caught In An Embarrassing Embrace With A Yorkshire Terrier? By Jove! Someone just leaned out their car window and implied I play the maracas. Bloody cheek.
McLean: Now that might have been Lorraine Kelly... sounds like something she’d do...
Anyway, yes, the family motif was very deliberate. Again calling to mind one of the other great PI writers, Ross MacDonald, who often played with the family motif. I have a thing for family, for exploring what it means, what it can do to people. Sometimes the family motif is not as literal as it sounds. And the next book is called Mothers of the Disappeared. The title was given to me by Canadian author Sandra Ruttan when she saw the first synopsis. The book’s changed a lot since then but the title remains rather appropriate. Oh, and the last book (number 5) in the McNee sequence is called Cry Uncle.
McQuade: I’d like to know a bit more about this Cursed Mask of yours. You see, I once owned a pair of cursed swimming trunks. Every time I wore them something bad happened. Apart from the time they fell down while I was conducting a funeral, and another occasion when I got stung by a jellyfish while paddling in the sea at Anstruther, the final straw was being given a stern ticking-off by the Moderator at the 1973 Synod for draping them over a statue of John Knox. Anyway, this mask of yours. It doesn’t happen to be a gas mask, does it? I find those scary enough with being cursed.
McLean: Yes, that does sound like the fault of the trunks, doesn’t it? The mask was in a flat that I moved into here in Dundee. All around the place there were wee notes on the wall when I first came in, like, “This is a fridge,” and, “This door sticks a little.” There’s a walk in cupboard in the bedroom, and inside I found a leather mask in the shape of a woman’s face. The note next to it said, “This mask has been here for five previous tenants. We were told not to move it. We pass on the same advice to you.” I haven’t moved it. And now that I’m sadly leaving that flat behind, I’m going to leave a similar note. I don’t want the next tenant to accidentally open up a portal to hell or something.
McQuade: One last question. Earlier in your writing career you wrote a Dr Who story that unfortunately was rejected. I’m sorry to hear that. I once wrote a risqué episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook which offended the BBC (and Dr Cameron) so much they tripled my license fee and threatened to strike my church off the Songs of Praise roster. Anyway, which Doctor were you writing about? Hopefully not Sylvester McCoy. He was rubbish. And what do you think of Peter Capaldi being instated as the 12th Doctor?
McLean: Unfortunately for you, Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor I grew up with and I maintain he is much better than his reputation with some purists might suggest. Certainly in his last year he found an inherent and interesting darkness which the Virgin novels exploited and which I had intended to do, too. Of course, it was a teenager’s novel and as such a bit daft. I would still kill for the chance to write for Who in any medium.
McQuade: Brrrrr. Getting a bit cold sitting here. Fancy some of my home-made scotch broth, McLean? And yes, this is the same flask Ian Rankin left behind in the Little Chef a few months back. A tenner and it’s yours. The flask that is, not the soup That’s free of charge. (Editor – though probably not free of bacteria)
Mclean: Thank you very much. Do you have a change of this twenty? Hey come back! You owe me a bloody tenner!
McQuade: Sorry, McLean, in a rush. I’ll post it to you. (Editor – no he won’t) Thanks for the interview. Mind you don’t lean back too far as there’s a big petrol tanker coming up fast behind you.
(Blaring air horn and THUNK)
McQuade: Ah, he obviously didn’t catch that. I may as well retrieve that flask of scotch broth before the ambulance arrives. Waste not want not.
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