A Practical & Proper Reading List from Scottish Writers
I once heard Alexander McCall Smith’s hometown of Edinburgh called a “hotbed of genius,” and I’m a believer. The capital of Scotland is the home of all kinds of geniuses, but I’m most interested in the writing kind. Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan – Edinburgh has a long and storied literary history, and the saga continues today with some of my favorite authors.
In terms of sheer numbers of books sold, McCall Smith has to be near the top of the Edinburgh literary pile. His No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, with its combination of insight into human nature, crime solving and the sheer sweetness of the heroine (wouldn’t you love to live next door to Precious Ramotswe?) has touched hearts all over the world. But McCall Smith has a number of series going. Here are a couple of my favorites:
The Sunday Philosophical Club series also has a woman detective of sorts at its center – Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish-American Edinburgh woman who edits The Journal of Applied Ethics and is something of a philosopher herself.
Isabel solves personal problems, and that includes crimes. This premise gives McCall Smith a chance to write about his home turf – Edinburgh, in its more cultured and high-end precincts. In the first book, called The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel witnesses a death. A fund manager falls off a balcony at an Edinburgh concert hall, and Isabel feels obligated to find out what really happened (questions of conscience play a large role in these books). Isabel and Precious are from different worlds, but they both have a lot of determination and smarts. These books have a warmth and charm which will keep the reader engaged through all ten books.
His 44 Scotland Street series follows the lives of a group of residents in an Edinburgh boarding house. In the first book, 44 Scotland Street, there’s a university student who has fallen in love with a ridiculously good looking and completely self-centered man (of course, there’s a good guy in the wings); the Scottish version of a tiger mom; a coffee house owner whose shop serves as a place where his neighbors meet to try to sort out their lives. This story started its life out as a newspaper serial. It’s one you will want to keep going indefinitely – fortunately, there are eight other books.
Next up on my list of wonderful Edinburgh authors is the great Ian Rankin, a former Well Read guest. Rankin created Inspector John Rebus, an intelligent (“canny,” the Scots would say), rebellious, totally dedicated detective in the Edinburgh police. Rebus believes rules were made to be ignored. His foil and partner is Siobhan Clarke, a bright young woman who looks up to Rebus as a mentor but who knows that following his headstrong lead could cause the destruction of her own career.
I simply love the Rebus novels – I have read all of them. They showcase all sides of Edinburgh – the elite, the newly rich, the working class and criminals, whose leaders fight over the city’s turf. A lot of innocent (and not so innocent) people get caught in the crossfire.
Start with the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses. Side note – Rankin and Smith are friends, and Rankin shows up in 44 Scotland Street as a character!
Another Edinburgh writer, one of my all-time favorites, is the great Kate Atkinson, one of the most talented writers working in the English language. Atkinson started out as a literary novelist, then decided to try her hand at mysteries. Her novel Case Histories is the story of a former cop-turned-detective who is drawn into solving three apparently unrelated murders.
The detective in Case Histories, Jackson Brodie, was such a charming, intriguing character, and the book was so successful, Atkinson turned it into a series of four books (eventually, a BBC series was based on them). They all feature unexpected plots, off the wall humor, and a dark core – the ripple effect of murder on those left behind. There’s also a wonderful dog, a border terrier that Jackson inherits.
After four of these books, Atkinson returned to literary fiction with her brilliant and moving Life After Life, the story of Ursula, a young British woman living in the World War I era who is fated to live her life over and over again. Atkinson an author who has jumped “across the pond” – the New York Times named Life after Life one of the 10 best books of 2013.
Finally, I just have to mention one more Edinburgh writer. You may have heard her story, that of a single mother who wrote a book about a boy wizard. Yes, the great J.K. Rowling also calls Edinburgh her home. I think this is proof positive that when it comes to writers, there’s something in the Edinburgh water.