… in which a Glaswegian pens a novel set in Edinburgh and an Edinburgher co-pens one set in Glasgow. Both authors are big names in Scottish crime fiction and those books are released today.

Denise Mina’s Rizzio is the launch title of what is going to be a very exciting series. Darkland Tales will feature dramatic fictional retellings of stories from Scottish history, myth and legend written by Scottish authors. There is no greater drama than the murder of David Rizzio, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, in Holyrood Palace, on the night of 9.03.1566. “How do you create tension when the ending is already known?” asked Jenny Brown at the Edinburgh Book Festival. “By making the reader wonder about something other than the main event,” answered Mina. In this case the question is how did Mary escape, because make no bones about it, the conspirators wanted her dead so they could install Darnley as king. They had many opportunities to kill her, but failed to do so. Her escape was made possible by a woman, who had every reason to be Mary’s mortal enemy – her husband had been exhumed, stuffed and put on trial in the Scottish Parliament, (darkland tales, indeed!) and her son executed for treason – but this lady chose instead to show kindness in a time of crisis. Her age made her invisible, the conspirators ignored her. No more details here, but I can vouch for the effectiveness of Mina’s strategy, and of limiting the timespan of the story to the weekend of the killing. Despite knowing the story well, Mina’s angles and contemporary language refreshed it, and showed an ongoing relevance. Scotland in the C16th century was divided, not only on religious issues, but on political. With whom did she wish to ally: Europe or England? There’s a long ongoing discussion, if you will. As for the conspirators: those with money and power never paid the price. Only 2 minions were executed. Is it not true that the small man always suffers – even today?

Rizzio is a fantastic start to the series. I’m really looking forward to whatever comes next.

While Mina’s book was commissioned by the series editor, Rankin was asked to write his by the partner of the late, great William McIlvanney (the father of Tartan Noir). When he died in December 2015, McIllvanney left behind copious notes (100 pages) for a prequel to his groundbreaking Laidlaw Trilogy. Rankin agreed to do so, on the understanding that he could walk away, if he couldn’t make it work. At the launch event, Rankin called this challenge an act of ventriloquism – he wanted the novel to read as a McIlvanney, not a Rankin. Not only did he have to deal with the Glaswegian setting (which he couldn’t visit while writing, as Scotland was in lockdown), but he also needed to mimic McIlvanney’s rhythms and more lyrical style. In the end he said, writing the book was an escape from the world of Covid back to a time when there was no DNA analysis, no computers, smoking was allowed in public places and people still read newspapers!

Working through McIlvanney’s notes was detective work in itself. Putting the pieces of a jigsaw together, working out the clues to take it in the direction McIlvanney intended. He roadtested the work with a few Glaswegian writers to ensure he had the details right. Set in the time when the motorway was being built through the city centre, the tenements being demolished and folk moving out to new accommodations on the periphery of the city, Glasgow was still ruled by gangsters. These gangsters virtually crawl out of the woodwork in The Dark Remains: the death of a dodgy lawyer threatens to ignite gang warfare. And “the young Laidlaw” – McIllvanney’s working title – prevents this by getting out on the streets, riding the buses, talking to the main players, picking up nuances while his superior is busy moving the widow’s furniture!

Laidlaw’s character was fixed, said Rankin. He was already a philosopher, world-weary, with a chequered history in the police force in McIlvanney’s notes. But too good a cop to let go. There weren’t many women and those there were had bit parts. The publisher, Canongate, asked him to beef these up. So amongst others, we see a lot more of Ena, Laidlaw’s put-upon missus, than we would have otherwise. As for the rest it reads like a Laidlaw novel to me – only Rankin at this point knows which pieces are his and which McIlvanney’s – he reckons it’s a 50:50 split. I can only say it’s seamless. Rankin also made sure that the ending would segue naturally into the first Laidlaw novel. I’m sure McIlvanney will find many new readers through The Dark Remains – thus ensuring that the original Laidlaw novels don’t slip out of print once more.