I GOT chatting to my old friend, the author Douglas Skelton last week. He is perhaps best known for writing a crime series about a fictional, Glasgow-based criminal called Davie McCall, who was first introduced in the novel Blood City.

His more recent series featuring the journalist Rebecca Connelly called A Rattle of Bones was recently long listed for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year, which was renamed the McIlvanney Prize in 2016, in honour of the late William McIlvanney.

This year that prize went to Alan Parks for his Glasgow-based novel May God Forgive – his win was announced at the Bloody Scotland Literary Festival, held in Stirling in September.

Having commiserated with Douglas we got talking about the current state of crime writing in Scotland, which often gets called Tartan Noir – for the record, a label that he and many others hate. He sensed a trend away from “serial killer thrillers” into what is sometimes labelled as “cosy crime” – perhaps best exemplified by the novels of Richard Osman.

That pleased me, although anyone familiar with Parks’ crime series will know that they’re anything but “cosy”. He fits into the dominant tradition of writing about the city that can only be described as “hard boiled”, “gritty”, and “mean”. So much so that I shared with Douglas the question that I had set myself for a speech I gave to the community justice charity SACRO in Edinburgh in 2019 – “How Many Serial Killers Does Glasgow Actually Have?”

The answer was 27, but as I explained in my talk these were not “real” serial killers, but the ones who stalked the pages of Tartan Noir set in Glasgow. Serial killers in novels written by Alex Gray, Lin Anderson; Denise Mina and less-well known authors, such as M R Mackenzie, Helen Fitzgerald and even Liam McIlvanney – the son of the late William McIlvanney, who wrote about a serial killer in The Quaker.

For my speech I only counted serial killers in novels set within Glasgow, but if I had counted those in Tartan Noir stalking the pages in Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, various Hebridean islands, the Highlands more generally and even – my personal favourite – Linlithgow I would easily have reached 75. In short, Tartan Noir loves a serial killer.

Two brief extracts from the blurbs on the covers offer you a frisson of what I am describing.

In A Study of Flesh Alex Gray’s heroic Detective Inspector William Lorimer is going to have to manage his “worst nightmare”. In other words, “a serial killer is on the loose in his city” – but here’s the twist “not just one, but two serial killers operating at once in Glasgow. It’s his worst nightmare come to life”.

In Lin Anderson’s series about a forensic scientist called Rhona McLeod, the plot of Easy Kill can be summed up by the line “this man has killed before – and he’ll kill again and again”. In other words the label “serial killer” isn’t actually used, but that is what is implied.

Note that the two central characters are a senior police officer and a forensic scientist. However, Helen Fitzgerald employed a female probation officer, and M R Mackenzie a female Criminologist in their novels, and maverick amateur detectives were also popular characters. So, at that time Tartan Noir was expanding to accommodate different roles within and also outside of the criminal justice system to allow, I think, new plots to evolve beyond the rather tired and frankly, at times, laughable “police procedural”.

What I found interesting was that if we looked at when these books first emerged they were written, published and consumed within a period of time that saw an unprecedented – and I would go as far as to argue poorly acknowledged – decline in murder in Scotland more generally and Glasgow specifically.

As recently as 2004 Glasgow had the unenviable reputation for being “the murder capital of Europe”. Ten years later – largely due to the Glasgow Violence Reduction Strategy (now the Scottish Violence Reduction Strategy) the murder rate within the city had declined by some 60 per cent. This is a remarkable achievement which we would do well to celebrate, although I wonder to what extent we Scots have ever been good at celebrating success.

Of course violence still exists; it hasn’t disappeared and people – all too often women and children – still get hurt and others get killed – usually by violent men, but Tartan Noir had embraced the serial killer and a high body count more generally when murder was at remarkable and historically low levels.

What I am arguing is not just that 27 is far in excess of the actual numbers of Glaswegian, or indeed Scottish serial killers. For the record, I would suggest that there have been only five operating within Scotland since the end of the Second World War (and I deliberately choose not to name them), or that “geographically stable” serial killers, such as the ones who kill within the Glasgow of Tartan Noir, would be much more quickly caught than those who are “geographically transient”, but that perception has begun to shape reality – or what is seen as reality.

Specifically, that perception shapes the public’s understanding of murder and serial murder; who is likely to fall victim to this dreadful crime; and what we can do to reduce its incidence.

Keeping us safe from the actual phenomenon of serial murder is rarely about dogged detectives, especially insightful and gifted offender profilers, or about developments in forensic science, but has much more to do with ensuring that there are common and shared values of civility and respect.

Frankly we’d make Scotland far safer from the threat of real serial killers if we challenged homophobia, misogyny, had a grown up debate about sex work, and gave the elderly a voice in our culture, rather than seeking their silence. And, more politically, it is about ensuring that the gap between the haves and the have-nots does not widen to obscene levels of privilege on the one hand, and abject poverty on the other.

The plots of Tartan Noir inevitably pathologise the individual and, in doing so, let society off the hook.

Maybe that’s why Tartan Noir has been so successful. It suggests that serious, violent and deadly crime is simply about the personal responsibility of the offender, rather than a responsibility that should be shared much more widely.

It implies that the solutions to serious, violent and deadly crime are therefore held within the hands of the criminal justice system in the guise of all the dogged – if flawed – detectives, like Harry McCoy in Alan Parks’ series and others who keep the barbarians from the gate, rather than through sweeping changes that might be necessary within society and the political will to introduce them.

These realities might not sell many books, or tickets to blockbuster films, but they are realities which are based on fact.