13 February 2010

City of Literature: Edinburgh books

If I asked you what world city was the first title holder of the UNESCO designation "City of Literature," I'm not sure Edinburgh would leap to your mind. It certainly didn't leap to mine; my first guess was London. But Edinburgh it is: the City of Literature.

I will cede the floor to Justin on discussing the role of Edinburgh in English-language publishing (hint: massive) because heck, it's what he studies. Instead, I'll write a bit here about some books with Edinburgh connections, and make some suggestions in case you want to pick up a book that gives you a peek into our current hometown.

Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

If you've been paying attention, you already knew this! Edinburgh has served as the place of writing and also as the inspiration for many aspects of this series, including locations and character names. I won't bother to describe the series, but the Edinburgh connection was new to me when I moved here.

Who might enjoy: Everybody in the world, apparently

The Inspector Rebus series, by Ian Rankin

Inspector Rebus is an Edinburgh police detective. The series began in the late '80s - I got a chuckle at the scene in the first book where Rebus mentions his pride and joy, a Japanese-manufactured tape deck - but is still going strong. I've only read the first book, Knots and Crosses, but I ran into many Edinburgh locations that make up my daily life. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Rebus walks from his apartment in Marchmont (where there's a particularly nice beer shop Justin and I frequent) across the Meadows (how we get to campus) through Greyfriars Kirkyard (where we went with Meghan to see the Tom Riddle tombstone) and into the Central Public Library (where I currently have five books checked out). I think they've moved the children's section since the book was published, but the reference room is exactly as described. I should know - I researched there last December!

Who might enjoy: Rebus is not a procedural mystery, which is to say, you are not given clues to piece the mystery together. It's a crime novel much more in the thriller vein. The first one was violent (about child kidnapping and murder) but very little violence happened "on screen." You didn't get passages narrated by the crazy killer, which I always hate. I can't vouch for later ones. It's more for fans of Tom Clancy or James Patterson than Agatha Christie.

The Sunday Philosophy Club Series, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another Edinburgh mystery series. (Edinburgh and crime just seem to go together... maybe it's the weather, which can politely be termed "atmospheric.") Actually, word on the street has it that Rowling, McCall Smith, and Rankin are pals, and sometimes get together for a cup of tea.

To be honest, I read this book two years ago, before Edinburgh was even a glint in my eye, so I don't remember much of the plot or the Edinburgh connections. McCall Smith is better known for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, which I prefer for its more lighthearted and chatty style. But if you like five-page philosophical digressions on Camus with your mystery novels (and I know you're out there), this may be a series you'd enjoy.

Who Might Enjoy: Seriously? I just answered that.

The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett

Neither a mystery nor a book set in the present! The Lymond Chronicles is a massive six-volume series about a Scottish aristocrat named Francis Lymond, who becomes a key player in the political intrigue among England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and others during the early childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond is brilliant, and watching him juggle plots and schemes while knowing he'll always somehow pull it out is great fun. His compatriots, sadly, do not always make it out with him (expect to lose many supporting characters along the way) and it's often Lymond's fault. Unlike superman James Bond heroes, he makes mistakes and changes and learns. I am about to start book 4, and I have been assured at a romance book forum I frequent that a thoroughly satisfying romance will conclude this series.

Edinburgh appears many times in the series. This website lists them all, but don't go there if you haven't read the series yet, as it's full of spoilers. One highlight for me was watching Lymond race up the Grassmarket to make it in time for a climactic sword fight in St. Giles' Cathedral. It doesn't look the same, as the building was Catholic during the 1550s but is Church of Scotland today, but if I moved some screens and altars around in my mind, I could get a very good idea of the setting. Bonus for Justin and me - a scene set at Tantallon Castle and a large chunk of the third book in Malta!

Who might enjoy: Anybody who likes a large but tightly plotted historical epic with a great lead character. Diana Gabaldon fans, fans of the Scarlet Pimpernel (with a higher tolerance for secondary character suffering), Scottish history buffs (many real people are part of the story).

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I expect shrieks of outrage from Justin when this post goes up. He did a paper on Kidnapped last term in which he discussed the publication history of the book, including its selection as the first book for the "One Book, One Edinburgh" project. This was a City of Literature campaign to get everyone in Edinburgh to read the same book, and it included sponsoring a graphic novel adaptation of Kidnapped by the legendary Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy. Justin got a very good grade on this paper, but he gets an Incomplete for this blog post.

Kidnapped is set in the 18th century (1700s, for people like me who can never do that math correctly). It's an adventure tale originally published for young men (oh, Justin must be twitching now!). Most of the narrative takes place outside of Edinburgh, with a few exceptions near the beginning and end. It features the famous description of Auld Reekie "smoking like a kiln." I also liked the description of Grassmarket (the same one featured in Lymond):

"The huge height of the buildings, running up to ten and fifteen storeys, the narrow arched entries that continually vomited passengers, the wares of the merchants in their windows, the hubbub and endless stir, the foul smells and the fine clothes, and a hundred other particulars too small to mention.."

Writing in the early 19oos about the mid 1700s and applicable to the early 2000s (see image here). Nicely done, Bobby Louie Stevie.

Who might enjoy: According to Justin, everybody. Good for all ages. Stevenson's writing is clear and vivid and does not read at all as if it's one hundred years old (he's sort of like Orwell that way).

The Highland Countess, by Marion Chesney

You're not getting through this list without at least one romance novel. The Scottish/Highland subgenre in romance is colossal. Edinburgh is Lowland Scotland, so many romances don't actually include scenes here, but The Highland Countess does. I'm including it as a representative for every tartan-covered novel with a claymore-wielding Laird and semi-Scots expressions like "dinna fash" and "wee lassie."

Actually, I love Marion Chesney. My mother probably hates her, because of the time I misplaced a library book called Deborah Goes to Dover and we had to pay for it. I still have no idea where that book is. The Highland Countess is a similar plot to many Regency London-set novels, but it provides a fun alternative setting. I remember the scene in which the heroine, moving into her husband's apartment on the Royal Mile, reflects on some of the same human smells mentioned above by Stevenson. Edinburgh, historically, has not been a salubrious place.

Who might enjoy: Anybody who enjoys clever, short stories with happy endings. This is a very mild romance as far as... well, "romance" goes. Safe for most readers.

Honorable Mentions: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, by Arthur Conan Doyle.

(They're public domain, so if you click on the above links, you can read them online for free!)

Honorable Mentions because these books are ostensibly set in London, but any reader paying attention can pick out Edinburgh elements. Jekyll and Hyde, in particular, has foggy closes and passageways that could only be Old Town Edinburgh. Like Kidnapped, it was chosen as a City of Literature book (of Doyle's work, they chose The Lost World instead of a Holmes novel. It's good but not Edinburgh-y).

Additionally, both feature characters based on real Edinburghers. The double-life of Jekyll and Hyde likely drew on the story of Deacon Brodie, an upstanding Edinburgh cabinetmaker and councilman who just happened to moonlight as a burglar to pay for his gambling habit. Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on one of his professors at the University of Edinburgh, a man named Joseph Bell. The professor was noted for his keen sense of observation and his process of logical deduction. Today, the university has a Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning (very fitting, one must say.)

Who would enjoy: Jekyll and Hyde is a very readable and highly engaging classic. Don't assume you won't enjoy the book just because you know the plot twist. As for Sherlock Holmes - well, don't judge the books by the movie. Anybody could enjoy these. They are not violent and move quite quickly. Personally, I love the short mysteries, which come in collections. The longer mysteries tend to be padded out in the last two-thirds by an extensive victim/perpetrator backstory - of the longer ones, I can only recommend Hound of the Baskervilles without reservation.

And that's not even all the books with Edinburgh connections out there. If you run into another one, leave a comment on the page here and tell me what you thought of it!

1 comment:

  1. City Whitelight published by Mainstream and Fontana in the 1980s was essentially about Edinburgh.