Good reads: From Rebus to North Edinburgh's Health Enforcement Team, top Capital crime-writers explore how their best-loved characters would cope in lockdown - Part Two

In the last of a two-part series, another six Capital crime-writers reveal how their fictional characters would cope when faced with a coronavirus-style lockdown.

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 4:34 pm
Updated Thursday, 4th June 2020, 4:58 pm
Lesley Kelly

IAN RANKIN revealed last week how Edinburgh’s best known literally detective, Rebus, would have spent lockdown in contemplative mood, other fictional characters patrolling the Capital’s streets, however, might have a very different experience, their creators reveal.

One local writer who is perhaps more au fait with the concept of pandemic lifestyles than most is Trinity’s Lesley Kelly, whose Health of Strangers novels have proved prophetic.

“My crime novels are set in a parallel Edinburgh, which is the same in every way except there is a killer virus raging. That used to be my elevator pitch for the novels, which, for obvious reasons, needs a little updating,” she says. “My characters, Mona and Bernard, are members of the Health Enforcement Team (HET), the organisation that hunts you down if you miss your monthly Health Check. They get through the day with a lot of black humour and strong coffee... a lot of their work centres on the Scottish Parliament, and they get job satisfaction from seeing lying politicians held to account. Perhaps we could all do with a little of that?”

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ALex Brown with actor Robert Cavanagh

Putting the HET’s latest case down on paper, however, has proved more of a challenge than normal for Kelly.

“Like many, I’m now dealing with the twin challenges of home working and learning. I’m sharing a desk with my 10-year-old son, and my days are a mixture of wall-to-wall Zoom meetings, interspersed with answering questions on spelling - not ideal for getting a thousand words of finely crafted prose down on paper.”

Niddrie-born Alex Brown, whose first novel, Hit Me, is currently being adapted for film, reflects that his protagonist, ex-boxer Barnabas Wild would be making the most of being in lockdown, “revisiting his old boxing training regimes in his garage.”

“With the glass always half-full, reading the recent news regarding Mike Tyson, Barney would likely have some thoughts about making a comeback of his own. He would also definitely be helping out charities or running his own local food bank, delivering to the less fortunate and making time for a bit of banter. He’d actively be making sure the older folk, like the Ladbrokes Mafia of Niddrie, had anything they might need during these challenging times.

Peter Ritchie

“The same can’t be said for acquaintances Rab ‘Crazy Horse’ Lawrie and his sidekick Tesco Tam, from the infamous Coffee House - located in a ground floor council tenement flat in Niddrie. These local stoners would be flouting every lockdown rule introduced from day one.”

Musselburgh-based former senior police office turned crime-writer Peter Ritchie was in Dublin awaiting the birth of his grandson when lockdown kicked in.

“It was quite surreal being in a dedicated drinker’s heaven with no pubs open,” he says. “When I got back, the choice was stark, lie down and hibernate or use this time wisely and overcome the nightmare. So, lockdown gave me time to reassess what I was up to and where I needed to be. So, every morning since, I’ve brought my main character Grace Macallan back to life and have completed three quarters of a new story.

“I’m lucky because as an ex-detective myself I can run some old scenarios through my head and that can be quite cathartic for me as well as productive for the storyline. So, I’m surviving, and think I will have changed through all of this, and interestingly so will Grace - I know she would miss a lot of the small, seemingly ordinary things in life like going into a cafe and drinking coffee. On a practical level she would have difficult issues trying to investigate and at the same time maintain a safe environment... knowing Grace, she would drive on and I have a feeling she’d probably push harder than the risk averse police force would enjoy.”

Oscar de Muriel

Oscar de Muriel’s Victorian detectives Frey and McGray police a very different Edinburgh to the one we know. While he has been writing full time throughout, de Muriel admits he has found it increasingly difficult to focus as the weeks have progressed.

“If there was a bout of, say, the plague, and they found themselves having to quarantine together, that would be awesome. McGray would take it in his stride. He’d have the landlady from the Ensign Ewart bring him tankards of ale and would while away the days studying his witchcraft books. He’d also enjoy not having to groom himself - not that he does that much, anyway. Frey, on the other hand, would have a very hard time. He’d moan at every slight flush thinking he got the plague, and pester McGray constantly with his fears. I also picture him shaving meticulously, bathing frequently and dressing up every day, just to keep his spirits high.”

Neil Broadfoot delivered the next book in his Connor Fraser series, The Point Of No Return, just before lockdown started, and has spent the time since editing rather than writing.

“It’s been a bit strange editing scenes in crowded parks, pubs and offices, it all feels like a lifetime ago. I’m grappling with how Connor would react to a lockdown at the moment for the next thriller. He’s a physical guy, so being deprived of his outlet at the gym will be driving him crazy, and I suspect he’ll be stalking his flat doing lots of press-ups and other body weight exercises to keep himself in shape.

Neil Broadfoot

“The lockdown will have a profound effect on his working life - as a security consultant, Connor is out in the field a lot, and that’s all been taken away from him. However, one idea I’ve been toying with is if Connor was assigned to protect a politician or a health expert or some other key worker who has been threatened during the lockdown, how would he deal with that? I get the feeling there’s a Connor short story in this, watch this space.”

In the far future, the Edinburgh of investigator Quintillian Dalrymple is a dystopian world where isolation is not unusual for many. Author Paul Johnston says, “I’m not only in lockdown but am also shielding due to my dubious medical history.

“Brilliant, you might think, he’ll have written a novel since March. Would that it were so. I have a full-time job as a creative writing lecturer, and the days have been spent marking and taking part in oh-so-enjoyable Zoom meetings,” he quips.

“Having written all those Edinburgh dystopias, I’m annoyed with myself for never having used a plague, never mind pandemic – great plot line (not so great in reality). It would be hard for a restrictive regime like that imposed by the Council of City Guardians in my books to enforce social distancing in the nightclubs, casinos and brothels they provide for the tourists. No doubt the City Guard would do the dirty business, hobnailed boots and Hyper-stuns (nastier Tasers) to the fore. But I picture Quint and his gluttonous mate Davie Oliphant in a private bar, two metres apart, bellowing at each other as they sink pints of better beer than ordinary citizens get and chase it with top-quality barracks malt whisky.

“One rule for the elite and another for the masses. That rings a bell…”


Paul Johnston

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