By Katrina Patrick

THEY’RE crime-writing royalty – the king and queen of Tartan Noir. And as well as a throne, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid share a rather special anniversary. In a strange literary coincidence, both are celebrating 30 years since the publication of their first crime novels in 1987.

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” says McDermid. “You look back and think, ‘Where on earth did those three decades go?’”

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She pauses, then gives a wry chuckle. “Here’s to the next 30!”

“Yeah – here’s to the next 30,” agrees Rankin – with only a hint of dubiety.

The writers are headliners at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in September. Ahead of their appearance at the annual Stirling-based event, we catch up with the best-sellers in Harrogate, where they’re taking part in last month's Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 20-23, 2017).

We’re hidden away in a back room of the town’s historic Old Swan Inn. It’s dark and atmospheric – fitting territory in which to meet these two titans of crime fiction.

Downstairs, crowds have stowed out the bar, eagerly awaiting the talks and panels that are about to begin but, for now, old pals and fellow Fifers, McDermid and Rankin, have a little time to catch up. As it happens, they are talking about football. Specifically the recent friendly match – or unfriendly, as McDermid calls it – in which their team, Raith Rovers, beat deadly rivals Dunfermline 3-0.

“Despite them being a division above us!” interposes Rankin, who grew up in Cardenden. “The ‘wee team’ as we used to call Dunfermline when we were above them. Now it’s back to them calling us that.”

Kirkcaldy-born McDermid’s father was a scout for Raith Rovers, signing one of Scotland’s greatest players, Jim Baxter – as she tells me proudly. McDermid herself, of course, is the home shirt sponsor for the team and even has a stand named after her at the Rovers' ground, Stark Park in Kirkcaldy.

“And I’m a club director, for my sins.” she adds. “I don’t quite know how that happened. Somebody asked me after a drink or two – ‘Aye, fine!’”

It’s easy to forget that behind the banter are minds that have conjured the gruesome murder cases and tantalising plots that changed the face of crime fiction.

McDermid’s first novel, Report For Murder, and Rankin’s first Rebus novel, Knots And Crosses, were published when mainstream crime books were filled with stereotypical London detectives and out-of-place murders in chocolate-box villages. Back then, British crime fiction was often dismissed by the literary elite.

“It was an accident of history that Val and I, and a bunch of other young Turks, came along at the same time thinking we can do something different with the British crime novel,” Rankin says modestly.

When he wrote Knots And Crosses, Rankin wasn’t a fan of crime fiction – indeed, as an Edinburgh University literature student beginning a doctorate on Muriel Spark, he was disconcerted when his first novel was put into the crime category.

McDermid, however, was a crime fiction fan and keen to explore the emerging possibilities of Tartan Noir, a subgenre that started with the novels of William McIlvanney in the 1970s – particularly Laidlaw.

“Laidlaw showed quite a different possibility for the genre,” she says. “It was the first crime novel I’d ever read that was written in Scots. It had a sense of crimes that were organic – they grew out of the society they existed in. It wasn’t like the sort of English village mystery where you had a random murder bolted on.

“Laidlaw opened the door to possibilities for writers like me and Ian – but also for writers in England, and their ideas for writing regional crime – not centred around London and the home counties.”

Over the past three decades, crime fiction has grown to become a hugely popular genre. This year thousands are queuing up outside the Harrogate Festival venue for the chance to hear their favourite authors.

Other crime writing festivals have sprung up, too – Bloody Scotland, of course; Noirwich; CrimeFest; and the first-ever female-led crime festival, Killer Women.

“These have to be organised, because literary festivals were kind of slow to pick up on crime writing,” Rankin says. “Harrogate [established in 2003] would have been one of the first because crime fiction was becoming popular. But because it’s popular, more and more writers are coming to it.

“When we started out, new writers would want to be literary novelists, but now they see no differentiation between novels and crime novels.

“Our generation of writers brought something new and fresh to the genre of crime fiction.”

McDermid began her crime-writing career with Report For Murder in which journalist Lindsay Gordon, stumbling upon a murder scene, begins her own investigation. McDermid says: “I wasn’t a very sophisticated storyteller in those days and the book I really wanted to write was my third one. I didn’t really know how to get there without writing the first two. I didn’t have any concept that that was going to be the rest of my life.”

The inspiration that turned into that third book opened up an active – and, let’s face it, pretty gruesome – imagination, and now McDermid slips between four different crime series. Most prolific is her Dr Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, turned into the TV series Wire In The Blood.

“I discovered when I started writing full-time that I can’t write two books with the same central character back-to-back. I have a very low boredom threshold – I couldn’t do what Ian does. At the end of a book I’m quite happy for the character to go away and leave me for a while!”

“Whereas I’m like an alcoholic,” Rankin puts in. “I take them one at a time.”

The central character of Rankin’s novels, Detective Inspector John Rebus, has been with us for 21 of his books now, but it turns out he wasn’t even supposed to survive the first.

“I don’t know what happened to the first draft, but I’m pretty sure that at the end of it he was shot and killed because I thought, ‘I’m never going to write about this character again’. It took a while to get to know him, and to grow confident about what the crime novel can do.”

Three decades on, the crime novel is now well and truly established as popular fiction, and Rankin and McDermid are embracing the new generation of crime writers – especially those who continue to challenge readers’ expectations of what constitutes a crime novel.

“I think one of the up-and-coming writers is Abir Mukherjee,” McDermid says immediately. “I do a panel called New Blood at the Harrogate Festival and he was on it last year."

Though London-based now, Mukherjee grew up in the west of Scotland.

"His novels come at things from an unexpected and unusual angle," says McDermid. "He writes really well and he’s obviously got the sweep of history as a scope in front of him. I think we’ll hear a lot more from him.”

“[His Bloody Project author] Graeme Macrae Burnet has opened a few doors, too,” Rankin says. “At Bloody Scotland a few years ago there was a thing for new writers before the main act came on, and he was on before me. I saw him again last year, of course he’d been shortlisted for the Booker prize by then, and I said, ‘Next year I’ll be opening for you, the way things are going!’

"He’s a guy who’s coming at crime from a different angle – there’s a Scottish Gothic tradition in him.”

At Bloody Scotland this year, both McDermid and Rankin will be giving talks on their 30 years in the crime-writing business, but that’s not all that is planned for them.

“I’ll probably be dragged into playing bloody football again,” Rankin groans. “I’ve been the captain of the Scotland team for the past three years. We’ve been on this downward trajectory since I took over.”

Ah, sorry, Ian – and Scotland – your name is indeed down for the Scotland v England Bloody Scotland Football Match.

“I might have to give up and let some fresh blood in there – if not ringers.” he sighs.

McDermid, meanwhile, captains the quiz team in Never Mind The Buzzcops on the opening night, before performing with her new band, The Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers.

“There’s me, Stuart Neville, Mark Billingham, Luca Veste and Doug Johnstone – and Chris Brookmyre joins us on vocals for a couple of songs. I believe I can exclusively reveal that Icelandic crime writer Lilja Sigurdardottir will be providing backing vocals, too.”

And after Bloody Scotland, Rankin will be counting down the days until he can lift his self-imposed ban on writing.

“I wish I was writing a Rebus book, because I’m busy as stink. The problem with not writing a book is that all these great things get thrown at you – whereas when I’m writing a book, everybody just leaves you alone.

“I’ll be diving in next year, I think. There’s only so much Rebus can do, though – he’s a man of a certain age and no longer a copper. I’m going to move him into the care home eventually, and there he’ll be in his electric wheelchair whizzing around. The case of the missing porridge!”

McDermid, too, is already restless to get started on her next novel – shifting back to the Inspector Karen Pirie series with an idea that she picked up visiting Rankin earlier this year.

“I got talking to one of your local shopkeepers,” she tells the Edinburgh-based writer, “who told me a really fascinating tale – and that’s the core that’s grown into my idea for this next book. I’m no’ going to tell you what it was, though.

“Ideas are everywhere. People always say, ‘Where do

you get your ideas from?’, but you cannae stop stumbling over them. You walk into a shop, a pub, you overhear a conversation – it’s all there, all ideas, all fodder.”

Reproduced courtesy of The Scots Magazine. For the full interview, read the Scots Magazine here https://www.scotsmagazine.com/articles/murdertheywrote/ and don't miss The Scots Magazine September issue, available from Thursday, August 17

Val McDermid and Ian Rankin are both appearing at Bloody Scotland, Scotland's International Crime Writing Festival, Stirling, September 8-10 www.bloodyscotland.com