In continuation of my recent blog about travels to Scandinavia, I will stay with the theme of northern Europe because I have recently listened to several audiobooks whose locale is firmly rooted in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The books to which I refer, each belong to a wider series. There is the Isabelle Dalhousie series of fiction/philosophy/mystery by Allistair McCall Smith, and the John Rebus detective series by Ian Rankin.
I have been to Edinburgh just once, about 20 years ago as a tourist–so I have a vague impression of Edinburgh. But the depiction of Edinburgh by these two excellent author could not be more different!
Rebus is depicted as a stubborn, aging detective inspector, oft passed over for promotion due to his valiant and sometimes self-damaging attempts to get at the truth, mixed in with a little insubordination and inability to curb his tongue. Rebus’ Edinburgh is portrayed as a grim place, infested with corruption at every level, rife with poverty in the ‘estates’ and teeming with unpleasant people. Not everyone, but enough to give pause to the reader. Rankin extends the grim reflection of Edinburgh further to Scotland in general, and in one scene notes through his characters that Scottish drinking and eating habits have combined to give the country the lowest mean lifespan in Europe (perhaps even the western world–I don’t recall). From bar to bar, cigarette to cigarette, there appears to be a general tendency in public institutions to ignore recent smoking bylaws–if one is to believe Rankin.
In Isabelle Dalhousie’s world, Edinburgh is a charming city–more like a town, where everyone knows everyone else. Isabelle owns and edits a philosophical journal that focuses on morality, and McCall Smith manages to bring a wealth of fascinating issues of morality to the table in each book. Isabelle’s boyfriend is a young bassoonist for the Edinburgh Philharmonic, and she is a patron of the visual and performing arts. The city is beautiful, quiet, civilized and polite, with a wealth of culture for its residents and many tourists.
I greatly enjoy the Dalhousie series, for although Isabelle is not a ‘scientist,’ she is definitely an academic, and issues of authorship, review and publication issues crop up frequently. The series is charming and uplifting, sophisticated and well worth reading for anyone who wants some light but not trivial fiction.
I also enjoy the Rebus series (which those of you in the UK will certainly know that it’s also been made into a TV series), because the character of Rebus is compelling–sometimes overwhelming in the way he can be irritating–but never boring. This is worthwhile reading for those who enjoy detective/crime fiction. Only in recent years is this a genre I’ve come to appreciate (although I read about 50 Agatha Christie books one after another at the age of 8 when I tired of children’s books). I think my draw to detective stories stems from an occasional desire for something ‘light;’ books that won’t zap me of too much emotional matter at the end of a long day.
But I come back to my main question, in which I solicit information from my colleagues across the pond (and Cath!): what is Edinburgh really like? Which author is right, or who is farther off base?
Will the real Edinburgh please stand up?