I’ve written the perfect book

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

28 May 2022

9:00 AM

I met a Canadian couple for lunch in Edinburgh. They were from Vancouver – he a judge, she an opera singer – and had won me at a charity auction. I do this several times a year. It’s a painless way of helping good causes. Of course it’s a very one-sided blind date: they know more about me than I do about them, at least to start with. But the conversation always flows easily and I’ve met some fascinating characters. After the lunch, a drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole, the Oxford Bar, was part of the deal. It too has character to spare. Speaking of which, I also sometimes offer charities the prize of becoming a character in a forthcoming book. One winner turned out to be a debenture holder at Anfield and hosted me at a Liverpool-Spurs match. This was pre-Covid but the memory lingers, as does that of this season’s final day and the drama as we finished fourth, above our deadly rivals Arsenal. Roll on next season. It’ll doubtless be a rollercoaster. It’s never easy being a Spurs fan.

My next novel is pretty much done and dusted but not yet published in any form. When I started in this game around 1985 I would feed coins into the photocopier in the Edinburgh University library so I’d have a copy to send to my publishers, once I’d bought an envelope and queued at the post office, keeping fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be lost in transit. These days I press a button on my laptop and my publisher reads the book on a screen before emailing me his feedback and suggestions. The new book has satisfied his requirements so off it goes for proofreading. Meantime I’m left in a fairly pleasant limbo. So few people have read it (wife, agent, editor) that I can pretend I’ve written the perfect book. Criticism will come, my dreams dashed, but that’s for later.

To Glasgow to appear at the Aye Write book festival. Normally I’d travel from Edinburgh by train but these are far from normal times. It was a Sunday and I wasn’t sure ScotRail could be relied upon to get me home. The company is currently in dispute with its staff. Some services lack drivers, and to remedy this the Scottish government – which took ownership of ScotRail only last month – has decided on cuts to the timetable. Temporary, we’re told, but potentially lasting for months, which is very bad news for the already hard-pressed night-time economies of Scotland’s major cities, not to mention the blow to shift-workers, commuters and tourists. I’m reminded of teenage years when the last train home from Edinburgh to Fife (circa 10.30 p.m.) meant missing the final few songs of any concert. These days, the fear is that you’ll be leaving for the station after the opening number. If you’re heading back to Stirling from the fleshpots of Glasgow, for example, your last train will now be before 8 p.m. whereas usually it would have been just shy of midnight. This may, as the Scottish transport minister says, give travellers ‘more certainty’, but I’m not sure a curfew will be thought acceptable by many of them. Reader, I travelled to Glasgow by car.

The next day meant the British Book Awards (colloquially known as the Nibbies) in London. My LNER train was on time – hooray. I was attending because my collaboration with William McIlvanney, The Dark Remains, was up for crime novel of the year. McIlvanney’s widow, Siobhan Lynch, had found notes and scenes for a novel Willie had been planning to write and asked me if I would take on the task of shaping them into a complete book. It was a challenge but I owed so much to Willie – he made me want to write crime fiction – that I said yes. Now here I was, two years on, heading to Grosvenor House for the awards dinner. Having a couple of hours to spare, however, I first rushed to the Walter Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain. My esteemed colleague Patricia Cornwell has theorised that Sickert was Jack the Ripper, and she even purchased some of his art (more than 30 paintings, I’m told) in an attempt to collect scientific evidence. I can’t comment except to say that it’s a terrific exhibition and shows there’s more to Sickert than shadowy depictions of sordid meetings on rickety iron-framed beds.

I won! And the whole evening was lovely, if long, in the way of all prize dinners. Five hours long, in fact.

Back in Edinburgh, a book-collector friend invites me to peruse his latest acquisition. It is the manuscript of one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories. I pore over Conan Doyle’s neat handwriting and careful emendations and think to myself – not for the first time – that even equipped with my Nibbie I will only ever be Edinburgh’s second-best-known crime writer.

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