City writer launches dynamic debut
It's a nightclub and Tony Black is the 20-something journalist sent there to do nothing more contentious than review the venue. But then there's nothing like the scent of a prowling – if a little nervous – newspaper hack to stir the aggressive juices in a certain breed of character.
"The guy was what you'd get if you cross a Rottweiler with a skinhead," recalls Tony. "I was five minutes in the door and he was demonstrating his foot-sweeps for me, then he started on the roundhouses, stopping inches away from my nose – that kind of thing.
"Then he told me he'd just had to change the carpet because he couldn't get the blood out of it after cracking some bloke's head."
Newsman turned crime writer, Tony can afford to laugh now as he recalls rubbing shoulders with some of the undesirables from Scotland's seedy club scene – after all, it's scenes like this that have given him a wealth of real-life material for his first crime novel.
There wasn't much hilarity at the time. "I was planning my escape when, calm as you like, he turned me over to his manager with the words, 'I know where you live'," he continues. "He just said it and walked off. I've got a lot of scenes like that I could put in books!"
It was a just a warning shot, but still invaluable material to stash away as Evening News sub-editor Tony forges a new literary role – which has already earned him favourable comparisons with a certain other city crime author.
After all, if you happen to produce a gritty tale of murder played out in the capital city, throw in a character with a troubled, drink-lashed background and a circle of downbeat associates, it doesn't quite take John Rebus to come up with Ian Rankin.
"Just about every new crime writer from Scotland has been called the 'New Rankin'," grins the 36-year-old, who lives in the Capital with wife Madeline. "I'm obviously delighted to be spoken of in the same breath as him – it's fabulous and flattering – but I take it with a pinch of salt.
Tony's wayward journalist-turned-investigator, Gus Dury, arrives with a complex and multi-layered background – one which Tony reckons has enough potential for a dozen or so books, which is why the second in the series, Gutted, is already in the bag. And he's raring to go on his third.
With plaudits and praise for Paying For It ringing in his ears and a radio interview with Mariella Frostup under his belt, Tony sounds like an overnight sensation. Instead, he insists, it's been a significantly longer haul.
Born in Australia – his parents Bob and Liz emigrated in the sixties on a so-called "ten pound Tom" ticket – he arrived in Edinburgh via a string of childhood homes which depended on where his father's work took him.
Tony was at university studying literature and on course for a career in teaching or academia when he realised what he really wanted to do was write.
While journalism paid the bills and took him from Scotland to Australia and back again, it was fiction that inspired him.
Although his crime novel may be hitting the right note with the critics, it's far from his first effort. "I've written four books," he reveals. "The first two were kind of lad lit, inspired by Irvine Welsh. Unfortunately, I wrote them as the style was going out of fashion.
"The next was a fairly heavy literary work – a hard sell. Then the last was about apparent sightings of the extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which was selling, but the publisher went bust," he shrugs.
It took an encounter with a Scottish Government minister in the early days of devolution to nudge him towards another genre and inspire his own washed-up newspaper hack turned detective.
"He was supposed to be addressing the press, but I think he had a more important appointment and brushed us off, made a run for the limo," says Tony, then a political reporter.
"I had nothing to take back to the office and I wasn't chuffed. It felt like we'd been shafted by a bunch of careerists trying to get their noses in the trough.
"I started to imagine how another hack might have reacted and Gus was born – head-butting the minister and losing his job."
Paying For It centres on the torture and murder of a young man on Arthur's Seat. Dury makes shocking discoveries, including child prostitution, crooked politicians and bent cops.
With the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for Scottish crime novels, the book looks set to be a hit. "We're living in more violent times," Tony suggests. "Perhaps readers are turning to the genre as a way of explaining the world around them."
Paying For It is out now, published by Preface, an imprint of Random House. Tony will appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 15.
THE REAL MEAN CITY
EDINBURGH has provided the backdrop to crime fiction down the decades – but never as much as it does today.
Ian Rankin leads the pack as one of Britain's leading crime writers whose Rebus novels have made the leap from written page to television.
Others include Quintin Jardine – whose detective Bob Skinner novels are among the most popular at Scottish lending libraries – Allan Guthrie and David Ashton.
Women authors have got in on the act too – Alanna Knight is among the most established, while Gillian Galbraith, Sue Lindsay and Penelope Evans have all penned Edinburgh-based detective novels.