Friday, May 19, 2023

Murder in St Andrews

I've decided to do a series of interviews, maybe called "Tales From The Window Seat". Maybe not.  

These will take you round bits of Scotland that I rarely mention. So first up is St Andrews, home of golf, men in silly trousers and some fab beaches.

I spent a few childhood holidays camping up  in the hills above St Andrews. My Dad used to cheat at the Pitch and Putt.

Here's the very talented Marion Todd, talking about St Andrews. If you haven't tried her books, do so now. Very elegantly written crime fiction and A Blind Eye has a very ingenious way to murder somebody. I'm never getting into a car with Marion!

Here she is....she looks so sweet and gentle,  but her writing is sharp and dangerous......

There is a dark, brooding presence in the grey sandstone of the centuries-old buildings in Saint Andrews. A presence that harks back to the days of the Reformation, to John Knox and even to Mary Queen of Scots who is said to have planted a thorn tree in the chapel grounds. The sixteenth century Scottish churchman, Patrick Hamilton was among those burned at the stake outside St Salvator’s cathedral in the town’s North Street. 


 The act was commemorated by a monogram of his initials set into the cobbled stones outside the cathedral and students at the university avoid stepping on the initials, said to bring bad luck in exams.                                                           

Further up North Street ghosts are believed to wander the ruins of the ancient cathedral. 


And yet the town is no backward-looking museum piece, forever recalling the grisly events of its past. Today it is home to Scotland’s oldest university (founded in 1410) and the town swells each year to absorb an eclectic mix of some nine thousand students. It isn’t a campus university. Rather, the departments are scattered across the town, occupying what at one time would have been town houses. One of the most stunning buildings is home to the Department of Economics and Finance, with its impressive glass-covered entrance stairway. 


The doors of the university buildings are painted in a distinctive blue and this is reflected in the signs denoting some of the more unusual street names in the town. 



Widely acknowledged, also, as the home of golf, the iconic Old Course acts as a mecca for tourists and golfers alike and the quaintly named Jigger Inn, at the start of the course is a popular watering hole for anybody visiting the town. 


The mix of town and gown, of tourist and tradesman is a rich one. To quote Burgess, All human life is here. And where we have life, we have death.

I first conceived the idea of a crime series set in St Andrews when I was watching a boxed set of Inspector Morse DVDs. The beauty of Oxford was exploited to the full, such that the city itself became a character in the narrative. And while Saint Andrews is much smaller, I wondered if I could do the same with the town.

But I had reckoned without the formation in 2013 of a unified police force, Police Scotland. Prior to its creation, Scotland had eight regional forces, each responsible for investigating their own crimes. When these forces merged, Major Investigation Teams were formed, operating locally but capable of being deployed anywhere in Scotland, if required. Clearly the days of the local Detective Inspector investigating all crimes in the area had passed into history – not ideal for continuity in a crime fiction series. Saint Andrews, I learned, did not even have its own DI.

So I bent the rules. I created Clare Mackay, a Detective Inspector basing her in the town, and I gave her a team of officers who I hoped readers would enjoy meeting, book after book. In short, I wrote my own version of Police Scotland.

I added a Tech Support office, just twenty miles away in Glenrothes so that laptops and mobile phones seized from victims could be analysed speedily, and I sent my dead bodies to the mortuary in nearby Dundee.

Inevitably, some investigations require extra officers, as in my second novel, In Plain Sight where a baby is snatched from its pram. In such cases Clare calls on her contacts in other regions and they willingly send reinforcements to lend a hand.

Clearly I am fudging reality here but this is what writers do. We create worlds into which our readers can escape. Any serving police officer will tell you that crime investigation is, to borrow a well-worn phrase, ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. This would not make for riveting reading so a healthy dose of drama is necessarily injected.

There have been many successful book and TV crime series set in larger cities and I decided at an early stage not to try and turn Saint Andrews into a mini Glasgow or Edinburgh, with their seedy underworlds of organised crime. Equally, I wasn’t writing cosy crime. My aim, from the outset, was to portray ordinary people, living ordinary lives, driven, by circumstances, to extreme actions; because crime is about people — their lives and loves, their devices and desires.

The area surrounding St Andrews is quite different too from the sprawling urban settings found in other, grittier novels. Rich farmland is peppered with small villages and market towns, some with royal connections. Falkland, with its royal palace is a particularly lovely example. Rather than apologise for this lack of grittiness, and try to sex the area up, I decided to embrace the setting — to capitalise on the gentler way of life. And perhaps it is the very tranquillity of north-east Fife that makes the crimes in my novels all the more shocking. Yet, St Andrews, with its diverse mix of people and cultures is like the world in miniature. Examine it through the microscope and you will find all the elements which make up the human condition. And that is where every story begins.


                                                                   The Clare McKay series

Marion Todd

Guesting for Murder is Everywhere

From the windowseat!


  1. Welcome to Caro's window seat, Marion. And if Caro would not get into a car with you (I'm intrigued!) then sitting with your back to the window when Caro's around with her crime writing hat on might not be a healthy idea. Just saying...

    You make St Andrew's sound fascinating and bring it to life. I regret to say that, previously, I had encountered it only in connection with golf, or a team on University Challenge. Now I have it on my list of places I really must go to see. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this window seat view--it's not likely I'll get to visit St Andrews any time soon but I'll be looking up the Clare McKay books

  3. Thanks, Marion, for introducing me to a new venue character! Location is what sets apart a series for me, and in St. Andrews--and your capable hands--I already feel part of the neighborhood. And if you can frighten Caro...well, what better recommendation can any crime writer receive than that!