A portrait of Edinburgh crime fiction writer Robert McNeill
by publisher, Erik Empson
In an unlikely alliance with my parents, who didn’t have a natural affinity with the mores of the grammar school I went to, my teachers instilled in me a deep-seated fear that should I not knuckle down and do as told, my life would spiral into an abyss of delinquency and despair. I’d never get a job nor be a useful member of society. The opposite sex would no doubt spurn such a loser, and I’d become a lonely, pointless individual, ever lamenting doodling in class and staring out of the window, and then, later, playing truant and generally playing up. As it transpired, I took this badly calculated risk and was summarily ejected from school, subsequently having to beg and scrape my way back into education with a dubious record hanging over me like a bad cloud.
We don’t discuss the reasons why but despite coming from a happy home, with loving down-to-earth parents, Robert left school at fifteen with no formal qualifications. The logic of the adult fearmongers would have consigned him to destitution, but far from it. He has lived an active and productive life, though never really having strayed from Edinburgh, the city of his birth and one that is central to his writing.
When Robert was born in 1942 his family lived in tenements in Canongate in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Demolished in the 1960s, the site of Dunbar’s Close was later turned into a small walled garden, which today offers something of a tranquil reprieve from the hordes shuffling in and out of the tourist junk shops on the Royal Mile. When he was a boy, Robert’s family moved from there to suburbs on the east of the city. Tragically, three of his siblings died in infancy – more common in the past than we can bear to imagine today, these traumas were exacerbated by the privations of the war. Later another brother was born. His partially sighted father was a basket weaver at the Royal Blind Asylum and his mother worked in service as a cook.
Having no vapid letters to his name, one might wonder how Robert became a successful writer, but so he did. Coming from a modest background is a barrier to changing one’s position in society. One can easily plummet far from high, but going the other direction is rarely if ever truly achieved – and education doesn’t really help one dot. But to hell with social standing, it is the opposite of a true measure of success. Doing something with the opportunities one has and defining our own standards maketh the man.
As a boy, with the effects of the Second World War still reverberating all around, encouraged by his parents, “kind, fair, working-class folk, with a love of reading” – his father by Braille, and later tapes – Robert was a regular visitor to the local library and an avid consumer of fiction. The first book he recalls borrowing was R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, thereafter his early reading mirrors my own – Enid Blyton’s Famous Fives and Secret Sevens, and then graduating to W.E. Johns’ Biggles books. These early adventures on the pages made a stark impression on Robert and informed his first forays into fiction writing. Adding to the drama, no doubt, was both his uncles seeing active service, the eldest serving with the Royal Scots and taken as a POW by the Japanese following the invasion of Hong Kong.
Though longevity has taken its inevitable toll on Robert, it is not hard to imagine him running around, model plane in his hand, his head swirling with stories of bravery and heroism. At fourteen he joined the Air Training Corps. Being a member came with privileges, chief among which was a seven-day holiday to Biggin Hill, the famous RAF station near Bromley in Kent central to the Battle of Britain fought only some 16 years earlier.
Of small stature, once leaving school he found work as a page boy in Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel. This kind of work continued for several years, followed by a stint as a salesman for a bakery, work as a conductor and driver on the buses, and then as a taxi driver.
The kind of jobs that Robert worked all entailed encountering people from all walks of life and in various states of contentment with it. “People will confide things to cabbies that they would never think of telling their best friends…” he says and compares the sliding window next to the jump seat to the confession booth of a priest.
Robert has put his hard-earned knowledge of the city and its people to good use in his fiction. His series featuring DI Jack Knox, an everyman kind of team-playing detective who rights wrongs, is centred there, and like his creator, strays little further. But he isn’t infallible. Johns reported how, when in his Biggles books he made an aircraft fly 200 miles farther than its range, “in poured letters from outraged readers”. Robert similarly accepted a reader’s criticism that a car could not be parked on a certain road in Edinburgh lest it gridlock the city.
Clearly Robert’s books are meant for an adult audience, but he has learnt much from writers like Johns and Edinburgh’s own rich tradition of juvenile writing. “Send your story along at rattling pace…” Johns advises the would-be boys adventure writer “…don’t waste time describing the sunset. It is sunset.” This economy of style is something that I, with my own florid and at times garishly purple prose, envy. Most people can in fact write, there is little secret to the basics, but it takes a certain skill to contain writing. To not overwrite and constrain oneself. Robert has this down to a tee. He has the power of excision, cutting what is not necessary and leaving only that which conveys the message. The result is fast-paced detective fiction in which you just have to turn the page to find out what happens next.
The danger to be avoided is, in our vanity, attachment to all the floral detail that can transform a good budding idea into an effusive garden of different colours which might be attractive in themselves but together become as kitsch as the tat flogged on Castle Rock. Sound is perhaps a better example, a stirring musical composition is made as much from silences as notes.
Although most hard work leaves little time for idle reflection, driving can afford some space for the mind to wonder. But you still have to find the time and energy to put those ideas on paper. Sometimes having little time leads to focus. Robert used his wisely, studying books by John Hines and Gordon Wells on writing techniques and going on to work freelance for magazines around the globe. If he came late to fiction writing, his first book was a Western that was published by Robert Hale, the long apprenticeship put him in good stead.
As I walk around Edinburgh, I am reminded of what a perfect sort of place this proud city is, so well-proportioned, so historic, and now so modern and open, and dare I say it, European. I’ve only visited three or four times in the past, but I have read avidly all five of Robert’s books set here and it is a positive joy to recognise and rediscover the landmarks impressed on me therein. It is almost like stumbling across Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree in a dream and conversing with Moonface and Mr Watzisname.
One of the most impressive aspects of Edinburgh and perhaps its uniqueness in the British Isles is the small mountain slap bang in the middle of it. I cannot resist climbing Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, not least because the latter is the sight of a suicide – or was it homicide? – in Robert’s latest book A VIEW TO MURDER. I have perhaps been infected by Robert’s passion for the place, but as I survey the city below, I marvel at how apt it is that a capital might encapsulate the essence of its land. No man-made cathedral could compete with this national emblem towering above the bustling city and shimmering Forth below. It is as if the city genuflects before the unconquerable natural geography and the wild spirit of the people who live within it. Holyrood Park is something like The Highlands in miniature, and few could sample it and not clamour for more.
Edinburgh, and Scotland at large is, of course, in a perilous position today following Brexit, and if Robert in his later years is somewhat nostalgic about his childhood, he is equally fearful for the country’s future. He puts it politely: “Westminster doesn’t have Scotland’s best interests at heart.” From having felt decidedly British for much of his life, he now leans ever closer to independence. The country is literally between a rock and a hard place, and though being no fan of nationalism, soft or otherwise, I struggle to disagree. In a short time I learn much from Robert, and there is the rub. A working man who has lived well, self-bettered, and accomplished his goals can be a far better teacher, and offer stronger insight than a parliament of professors. Robert has graduated with honours and become a don of his domain – a capital fellow. If you are not persuaded by me, pick up one of his books and see for yourself.
A View to Murder, the fifth title in Robert McNeill’s DI Jack Knox series was published in September 2021. A full list of his books, available on Kindle and in paperback, is available here.