What is it about the Scots? I’m not talking about the whisky, but rather about destructive fictional spooks. There are four recent novels I know of dealing with the misdemeanours of undercover cops. Kirsten Innes’ 2020 Scabby Queen features one who is cynical and malevolent, seen largely through the lasting damage he leaves in the lives of the targets he sleeps with.
The unfortunately named Jimmy Bond in James Robertson’s 2010 And the Land Lay Still is alcoholic and disillusioned.
Khurrum Rahman’s 2018 East of Hounslow features as its protagonist a minor drug peddler dragooned by MI5 into penetrating a jihadi cell.
And then there is the emotionally damaged Vince/Zami, the central character of my 2020 The Tears of Boabdil, a police agent masquerading as a jihadi and sleeping with the sister of his targets. Of these four authors, only Rahman isn’t Scots.
Why might Scots be particularly drawn to the theme? In my case, I wanted to explore the question “what kind of person would do this?”. Like Innes, I deal with the crime of state-sanctioned rape. Robertson’s spook is much more a device to explore the ideological battles within Scottish Nationalism and the British State’s response. There’s no obvious connection between the three.
But is the underlying commonality, perhaps, a sense of grievance, of marginalization? Or perhaps, of a lie that has been told to us? There was, once, a truth that the idea of Britain represented, at least to the inhabitants of these islands—a common destiny of Empire and a common class identity forged in the coal mines, the steel factories and the shipyards.
The Empire has gone, followed rapidly by the heavy industry that created class solidarity across the lands. And that poses the question “who are we?” in a way that hasn’t been necessary since Walter Scott subsumed Scottishness into the Union with England by a romantic vision of a noble and brigand past.