Criminal Classics – Russel D. McLean

Russel D. McLean is an author, blogger and international jetsetter.  His latest novel Father Confessor is out in September, but until then you can catch up with the travails of Dundee PI J McNee with his excellent collection of shorts The Death of Ronnie Sweets, or the previous novel The Lost Sister.  Russel blogs at Do Some Damage and Crime Scene Scotland.

Russel’s pick is The Privates Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg …

Although it took Ian Rankin to point it out explicitly (he’s writing a screenplay adaptation of the novel and has often talked about in public appearances), it should have been obvious to me when I first read the novel at university that, with its dual narrative and clear psychological insight, MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER would plant the roots of what would later become the serial killer thriller.

Read any novel with a killer who leaves confessions and letters behind and you will hear echoes (however weak) of Hogg’s masterpiece. The plot concerns a young man who is beguiled by a stranger (possibly the devil, but more likely a figment of his own fevered mind) into committing acts of murder and sin. This figure persuades our Sinner that he is one of the Elect and will gain entry to heaven no matter what he does. The book is divided into two narratives; the editor’s narrative and the Sinner’s own journals.

MEMOIRS remains powerful even today, despite Hogg’s slapdash approach to his work. He claimed to never know when writing one line of a novel what the next would be, preferring instead to trust in “the fire and rapidity of true genius”*. And he despised the idea of revisions. Although this makes his lesser works rather forgettable, In the case of MEMOIRS, this approach works wonders, giving the book much of its raw power; something in the intensity of the writing gives life and credence to the book’s dark, confessionary nature.

(parts of this essay were originally presented as part of the Armitstead Lecture Series 2012 – “DOWN THESE AYE MEAN STREETS: A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH SCOTTISH CRIME FICTION and have been revised or edited for the purposes of this article)

*As referred to in the introduction to the 1999 Oxford World Classics edition, by John Carey

– Russel D. McLean

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.

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