The winner of the Good Housekeeping First Novel Award 2016, Shadow Man, written by Margaret Kirk, responds to an established Scottish crime writing tradition which has intricate connections with the gothic genre. Following on from Scottish crime writing forebears such as William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, Kirk employs gothic intertextual allusions to R. L. Stevenson’s gothic novella The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Jekyll and Hyde) (1886), which is concerned with the concept of dual nature. Kirk utilises this duality in order to explore the characterisation of protagonist Detective Inspector Lukas Mahler and the murderer. As well as this, she applies the concept of dualism to the novel’s Highland setting, whilst also adhering to conventions of the crime genre.
As is usual in crime genre conventions, societal order is destabilised by a murder in the opening chapter. Twenty-three years later, Morven Murray is also murdered. Murray’s murder points to something monstrous. However, the murderer, who has some narration in the story, doesn’t believe so: ‘Maybe there are no monsters, he thinks, only people like him’ (Kirk 2017: 206). Kirk’s quote is an intertextual allusion to William McIlvanney’s crime novel, Laidlaw. ‘There are no monsters,’ Jack Laidlaw tells his son, ‘there are only people’ (Laidlaw 2013). [On a side note, perhaps McIlvanney’s Laidlaw quote is an intertextual allusion to Jekyll and Hyde: ‘I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both’ (Stevenson 2011: 67).]
Primitive duality of the individual must be kept under control in a law-abiding society. This means that contemporary crime fiction relies on an autonomous person who ‘must be morally responsible for his or her actions’ (Bennett and Royle 2016: 236). In Shadow Man, the murderer believes he has gotten away with the crime, but they don’t seem to realise that the most pertinent dualism ‘is that of the outlaw and the law (Goldie 2012: 195), or in this case the murderer and Mahler.
The narrative spotlight falls on D. I. Mahler. In An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, Bennet and Royle indicate that the detective is a central paradox in the crime genre, whereby he identifies with, and is in some ways, identical to, the murderer (2016: 237). Like the murderer, Mahler has his own monster lurking within. During an argument with another detective, Mahler finds himself ‘looking down at her, a dark pulse stirring in the shadow-places of his mind,’ and he wants ‘her to push a little more until the anger he’s barely holding back finds the form’ (Kirk 2017: 100). This idea is manifested in Bram Stoker’s fiction, where ‘the notion of an underlying atavism, an ungovernable appetitive instinct that lurks within and threatens to overthrow even the most civilised mind’ (Goldie 2012: 189). For Mahler, this is ‘his father’s rage, beaten into him year after year. Hardwired into his genes. Dark. Corrosive. Tainted’ (Kirk 2017: 273). Unlike the murderer, Mahler believes the dark side can be controlled. After the argument, he blames himself. He had ‘let the anger burn through his control. Let it rule him’ (Kirk 2017: 273).
Furthering this sense of dualism, Mahler and the murderer’s personal topographies could be read as allegorical parallels to the ‘socio-political, historical and cultural aspects of society’ in Scotland, which the Scottish crime genre reflects (Srinivasan et al. 2020: 2). Shadow Man is set during the Scottish Referendum for Independence. In the Gothic genre, ‘North is used to foreground instability of place’ and nation (Baker 2014: 148). Mahler’s personal and physical topography mirrors this idea. He was ‘sent to school in England’ and his ‘accent was the first casualty of that’ (Kirk 2017: 254). He ‘knows his accent and his manner have always counted against him’ (Kirk 2017: 22). He doesn’t quite know where he belongs, and like Rebus and Laidlaw before him, Mahler demonstrates a key feature in detective fiction: the typical outsider status. (Kydd and Varvogli 2013: 116).
The murderer’s outsider status is apparent in the way Kirk polarises landscape and community by presenting historical and contemporary oppositions within Scotland. These oppositional camps include ‘urban versus rural, Lowlands versus Highlands, and literati versus traditional folk communities’ (Kydd and Varvogli 2013:153). This emphasises the dual nature of the murderer: a literatus educated in the South versus a Highland barbarian. The murderer is ‘the devil with the posh, soft voice and the shiny silver knife’ (Kirk 2017: 52), which he has used to cut a ‘second smile’ across Morven Murray’s neck (Kirk 2017: 29). This type of duality involves ‘conflicting impulses and the residual manifestations of a Jungian collective unconscious’ leftover from the dark ages (Kydd and Varvogli 2013: 142). This darkness is central as a motif to the gothic and crime genres (Kydd and Varvogli 2013: 142).
At times, the continual explicit comparison between the murderer and his monstrous side gives the sense that Kirk doesn’t quite trust the reader to understand the intertextual connotations. The implicit reference to Laidlaw would have been sufficient for readers to understand the reference being made. However, this minor issue aside, whilst adhering to conventions of the crime genre, Kirk’s meaningful interaction with gothic duality and intertextuality makes her a serious contender in the Scottish literary crime writing scene.
Baker, T. C. (2014) Contemporary Scottish Gothic: Mourning, Authenticity, and Tradition. London: Palgrave Macmillan
Bennet, A., and Royle, N. (2016) An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Oxon: Routledge
Goldie, D. (2012) ‘Popular Fiction: Detective Novels and Thrillers from Holmes to Rebus.’ In The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature. ed. by Carruthers, G., and McIlvanney, L. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 188-216
Kirk, M. (2017) Shadow Man. London: Orion Books
Kydd, C., and Varvogli, A. (2013) A Mongrel Tradition: Contemporary Scottish Crime Fiction and its Transatlantic Contexts [online]. Available from [22 October 2021]
McIlvanney, W. (2013) Laidlaw. London: Black Thorn
Stevenson, R. L. (2000) The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. New York: Dover Publications Inc.
Srinivasan, S., Shekhawat, S., and Bhattacharya, S. (2020) ‘Mapping the Evolution of Crime Fiction as a Genre: Eighteenth Century to the Contemporary Times’. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 12 (6), 1-12