Barry Forshaw, leading expert on British and European crime fiction and author of Brit Noir, discusses UK crime fiction prior to talking to several key practitioners of the art at Noirwich …
Times change, don’t they? There was a time when the use of a French word such as ‘Noir’ would have seemed pretentious, certainly in the context of crime fiction, but now we crime aficionados use it all the time. It originally became the standard term for something darker and more menacing than the standard detective novel, but now covers (lazily, perhaps) virtually all of the crime genre. It’s fair enough that the French term has become the default description; after all, they coined the phrase ‘film noir’ for the moody, atmospheric American crime films of the 1940s when British crime wasn’t even in the running — but all of that has changed, as I’ve discovered in talking about crime to audiences throughout Europe (my publishers call me an ‘expert’, and that’s what I’ll be till I’m found out).
Noir emerged from the American pulp tradition, forged in the bloodstained pages of the post-war magazines such as Black Mask, and boasting the two patron saints of American crime writing, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But ‘noir’ was not to remain just a historical term for a particular period in American crime. Its next serious usage came with the influx of crime fiction drama from the Scandinavian countries: bestselling writers such as Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, plus cult TV dramas such as The Bridge. I had no complaints: this phenomenon opened up a whole new side to my career. Without really trying, I suddenly became not just a crime fiction pundit but the Nordic Noir Man, and found myself on both BBC radio and Danish TV, trying to explain why the genre had gained such a hold on British audiences. But what about the Brits? I got used to warding off attacks from scowling British crime writers who sounded slightly resentful about the fact that I was busy extolling the virtues of the Scandinavians. I was repeatedly asked – only half-jokingly – ‘Barry, why don’t you talk up British crime writers? You give so much attention to those bloody Scandinavians!’ Well, now I can hopefully win back all those British crime writers I’ve alienated. I’m going to argue that ‘Noir’ is now becoming as established a genre in the UK as it was for the Americans and Scandinavians. Hell, I’ve even written a book called Brit Noir to prove it!
Acts of violence are still more destabilising in British society, with its narrower geographical parameters
What is it that makes British Noir so distinctively different from that of other countries? It’s a subject I’ve talked to many crime writers about, from PD James to Peter James. I asked Dalgliesh creator Phyllis James about what marked out UK crime fiction shortly before her death: ‘Four words,’ she replied, ‘the English class system! It certainly exercises people here more than in other countries. While those divisions in society remain in force, there is one great leveller – murder. And in that area, crime fiction cuts across all social barriers. Those fault lines are more provocative in British crime fiction than anywhere else.’
It’s possible to note that acts of violence are still more destabilising in British society, with its narrower geographical parameters. I asked Ian Rankin if he felt this was true, and he replied: ‘Possibly. Violence fascinates us because it is deemed unacceptable by society and therefore the people who commit violence are breaking our self-imposed rules, rules that underpin the very notion of civilisation. Rule breakers make us curious: why don’t they want to be like us? Why do they make the choice not to conform? Do they actually make a choice, or is it made for them (by their genetic coding, their circumstances, etc.)?’
In the final analysis, though, I found myself agreeing most with Cath Staincliffe (of Blue Murder and the Scott & Bailey books), who told me what she thought were the two defining characteristics of the British genre. ‘For me, British Noir has in its DNA that strong streak of the eccentric – and, hand in hand with that, anti-establishment rebelliousness. It’s a line that stretches from Sherlock Holmes through Jackson Brodie to Vera Stanhope. The British are a bloody-minded lot, and our crime fiction should show that!’
Brit Noir is published by No Exit Press