Monday, 19 November 2018

Nordic Noir vs. Welsh Noir.

Massive thanks to Ayo Onatade for inviting me to write a guest post for Shotsmag about the first in my new historical crime series. It’s a huge honour to appear on such an influential crime fiction blog.

As None So Blind is set in mid-nineteenth century Cardiganshire, you could categorise it as Welsh Historical Noir, a sub-genre that (as far as I’m aware) currently comprises… None So Blind. So it came as a bit of a relief when I realised that it also appears to fit in to a much better known genre: Nordic  Noir.
I can hear the questions…
What now?
When did Wales become one of the Nordic Countries?
Clearly, it’s not. But Nordic Noir isn’t entirely defined by where it’s set.

Let me explain. As writer of crime fiction, I follow blogs and podcasts devoted to the subject. One of my favourite podcasts is the excellentA Stab in the Dark’ from UK TV Crime, and it was there that I heard journalist and crime fiction critic, Paul Hirons, talking about Nordic Crime. He wanted to find out whether there was something specific that defined crime fiction from the Nordic countries and he interviewed a lot of famous names in order to find out.

Anne Holt, bestselling crime fiction author, lawyer and former Norwegian Minister for Justice (who should, therefore, have a real insight here) felt that, though Nordic writers produce crime fiction across many sub-genres, there was definitely a certain something that bound them all.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Queen of Icelandic Crime, agreed and, for her, one of those things is the way in which Nordic writers are always looking to gain an insight into some social issue and use the investigation of a crime as a means to do so. Paul Hirons described this as ‘the second story’ in Nordic crime novels.

Ragnar Jonassen, a fellow Icelander, identified a second key factor – location. For him, the unique landscape of the northern countries becomes almost a character in its own right. And not just the landscape but the weather. He spoke about how TV crime series Trapped – in which a town and its residents are snowed in after severe weather - first introduced many Brits to Icelandic noir and, simultaneously, to the notion that weather is key. As Ragnar said, in a nation which has, historically, depended on the sea and fishing for its entire survival, the weather is not a trivial talking point but a matter of life and death.

So, Nordic Noir has a ‘second story’ which burrows in to some contemporary social issue and a deeply-felt sense of place which plays more than a cosmetic part in the unfolding of the story. Those things are true of the Teifi Valley Coroner series, so it must follow that I also write Nordic Noir. Right?

 It sounds flippant but I don’t think it is. Unlike much contemporary crime and thriller fiction which focuses entirely and narrowly on the interplay of characters, my detective duo – functionally blind ex-barrister Harry Probert Lloyd and his assistant, solicitor’s clerk John Davies –  are working on a larger stage. Their investigations have to take into consideration the wider social context in which deaths occur. And it’s only in understanding that context that they can hope to understand why and how any particular death (murder, suicide, manslaughter or misadventure) has taken place. In None So Blind that larger context is the Rebecca Riots – a series of tollgate riots which took place in West Wales between 1839 and 1843 and which had huge social and political ramifications. In subsequent books, other contemporary social issues (which also have twenty-first century resonance) come under the spotlight.

And the other defining feature of Nordic Noir, landscape, is also important in None So Blind. Topographical constraints impact directly on Harry and John as, in nineteenth century West Wales, travelling around on horseback took time. Roads were inadequate, bridges few and hills many. And the woods in which None So Blind’s central death occurs are key to the unfolding story. The death couldn’t have happened anywhere else, for reasons which gradually become clear, and, had it happened anywhere else, the mystery would have been insoluble.

The Teifi Valley – that ‘tangle of wooded river valleys’ as Harry calls it – is a place like no other and it has given rise to a unique society, one moulded by landscape and weather and distance from the centre of government; a society overseen by a landowning class that does not understand its tenants, a police force that is so scattered as to be ineffectual and a magistracy so keen to save money that inquests are rarely held to investigate sudden death.

It’s an absolute gift of a setting for a crime author because, at that time and in that place, people were literally getting away with murder.

And Harry Probert-Lloyd, soon to be Teifi Valley Coroner, is determined to stop them.

[If you’d like to know more about the social context in which the death of Margaret Jones is investigated, please read earlier guest posts on my blog tour at Books Of All Kinds and Hair Past A Freckle.]

None So Blind by Alis Hawkins (Published by Dome Press)

West Wales, 1850. When an old tree root is dug up, the remains of a young woman are found. Harry Probert-Lloyd, a young barrister forced home from London by encroaching blindness, has been dreading this discovery. He knows exactly whose bones they are. Working with his clerk, John Davies, Harry is determined to expose the guilty. But the investigation turns up more questions than answers. The search for the truth will prove costly. But will Harry and John pay the highest price?

Gentleman Jack and Serial Killing

Gentleman Jack was published on 15th October.  It is the seventh DI Yates novel and the first about a serial killer.

It wouldn’t be true to say that none of my other novels contains multiple murders – in most of them there are at least two murders.  Fair of Face, the last in the Yates series before Gentleman Jack, has a sub-plot in which the murders of five members of the same family take place in a single evening at an isolated farmhouse. 

According to criminologists, the technical term for multiple murders carried out on the same occasion like this is ‘spree killing’, not ‘serial killing’.  Serial killers, as the name suggests, commit their murders at intervals.  Typically, the time that elapses between each murder gets shorter.  Psychologists have several theories about why this should be.  They say it may be because the murderer subconsciously wants to get caught and therefore takes more risks each time he or she kills, including killing again while the police are still on major alert; it may be that the ’high’ he or she experiences from killing, like a drug, doesn’t last as long after several murders have been committed and therefore yet another slaying is needed to recapture it; it may be that the murderer ‘gets off’ on the notoriety that the crimes bring, rather than relishing the crimes themselves. 

I find all these arguments persuasive; I suspect that some serial killers are motivated by all of these things.  Those who think that such murderers are fame-seekers suggest this as a reason for the escalation of serial killing from the end of the nineteenth century, when mass media became accessible to most people.  They also say that it explains the sharp increase in serial killing after the Second World War, when the advent of television enabled lurid and graphic images of murderers and their victims to be broadcast.
Personally, I’ve never really been convinced by this: I think it could equally be the case that the police are better at identifying which crimes have been conducted by a serial killer and have more sophisticated techniques for catching all killers whatever their stripe, than in the past.  The Holmes computer system, developed after the shortcomings of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, has been one such very significant tool. However, the claim that since the beginning of the twenty-first century there have been approximately 250 serial killers operating in the USA alone at any one time is a sobering thought!

Some crime writers usually or even always write about serial killers; and some have been phenomenally successful.  I’m thinking of Henning Mankell, Thomas Harris, Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larson, all authors whose novels I admire.  Each of them approaches the topic of the serial killer in a different way; and, excluding Mankell, all of them in a more bloody and sensational way than would suit my style of writing.

That was one reason why I didn’t write about serial killing until my seventh novel: how to escape the gore? Another related to the question of motive – or the lack of it.  Thirdly, owing partly to the fact that I was a young woman living in Yorkshire during the height of the Yorkshire Ripper tyranny, I perhaps have a heightened awareness of the duty of the author to the reader when writing about serial killers. I feel that, much more than when writing fiction about other types of murder, someone writing about serial killers has a moral responsibility to fulfil.  It all hinges that knotty question of motive.  Most ‘rational’ murders have an identifiable motive. 

They can even be categorised: they are usually prompted by fear; hatred; or greed. 
I’ve speculated on what the serial killer’s motive might be, but true knowledge of what prompts his or her actions exists only in the killer’s own mind.  What’s even more difficult, the moral and fictional point of view, is that often real serial killers are not very interesting.  Like Sutcliffe, they tend to be neither destitute nor affluent.  They tend to have ordinary jobs rather than being unemployed, often jobs that provide them with transport and do not tie them to particular routines - Sutcliffe and Robert Black were both lorry drivers; Christopher Halliwell was a taxi driver.  Their statements to the police, if released to the public, are mundane, unimaginative and astonishingly coarse in the true sense of the word: they show little knowledge of their own viciousness; often, no remorse. 

This is unpromising material for a fiction writer, unless one interested in writing a police procedural novel, when the account of the chase is more important than the characters.  For authors like myself who are more interested in the psychological aspects of crime, the serial killer must have an inner life, something that speaks to him or her as a human being, something more complex than that deviant, primeval urge to kill. 

Some very distinguished authors have found ways of creating such an inner life.  Among them, Thomas Harris – the creator of Hannibal Lecter, the killer who kills as if he’s playing a game of chess – perhaps stands out. 

I thought about how I might tackle this conundrum, and put my own stamp on it, for a very long time before I wrote Gentleman Jack.  I hope you will like the book that is the result.

Gentleman Jack by Christina James is published by Salt Publishing
DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong of South Lincolnshire Police are investigating a spate of thefts of expensive farm machinery and keep on drawing a blank. Meanwhile, local business man and philanthropist Jack Fovargue is assaulted in Spalding but when Yates visits him in his isolated farmhouse, Silverdale House, in Baston Fen, Fovargue seems reluctant to help the police find his assailant.  But when a body is found floating in the Fossdyke Canal, Yates and Armstrong suddenly find themselves working on a murder case. Shortly after that a second and third body are found in the same place. Is this the work of a single serial killer – or multiple killers?  And why does the investigation into the vehicle theftsand the murders keep taking Yates and Armstrong back to Jack Fovargue and Silverdale House?  In what Yates describes as “the most complicated case I’ve ever worked on,” his team face a series of apparently impenetrable conundrums before they are finally able to crack the case.