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…
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 excellent ‘A 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?