Article published on March 2, 2018.
As a prelude to the publication of Barry Forshaw’s Historical Noir in April, Paul Burke interviewed him about the art of compiling crime guides and encyclopaedias. Forshaw is one of Britain’s leading experts on crime fiction (film and TV too). The new addition to the Pocket Essentials series (which includes Nordic, Brit, American and Euro Noir), will cover crime from ancient Rome to the Cold War.
Paul Burke: As an expert on crime fiction, you write on the topic for a living. Does it take away from the pleasure of reading or can you still enjoy a good crime novel?
Barry Forshaw: That’s a good question, and it’s a subject I’ve mused upon repeatedly. Can I really just enjoy a new crime thriller novel if I were tackling it as an ordinary reader, without bringing my critical faculties to bear – or thinking about the possible review I might be writing for The Guardian or the Financial Times? The answer is probably ‘yes’ to the former question – a really strikingly written novel will draw you inexorably into its world, in immersive fashion. But the corollary for me is that I will be thinking how best to talk about how the author manages their effects. And that syndrome kicks in – whether I want it to or not – even when I’m reading a book that I don’t have to review! It’s an occupational hazard, I suppose.
PB: Can you tell us about the noir series and why you wanted to compile these guides to crime fiction? I can say as a reader you led me to Dan Tùrell’s Murder in the Dark and Max Landorff’s Tretjak and I owe you a big thank you for that.
BF: I’d achieved my ambition to move to London in my early 20s, and just before my family home in the North was torn apart for renovation, I managed to salvage four tatty ring-bound exercise books. They were my fledgling efforts as a writer. From the age of 12 onwards, I had been writing reviews of books and films in these notebooks – I certainly didn’t know then that I’d end up doing such pleasurable things for a living. Later, my various books on crime fiction and films came about because I had accrued so much material from the various newspapers I’d written for (at that time, mostly the Independent, the Express and The Times, plus various magazines – I was the Good Book Guide’s crime reviewer), and I had the basis for what was to became the various books. As for acquiring expertise in these different areas of crime fiction from around the world – such as a newly-acquired reputation, for instance, for expertise in the Scandinavian field – I can only say that it’s something that just happened. I’ve always been a person of massive enthusiasms for a variety of popular and serious genres, and the impulse to communicate with others led me to writing such books as Euro Noir and British Crime Film. I suppose the most ambitious one was the two-volume Encyclopaedia of British Crime Writing which I wrote a considerable chunk of, but for which I also commissioned other contributors. As for getting all the requisite reading of so many books done, I have a secret: I require very little sleep, and read into the wee small hours…
PB: Crime can be cathartic, but does it have a higher purpose? What does crime say about society?
BF: I think it’s been widely acknowledged in recent years that crime fiction can often be a barometer of society in a way that more literary fiction doesn’t attempt. Of course, many elements are of necessity writ large in the genre, and things have to be exaggerated for dramatic purposes (such as bodycounts: as the Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardóttir says, there are only 2.5 murders a year in Iceland – she is usually obliged to have has more deaths in her books than in the real world). But the best writers have sociopolitical feelers out all the time, and these elements give their fiction a relevance and sonority that enriches the experience of reading them. Entertainment, yes, but with added value.
PB: Similarly, what does crime say about national character (obsessions, self image)?
BF: These are exactly the concerns I tried to take on board when I wrote Nordic, Brit and American Noir, as well as another book on Scandinavian crime fiction, Death in a Cold Climate. It’s impossible to write seriously about the fiction from these different countries without examining how they reflect national character and society. Sometimes the differences are simply geographic – the more cloistered setting of the British Isles as against the sprawling land mass of America, for instance – that undoubtedly influences the character of the work.
PB: When you undertook to write Historical Noir, did you come across any authors you didn’t know – someone new who stood out for you?
BF: One of the great things about the historical noir genre – apart from its current state of rude health – is that intriguing new authors are being thrown up all the time. I’ve usually encountered new novelists via writing about them for various newspapers, but one phenomenon I’ve noticed is how many women are writing lively and exuberant period crime fiction at the moment: there’s a female quintet I often quote in this regard, all of whom I’m fortunate enough to have met or done events with: Antonia Hodgson, M.J. Carter, Kate Griffin, Imogen Robertson and S.J. Parris.
PB: What is the correlation between crime books and films? Is there a symbiosis?
BF: There is indeed a symbiosis. The writers of novels and the writers of screenplays are now media-savvy in all respects, and are well aware what their colleagues are doing. For instance, the breakthrough of long-form Scandinavian TV such as The Killing, or (in the US) The Wire and Breaking Bad sported a novelistic richness which may have taken its inspiration initially from the written word, but which is now feeding back into the genre that generated it.
PB: Foreign crime writing, aided by Nordic Noir, etc., has become more prominent in recent years. I don’t think we have the same penetration of foreign historical crime, or maybe I’m not looking hard enough. Is there a lot to look forward to?
BF: It’s true that there is less of a breakthrough in terms of foreign historical crime writing – possibly because there isn’t the sense of critical mass from any one country (as there certainly is from the UK), but there is accomplished writing emerging from Sweden, for instance, which will be breaking on these shores soon.
PB: What do you think is the enduring appeal of the lone sleuth?
BF: The detective – both working for the police, and as the lone sleuth you mentioned – has the capacity to move through each strata of society at every level, from the highest to the lowest. And that lone protagonist is licensed to examine human nature in a fashion which is alien to most of us. Raymond Chandler spotted the knightly, chivalric (if tarnished) elements of the sleuth, and that romantic aspect is still deeply appealing to readers.
PB: You have a wide body of work: encyclopaedias, guides, biographies, film studies, reviews, interviews. What do you most enjoy writing?
BF: Much as I enjoy writing my books, there is always that daunting moment before I begin – knowing I have to put together thousands of words that will be (hopefully) coherent and accessible. If you want to know what really enthuses me, it’s penning a review or a column for a newspaper – anything from 160 to 1000 words; that’s what really gets my juices flowing. I know I can often get that done in a day, and that’s a very satisfying feeling – with immediate gratification.
PB: In Britain we rely a great deal on American translations of crime literature from around the world. A good translation can make or break a novel. Do you think the quality of foreign writing is being well translated into English?
BF: Many foreign writers have said to me that they have actually preferred the English translations (as opposed to US translations) of the books – even sometimes preferring them to the original novels. This might be down to the fact that we have so many top-notch translators in this country: people such as Don Bartlett, Marlaine Delargy, Sarah Death and Victoria Cribb, whose skills are as much novelistic as they are translational.
PB: With the popularity of world noir, crime seems more popular than ever – do you agree?
BF: Until the Danish The Killing came along, I knew a lot of intelligent people who amazed me by saying that they would not watch something with subtitles. That show, and others such as The Bridge, Borgen and the French Spiral have broken down forever that strangely old-fashioned resistance. In fact, viewers – and readers – are now keen to tackle something that takes them beyond the parochial, with satisfying new horizons.
PB: TV, rather than film, is rapidly becoming the format directors and writers are looking to produce crime stories. Why do you think that is?
BF: Ian Rankin once said to me that he resented the fact that the adaptations of his Rebus books had to be so heavily filleted in terms of length for TV – and that only certain writers (such as the late P.D. James) were granted substantial, multi-episode adaptations that could do real justice to the complexity of the novels. That situation has certainly changed now, and long-form TV is the norm. The crime genre is, of course, eternally popular, and recently crime TV has even attracted non-practitioners such as the playwright David Hare.
PB: Is there something that stands out as different/definitive about historical noir?
BF: Interestingly, historical noir indirectly does something that the best science fiction also does: holds up a mirror to our current times and allows us to examine (in a refracted fashion) timeless issues about society.
PB: The most popular period for historical novels is WWI (not surprising as we are in the last year of the centenary), then it’s WWII. Is that trend born out in crime? Are we obsessed with certain eras and themes?
BF: Do you want to know what’s the most popular era for historical crime? It’s the English Tudor period. Ancient Rome is another era that is increasingly popular, but it can’t match the Tudor stamping grounds of such writers as C.J. Sansom.
PB: Are sub-genres useful, definitions such as hard boiled or cosy crime?
BF: Definitions are useful for bookshops; but more and more writers resist the categorisation. I can’t say I really blame them; genre-splicing is becoming more and more popular.
PB: What do you think humour adds to crime writing?
BF: Some of the best genre writers utilise humour in a completely individual fashion, from Raymond Chandler to Mick Herron. Crime fiction, counterintuitively, is often the perfect vehicle for the exercise of wit.
PB: I know you have only just finished writing Historical Noir (published in April), but do you have any plans to go further afield or continue the series? Japan or South America, perhaps?
BF: My publisher may disagree, but I think I’ve covered the entire world in this series of books – not to mention a great many periods in history. I’m starting to gird my loins for the next book, which will be a major history of the entire genre, including many current writers who I have yet to write about. New crime novelists appear by the week – it’s hard for someone like myself to keep up, but I’m happy to try!
Historical Noir by Barry Forshaw will be published by Pocket Essentials/Oldcastle in April.
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