The Pocket Essentials Noir Series by Barry Forshaw

Article published on March 3, 2018.


Next month, Barry Forshaw publishes the latest volume of his noir series, Historical Noir. As a prelude to that, we are running an interview with Barry this month and this short feature on the Noir series to date. Barry Forshaw is one of the world’s leading experts on crime fiction. He has written about and interviewed the heavy weights in the field and the up and comers too. Take any of these guides and you will learn something, maybe discover a new author or just gain a new appreciation of something you are familiar with. I’m not a lover of list books but I find myself delving into these Pocket Essentials guides from time to time, finding a name and searching out their books. For anyone who loves film and TV with a noir twinge, there is something for you here too. So in no particular order:

Brit Noir (2016). The guide to Brit Noir is a survey of contemporary British crime authors, their novels and the film and TV they spawned. This is not an historical survey, although there are references to an earlier age, it’s about presenting a snapshot of the current state of crime writing in Britain. Forshaw argues that British crime fiction was for many years lagging behind, perhaps even in a trough while the rest of the world took the art form forward. Then authors like P.D. James came along and made British crime writing respectable again, giving it darker more subversive tones, thus gaining new prestige. The only reason I started with this volume is that Forshaw defines the key ingredients he is looking for in a good crime novel here and that implicitly applies to the rest of the series too. So, this is what gets an author and novel included in Brit Noir – These are four key elements for a good novel: strong plotting, literate (adroit) writing, complex characterisation and vividly evoked locales. Forshaw also states that social commentary is an added bonus.

The survey is structured regionally, and by country, to reflect the localised character and flavour of the writing. Scotland, for example, has a chapter reflecting the distinct Scottish ambience, the difference in law and a host of other unique factors. So, each chapter has a brief introductory survey that identifies some of these unique qualities, followed by brief essays on individual writers. The film and TV section is altogether at the end of the book. Of course, the regional approach can be problematic, as Forshaw realises, because some writers write across several locations or even have invented towns or base their work abroad. So Forshaw has added an index at the back which locates each writer in the book (so no ambiguities about suitable location).

Forshaw makes no apology for including Irish crime writing (North and the Republic); Brit Noir covers the British Isles. It’s conjecture on my part but perhaps there is no firm derivation between north and south because the over riding themes of the writing are often the same: border issues, sectarianism and religion (in a plethora of ways). Although a lot of readers might argue that Ireland could have a book to itself.

All the major writers are noted by where the characters are based. Each entry contains a element of biography, storyline, sub-genre (e.g. psychological), style etc. Forshaw has compiled his work by talking to the authors as well as studying their work. Issues of gender and race are covered in small part but to be honest this isn’t the focus of the book.

I really liked the section on London, which includes a brief reference to Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, one of the most atmospheric gothic novels ever written. It gives a flavour of the London thriller. For the same reason, I would have liked to see London Bridge by Jane Stevenson included, but it is always a matter of limited space and choice. Of course a lot of writers don’t make the list, William McIntyre does not feature in the section on Scotland. Absences are inevitable because new writers emerge immediately a book is put to bed. Also, Forshaw faces the choice of what do you add or leave out, this is not an exhaustive survey. The sections on film and TV and on British writers writing about detectives abroad are very good. Although in this volume there isn’t a TV guide. As for the other books there is no point re-iterating details given above so I will just note some of the differences.

American Noir (2017). The most recent of the guides deals strictly with contemporary American writers. There is no index but the entries are in alphabetical order. The survey covers hard-boiled noir and other fields, even sci-fi and horror crossover, and strays into espionage for a couple of influential authors, Furst and Littell. Again, Forshaw is quick to point out this is a just a snapshot. But it does include some American writers who cover foreign fields, Cara Black for instance, as her novels set in Paris get a mention. Forshaw notes that some authors are difficult to pin down; is Alan Furst literary fiction or historical WWII or espionage? Strangely, Jason Webster appears in both Brit Noir and American Noir. There are bonus interviews with some heavyweights: Reichs, Cornwell, Turow, Ellroy and Paretsky.

Euro Noir (2014). This is for me the best of the guides in the series. It feels like the most complete and the most useful. The balance between interview, description of books and background is very good. Forshaw describes this volume in the introduction as a guide but also an “aid to shopping” list (it certainly is for me). The guide is set out by country. The essays on each country that define their distinct character are very good. There are also the film/TV guides and interviews too. Forshaw notes that the rise of Nordic Noir has also been accompanied by a rise of Euro Noir. The  guide is western and contemporary but there is scope for a brief historical trail. France has references to Zola and his social realism and Simenon before talking about Vargas, Garnier, Izzo, et al. Dard is omitted but in fairness Pushkin Vertigo only just began to publish his back catalogue after Euro Noir’s publication and only works available in English appear here. Occasionally, despite this, the books are hard to track down and buy – not Forshaw’s fault. Scandi Noir is re-visited but the previous volume, Nordic Noir, covers that literature more fully. Even if you think you know crime you will find writers who are new to you. I discovered a real gem in Tretjak by Max Landorff for instance. You can use each guide for your next read or to hunt down works you haven’t yet got to.

Nordic Noir (2013). The shortest guide at 160 pages is paradoxically the most comprehensive because it deals with a smaller output. So it allows for a full historical background and a survey of current writers. The film guide is collected at the back, again this volume is organised country by country but also by theme and author. Sweden takes precedence, starting with crime’s local origins in Maria Wern, a forerunner of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Wern wrote a sort of geographically undefined crime that could happen anywhere, not particularly Swedish in character and without the deep, socially destabilising force of later writers. This all leads to Mankell, Larsson, Läckberg, Marklund, Theorin etc. Covering themes of national identity, Palme’s murder, Marxism and inequality in Sjöwall and Wahlöö, issues around immigration and on. Norway’s crime fiction deals with themes that undermine the ordered social structure according to Forshaw. There is a list of the top 20 films at end. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark feature.

Each guide is brief and some of the analysis is light but each does what it says on the tin, as it were. Some may not like the uncritical nature of the volumes, in American Noir the reference to Dan Brown is polite and unchallenging. That might give the impression that his work is comparable with that of the writers around him. These are not critical works, they are guides.

Personally, I use the guides for background on certain books and authors as well as to compile lists of authors I don’t know for research and maybe buying.

The latest Pocket Essential guide, Historical Noir, will be published in April.

Paul Burke
March 2018


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