Barry Forshaw On a Hiding to Nowhere: Writing Brit Noir

Written by Barry Forshaw

You can’t please ’em all

Frankly, I'm not sure why the hell I started it. My publisher had been pleased with the success of Nordic Noir and Euro Noir, so I wasn't surprised to be asked to write a book covering the crime fiction of my own countrymen and women. Apart from anything else, several writers had been nagging me to do just that – even though I'd already edited (and written a goodly chunk of) British Crime Writing. But that was an expensive two-volume hardback encyclopaedia -- a modest-sized paperback was the order of the day now. And there was a problem with Brit Noir – several problems, in fact. How, in a pocket-sized edition, to cover all contemporary (e.g. living) British crime writers (including the Scottish and the Irish) and do justice to them all? Obviously, I couldn't, and there will be those who would say: ‘Why has X got only a couple of paragraphs while Y has a longer entry? It should be the other way round!’ (And you can be damn sure the authors themselves will mutter this – unless they’ve got a sizeable mention.)


Getting the balance right

But I was spared at least one problem – getting that now-essential balance right between the quota of male and female -- which just took care of itself (though two massively significant woman writers, PD James and Ruth Rendell, are not in Brit Noir, having sadly departed the contemporary scene, the book’s remit).

In terms of gender, while the middle-aged, dyspeptic (and frequently alcoholic) male copper still holds sway, eternally finding it difficult to relate to his alienated family, the female equivalent of this archetype is the woman who has achieved a position of authority but who is constantly obliged to prove her worth. Not necessarily in terms of tackling male sexism – although that syndrome persists as a useful shorthand. But the influential figure of Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison has to some extent been replaced by women who simply get on with the job – and their professional problems are predicated by the fact that they are simply better at solving crime than their superiors; in other words – a mirror image of the male detective who is prevalent in the genre. This hard-to-avoid uniformity inevitably makes itdifficult for writers to differentiate their bloody-minded female protagonists from the herd, but ingenuity is paramount here – one female detective in the current crop, for instance – M.J. Arlidge’s D.I. Helen Grace -- differs from her fellow policewomen in having an inconvenient taste for rough sex and S&M.

Addressing the mainstream of crime fiction in the modern age (and leaving aside the legacy of the past), it is clear that the field is in ruder health than it has ever been – such is the range of trenchant and galvanic work now that an argument could be made that we are living in a second Golden Age.

 Who’s ‘Noir’ and who isn’t

Another issue I knew I would be taken to task for was just exactly who was ‘noir’ and who was not. You'd be amazed to hear for how many people the exact definition of that word was crucially important. But I made a simple decision early on.

The remit of Brit Noir has been as wide as possible: every possible genre that is subsumed under the heading of crime fiction is here, from the novel of detection to the blockbuster thriller to the occasional novel of espionage (though they are the exception). But – please! -- don’t tell me that some of authors here are not really ‘Noir’; let’s not get locked into a discussion of nomenclature. ‘Noir’, here, means ‘crime’ – the distinctly non-Noir Alexander McCall Smith may not want to be included, but he is. My aim here was – simply – to maximise inclusivity regarding contemporary British crime writing (historical crime apart – that’s another book), whether from bloody noir territory to the sunnier, less confrontational end of the spectrum.

I offer preliminary apologies to any writers from the Republic of Ireland, who may be fervent nationalists and object to their inclusion in a book called Brit Noir; their inclusion is all part of my agenda of celebrating as many interesting and talented writers as I can. Though it’s not quite the same, sometime before the last Scottish referendum, I asked both Val McDermid and Ian Rankin if they would still want to be included in any a study of British crime writers if the vote were ‘yes’ to cutting loose from the UK, or if they ought to be dropped as they were now foreigners; both opted for the former option, which is why I took this decision regarding the Republic of Ireland, though I appreciate it’s not quite the same thing – I know Eire is a completely different country!

It should be noted that Brit Noir is principally designed to be used as a reference book to contemporary crime, i.e.,(mostly) current -- rather than older -- writers, as opposed to a text to be read straight through. But if you want to do the latter, how can I stop you? (If you chose the latter option, you’ll note that I've erred on the side of generosity throughout, avoiding hatchet jobs; in guide such as this, I feel that should be the modus operandi.

 Geographical Quandaries

But where to place authors in the book geographically? If the layout of the book was to be geographical – i.e., to place the work of the various authors in the regions where they have their detectives operating -- that would be fine with, say, Ian Rankin, largely keeping Rebus in Edinburgh. But what about his fellow Scot, Val McDermid? Her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books are set mostly in the North of England – and, what’s more, in the fictitious city of Bradfield. Should I have a section for ‘Bradfield’ with just one author entry? And what about those authors who set their work in unspecified towns? You see my problem, I hope -- and that wasn't all. What about the writers with different series of books set in different places, such as Ann Cleeves? Or Brits who place their coppers in foreign cities? I briefly considered elaborate cross-referencing, but before rolling my sleeves up, I decided I'd rather use my energies in other areas. So here's the solution: if you want to find a particular author, don't bother trying to remember what location their books are set in and thumb fruitlessly through the Midlands or the North-West; simply turn to the index at the back of the book, which will tell you precisely where to find everyone.

In the final analysis, Franklin D. Roosevelt was right – if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And if I take some heat for Brit Noir, I just hope that the balance of opinion lies in favour of the book. But if not… perhaps it's time I took that long holiday in France…


Brit Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of the British Isles

published by Oldcastle/No Exit Press

Pbk Original 28 April 2016,

Priced £8.99

Read SHOTS' review here

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