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Sunday 11 October 2015


Enduring lure of mystery keeps crime writers busy

Kurt Wallander's creator may have died, but the genre goes from strength to strength, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Kenneth Branagh as Wallander

So, farewell, Henning Mankell, the creator of Kurt Wallander, the melancholy Swedish detective who has charmed millions on page and on screen with his gloomy reflections on life, corruption and immorality. "The fundamental driving force for me is to create a change in the world we live in... It's about exploitation, plundering and degradation."

I don't care much for Scandinavian noir myself, perhaps because in my day jobs as an historian and political commentator I already encounter all the tragedy and disillusion I can cope with, but as a crime writer I'm always happy to tip my hat to masters and mistresses of my genre.

Just a few months ago, in Bristol, at CrimeFest, one of the annual joyous events in praise of crime fiction, I was applauding another Swede, Maj Sjowall, the survivor of a pair of Marxists with a penchant for East Germany, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote 10 novels about a Stockholm police detective called Martin Beck, who is still having films made about him.

Were Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, still with us, I'd be applauding him too, although what I know of the ghastly sexual violence in his books ensured that I will not be visiting his strange world of wicked Swedish capitalists, fascist imperialists and gang-rapers.

The bookshops can't get enough of Norwegian Jo Nesbo and even tiny Iceland, which comes under the umbrella of Nordic noir, is producing stars.

Readers enjoy a peep at what is underneath the dark underbelly of prosperous welfare states that we used to envy for their riches and beauty and free love, through the eyes of repressed, unhappy cops who drink more and have worse weather and sex lives and generally more personal problems than those who read about them.

They translate easily too. As I know to my cost, if you want to sell in foreign countries, write spare prose and avoid jokes. Having become in my teens a crime aficionado of wise-cracking, fast-paced Americans and the literate, subtle and often funny writers of the British Golden Age, even though I write satire, I find it hard to shake off a desire to make my readers laugh, rather than shudder. But gags raise the language barrier.

I've tried to go straight. But when in response to an invitation to write a story for a collection called Belfast Noir I wrote my first bleak short story, I depressed myself for days. Yet, it came easily, leading me to wonder what I'm repressing.

A British crime-writing friend, Michael Ridpath, who set some of his excellent books in Iceland, explained to me that in fiction Iceland is awash with serial killers, while in reality no one is ever murdered there, except by accident in a drunken brawl.

Since in the 1840s, Edgar Allen Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue), the 1860s, Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White) and the 1880s, Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet) kick-started the genre, we have been suckers for crime fiction.

These days, there is an enormous range. Hardboiled, cosy, historical, spy, police procedural, forensic, suspense, psychological, literary, comic and, of course, the puzzle, there's something for every taste.

We find it cathartic to be confronted with huge moral questions about good and evil, put in touch with our darkest fears and yet we come out unharmed at the end.

Irish crime-writing had a low profile and few practitioners until the 1990s when we had the explosion of what has been called 'Emerald Noir', but is not confined to that sub-section. We're awash with talent, north and south, yet though plenty of it casts a cold eye on many aspects of life on our island, I doubt if we'll ever rival the Scandinavians for international appeal.

I love the company of crime writers, since they're an eclectic and amiable bunch who seem to have transferred their inner demons onto paper. One thing we all have in common is that unlike the navel-gazers who write so much literary fiction, we know that "It's the story, stupid."

I found it hard to write this article, for I was on my travels and on a strong recommendation from a discerning friend, I had begun to read a thriller on my Kindle while waiting for a delayed flight to let us on board.

The Kindle was lurking beside my laptop as I began to write, telling me that another few pages wouldn't do me any harm, but of course that caused me great angst, for it's torture to put down an exciting crime novel when you've read enough to care about who is going to have what done to them, by whom and what are the consequences.

You don't often have that with the Booker short list.

PG Wodehouse once resolved a story about a snooty aristocrat who had banned her daughter from marrying a deserving young man by having him burst into the mother's bedroom, snatch her thriller and hold it hostage. She agreed to the marriage without further demur.

Reading obituaries of Mankell, I learned that Wallander, among many other misfortunes, is "divorced, depressed and diabetic" and has a father with dementia.

But sadly, Mankell won't be able to write about him being dead.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards