Crime fiction in Wales - time for Welsh noir?

Wednesday 3 August 2011, 17:38

Phil Rickman Phil Rickman

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Every month, members of the Crime Writers' Association receive a slim magazine called Red Herrings in which members discuss the state of their business. It's supposed to be confidential, so I can't say too much about the contents, except that the latest issue has a feature on the phenomenon known as Tartan Noir.

This is the term invented for dark Scottish crime novels about doomed hardmen with noses broken by Glasgow kisses and arteries clogged by fried Mars bars. The street-level, socially-aware antidote to traditional upper class English crime by Agatha Christie and co.

It's all a marketing scam, of course, promoted by people who conveniently forget that, as well as breeding Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre and Stuart MacBride, Scotland is also the home of the awfully genteel, endearingly inoffensive Alexander McCall Smith whose characters make Miss Marple look hard-boiled.

But Tartan Noir really works. It's a killer brand that's sold millions of books in places a long way south of Scotland.

It seems to have begun back in the 1970s when William McInvanney, an established literary novelist, turned out a couple of intelligent thrillers featuring a Glasgow cop called Laidlaw. It never became much of a series, but it did inspire the young Ian Rankin to create a similar cop operating in Edinburgh - John Rebus.

The first Rebus novel, Knots And Crosses, wasn't meant to start a series either. It was intended to be a one-off literary novel, which just happened to be about a policeman. Then Rankin discovered that being a crime novelist allowed you to tackle big social issues and make a reasonable living.

So, although it took him another 15 years to break through bigtime, he had that essential lit-cred from the outset. He was also wise enough not to overdo it on the dialect. Nobody had to read a sentence twice to work out that any guy who messed with Rankin's serial villain, Big Ger Cafferty, wid have his heid used as a fitbaw (Yeah, I know that's Glasgow, but I can't do Edinburgh).

Anyway, when he did break through, Ian Rankin was suddenly the most successful crimewriter in the UK - the biggest name in the biggest-selling genre. And Tartan Noir was in business.

Well, obviously, the article in Red Herrings got me thinking, why no Welsh noir? I mean, this isn't Burns country, this is the land of RS Thomas, for heaven's sake. Wales can out-noir Scotland any day of the week.

And it has the crimewriters. Think about John Williams's acclaimed Cardiff Trilogy, the stylistically-unique Harpur and Iles series from Bill James, the lesser-known but bleakly-brilliant novels of Roger Granelli. And the word noir just isn't dark enough for Robert Lewis's books about terminally-ill private eye Robin Llewellyn.

In terms of landscape and climate and being different, Wales can also take on massively-successful Scandinavia, killing-ground of Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and the late Steig Larssen.

So what's going wrong? You can't say nobody's trying. Howard Marks's first thriller, Sympathy For The Devil, features a female cop who has everything except a Welsh Dragon tattoo, and the climax unfolds in a Pembrokeshire where all the blokes, implausibly, are called either Ianto, Iolo or Gethin.

Is that part of the problem? The fact that Anglo-Welsh crime writers just can't resist an element of self-mockery?

Personally, I like it. I think Robert Lewis's Merthyr jokes balance the blackness perfectly. But I know that it all ends in the surreal whimsy of Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth, where (in the new one, The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still) private investigator Louis Knight is hired by a man called Raspiwtin to look into the possibility that executed criminal Iestyn Probert was brought back to life by aliens in 1965.

And it's a fair bet that Malcolm Pryce outsells all the serious crime writers whose books are set in Wales.

I don't really have an answer to this. Maybe it'll come with a cult Welsh-language crime novel translated into English. Or perhaps a critically-acclaimed Welsh literary writer will start a crime series, like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill and booker-winning John Banville. Someone cool and edgy, with a feel for the Welsh landscape and the cultural tensions. Someone who can throw an obliquely sinister light on the Wales that outsiders think they know.

But if you're listening, Niall Griffiths, maybe you need to rein in the dialect just a bit...

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