BRIT NOIR by Barry Forshaw

Brit-Noir-9781843446408This is the third in the author’s guides to contemporary crime fiction, following on from Nordic Noir (2013) and Euro Noir (2014). This, the Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of the British Isles, looks at the state of crime fiction in the UK more or less since the turns of the millennium, which is especially welcome for readers like myself often stuck into the Golden Age past. However, to get one cavil out of the way, the author makes it clear that he uses the term Noir synonymously with ‘crime’ when it comes to fiction. I don’t think this is quite right, but you need to know this so as to not get confused by the inclusion of such cosy authors as Caroline Graham and Simon Brett. OK, so, cracking on …

Don’t forget to check put the submissions today for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Patinase blog.

“It might be argued that the low esteem in which British crime writing was held for so many years allowed it to slowly cultivate a dark subversive charge only fitfully evident in more respectable literary fare.”

With this opening salvo, Forshaw seeks to provide a detailed if compact guide to the currently very healthy state of crime fiction writing in Britain today and suggest at least one reason why it has emerged out of the shadows blinking into the critical twilight only of late. If that seems like a lofty ambition for a medium-sized paperback (not to mention it being built on a thesis that, to my mind, is very much relying on ‘facts’ not properly entered into evidence, ahem), I’m glad to say that this is a little book with a quite considerable reach. And it’s not all that little either, as at 226 pages this is by far the longest of the three Noir guides so far and is packed with useful information and expert views on contemporary authors. Even with the expanded word count though, Forshaw has limited himself to authors who are alive and practising, meaning that even such recently departed practitioners as Ruth Rendell, PD James, Robert Barnard and Reginald Hill, are not included. Having said that, just what Julian Barnes’ one-time alter ego ‘Dan Kavanagh’ is doing here, and in a fairly substantial entry that is more that double that allocated to say Peter Lovesey, given that all four of those books were published in the 1980s, in anybody’s guess!

The guide is broken down into various geographic regions (including Scotland, Wales and Ireland) but as Forshaw makes clear, this cannot be applied consistently in the case of authors who have spread their net widely across the UK or who set their work in fictional parts of the country. What we end with therefore is a book that can be read straight through if you wish, and which that way can be of useful in drawing connections as we move from one author to a potentially linked other (for instance following Lee Child with John Connolly, as examples of British authors who set their work convincingly overseas). However, as the author himself recommends, it may be best to read this work using the index as your primary way in. If the result can therefore be a tad chaotic (even within the regional grouping, the authors are not presented in an alphabetical order, precisely so that occasional connections can be made), it is never haphazard – we are never in any doubt that Forshaw, who after all known more about crime fiction that you can shake a policeman’s helmet at, really knows his stuff and I now have dozens of new authors I want to try (who knew that Gregory’s Girl star John Gordon Sinclair was now a crime novelist?)

The last section of the book, devoted to recent film and TV, is the only part that to me feels too scanty. While omissions are inevitable, some are just peculiar – why focus negatively on Ray Winston’s cliche-ridden The Trials of Jimmy Rose and not include his far superior private eye show Vincent instead? Why include River, and get distracted by the Scandi casting of Stellan Skarsgård and completely ignore not only its debt to home-grown author Dennis Potter but also its extraordinary co-star Nicola Walker? Not to mention completely omitting the superior cop show she was starring in at exactly the same time (on a different channel), the hugely popular Unforgotten? But then, perhaps this just reflects my own knowledge and prejudices, as much as this volume rightly, of course, privileges those of the author. Ultimately this doesn’t greatly detract from a volume that provides a very handy overview and one I’m sure I will ant to keep dipping into on a regular basis.

For further details about the book see Forshaw’s article over at Shots magazine and then visit the publisher’s website at:

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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36 Responses to BRIT NOIR by Barry Forshaw

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sounds like quite a solid addition to the crime fiction lover’s library, Sergio (not that I’m surprised). Thanks for highlighting it; I’ve been wondering what it was like.

  2. tracybham says:

    I have several other crime fiction reference books by Forshaw and I am sure I will get this one too, when it is available here.

  3. Colin says:

    The Pocket Essentials series covers a lot of stuff now and they do act as a handy intro in many cases. I think I’d question some of the entries and omissions here too but, as you say, it’s the author’s prerogative to organize the material as he feels it ought to be done.

    • Exactly – I’m a sucker for guides like this – of course, if I had my way, I’d have a complete set of the 1974 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on my shelves and probably never read anything else ever again! The 15th edition currently on eBay and a snip at $500 (plus postage …)

      • Colin says:

        I agree, you can’t beat a good reference book. The net is faster and more convenient but the real deal is just so much more satisfying.

        • Also, I can genuinely feel my research techniques atrophying on a daily basis as I just use the web more and more, for work and for personal research, and despite all the great advantages, I wish I didn’t feel so strongly the one was displacing the other.

          • Colin says:

            Be nice if they complemented each other, but that rarely seems to happen in the real world.

          • I suspect that is why I am sticking to paper books rather than e-readers but that’s not really the point – I don;t want to turn my back on it, I just want a more nuanced, more all-embracing pathway, as you say, one that compliments different parts of the brain. Watching screens definitely dulls the senses and makes you more passive after all … (this is where I hope I am not turning off all regular Fedora contributors, who are a lovely bunch 🙂 )

          • Todd Mason says:

            And books can burn or otherwise be destroyed, but their operating system and hardware will probably not malfunction nor grow irritably obsolete.

            Storage for both sorts of thing can definitely be a problem…

          • It’s my brain no longer being able to think out of the box, wherever it is stored or what platform it is sitting on, that I’m really worried about chum 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        I have my family’s set of the ’73 edition, the last before the macromedia/micropedia rearrangement. It resolutely refuses to refresh.

  4. mikeripley says:

    I would hate to discourage anyone from reading Professor Forshaw’s latest work – especially pages 97-98 which I found particularly edifying – but isn’t ‘British’ author John Connolly actually an Irish citizen? And apropos absolutely nothing, I would point out that or several months at the end of the 1980s, I was suspected of being “Dan Kavanagh” – a rumour spread with impish glee by Maxim Jakubowski of the legendary Murder One bookshop. It is my only fleeting claim to fame – well, that and pages 97-98 of ‘Brit Noir’….

    • I used to practically like at MURDER ONE in those days Mike – and impish is definitely the word for that grin if his, sitting Buddha-like behind those stacks of paperbacks! And lets face it, ‘Dan Kavanagh’ really shouldn’t be in there at all – but yes, pages 97-98 were especially good I agree 🙂

  5. This book has been on my radar, but you have given me a much clearer understanding of what it is – I had taken the Noir label very seriously, so v helpful of you to put me right. I would now seriously contemplate getting it, which I didn’t before – and although the Kavanagh business does sound ludicrous, surely arguing and finding fault is half the joy of reading such a book…?

    • Thanks for the Moira – inevitably with guides like this you end up drawing the lines as you see fit, which is part of the fun. My more serious critique is only int he media section at the back, mainly because I just wish it could have been longer so as to make it less obviously lopsided. But fascinating to have a book like this with a strong regional breakdown, really like that side of it.

  6. Todd Mason says:

    As I note at Patti’s, “Sergio, there have been a number of New books recognized in this series. George is particularly good for that, and not a few of rest of us have done so, particularly for small-press items and much anticipated re-issues.” Even if you can’t see yourself offering this one up (and I don’t see why), I’d suggest you suggest the Wallace novel/novella from the previous post…I will be officious and ruthless in the face of such modesty over the next fortnight.

    • Now I’m with you! Right-o chum – and thanks for doing the honours for the rest of the month – I did it once and as rewarding as it was, it was SO MUCH WORK!!! Well done you chum, in advance!

  7. prettysinister says:

    Almost ten years ago I remember stumbling on the Forshaw’s Rough Guide of Crime Fiction in my local Borders. Made me laugh to see a travel guidebook company hopping on the bandwagon of genre fiction surveys. I flipped through the contents and was unimpressed. What I saw missing was more enlightening than who was included. These kinds of books are very strange to me. They always have a bias of the editor/complier built in no matter how much they try to make the books purely informational. Why Dan Kavanaugh? Obviously one of Forshaw’s favorites. Or is it a favor to Barnes? I prefer to discover writers and books on my own. Besides the writers I’m interested will NEVER be written up in a “guidebook” whether they are genuinely considered “noir” or not.

    • Who of course means you should be writing your own guidebooks and we would lap them up mate! 🙂 Not to belabour a small point, but I suspect the Barnes / Kavanagh was merely due to a recent reprint but of course as Barnes is still with us he might write more (not likely, I would have thought). I enjoy books like this a lot, but with all the usual caveats. By my reckoning, Mike Ashley’s The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction is still the best value of its kind, packing in a huge amount of data from a very trusted source.

  8. Yvette says:

    I, occasionally add a mystery guide book to my library shelves, Sergio and I do love British mysteries and/or crime novels even though lately they seem to me to be a bit too much on the grim side. Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of many of those you mention – though I do like Peter Lovesey (though perhaps not as much as I ought to).

    I’m with Colin on this, you can’t beat a real (if old fashioned) guidebook. I still have a hard time reading for any real length of time on my Kindle or online. I would much rather have a real book. And in general, most of the time, I do.

  9. This sounds like quite a handy book on British noir/crime fiction, Sergio, even if it does not include recently deceased authors. I don’t mind a reckoner sitting on my shelves.

  10. Matt Paust says:

    Been picking up these anthologies and background books at the library’s used book sales. Haven’t come across this one yet, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out. Thanks, Sergio.

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