Boyd Tonkin: The new wave of 'Nordic' noir comes from within the UK. Wrap up warm!
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 29 December 2012
British readers won't need a passport, or even chunky knitwear Sofie Grabol-style, to visit the source of the next wave of Nordic noir.
But they'll still need to wrap up warm. Almost-Scandinavian Shetland and the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis, where Nordic and Celtic strands entwine, both fell for centuries within the dominions of the kings of Norway. Then their post-Viking overlords let the Scots take command. First in crime fiction, now in TV drama, these storm-swept outposts of the UK look well placed to compete with the Scandinavian nations themselves as a resource-rich archipelago of stories. After the oil runs out, might noir fiction replace it as black gold?
January will see a BBC Scotland version of Red Bones, one of Ann Cleeves's quartet of Shetland-set mysteries, which reaches TV screens under the emphatic title of Shetland. Later in the month, the former probation officer begins a second Shetland sequence with Dead Water. Next week, Peter May completes one of the best-regarded crime series of recent years when his Lewis trilogy ends with the publication of The Chessmen. May, who had previously written a string of Chinese-set thrillers that, unusually, won acclaim within China itself, first made use of Lewis as fertile ground for tempest-tossed and history-soaked intrigues on the small screen, with his 1990s Gaelic-language series Machair. He and Cleeves treat their rugged scenery and its bedrock of dark tales as characters; both heirs, in their way, to a Romantic literary legacy that dates back at least to the pseudo-ancient Ossian poems of the 1760s (actually written by James Macpherson) and Walter Scott's Shetland-set adventure, The Pirate.
Beyond the crime genre, the eerily gifted Amy Sackville will in February bring mysteries of a different sort to bear on the other Scottish archipelago in her second novel, Orkney. And few novels of recent years have made any part of the British Isles feel so spookily remote as Karin Altenberg's Island of Wings, set in the 19th century on the now-uninhabited St Kilda - that bleak outcrop far beyond even the Hebrides.
Nowhere feels so exotic as your own unknown backyard. These investigations of the UK's Atlantic fringes resonate with the trend in British travel writing that seeks uncanny insights not beyond but within the borders of a multi-national state that we once thought had yielded up its secrets long ago. To some degree, this new internal exploration tracks the politics of fission and separation within the UK as a whole - though in rather complex ways. Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, after all, often appear as much divorced from a mainstream “Scottish” cultural identity as from a London-defined Britishness.
At a time when immigration rows encourage the fantasy of a stable monoculture only recently enriched, or depleted, by alien elements, it's useful to discover - and enjoy - the difference within. The British empire, as Altenberg's novel of a missionary stranded among the wild folk of St Kilda shows, had to conquer the various peoples of its home isles at the same time as it sought to subdue more distant lands. I remember learning, in Sri Lanka, of the shaming sign that pupils once had to wear around their necks if they failed to speak English in class. Well into the last century, just that penalty applied to Welsh-speaking children at school. As for Ireland, eight centuries of unfinished business still disorient the British state.
Yet look closely enough at the far past, and far fringes, of that state, and conventional nationalism can seem as crude a response to its layered stories as conventional unionism. With one referendum due on Scottish independence, and another on EU membership likely, the matter of Britain will occupy the public stage. Popular fictions, as well as political rhetoric, may help to define and deepen the debate.
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