Monday, December 19, 2005

Scotttish noir, and noir in general

Scottish noir is a booming industry, and the output of the Scots raises some questions about noir in general. Alex Gray's Never Somewhere Else has all the elements of noir (dark urban setting, lurking danger, etc) but never really adds up as noir: that is to say, it remains a genre mystery whose formula is ultimately one of reconciling rather than unsettling the relation of reader/character/society. Gray's heroes, a paired Chief Inspector and Psychologist/Profiler (a cliched crime-fighting pair that is getting to be annoying in all its manifestations these days), diligently search for the possibly false serial killer (real killer, maybe not real serial killer) but there's never any sense of gloomy social deterioration or even social commentary. Denise Mina's novels are much more in the noir vein, though I find her writing to be a bit overdone and her character (in her Garnethill trilogy) a bit whiny in her repetitive obsessions. But her Garnethill is vastly more thoroughly drawn than the same setting in the plot of Alex Gray's novel. And there is a real sense of the human frailties at the root of urban rot in Mina's novels. That is the essence of noir, as opposed to mystery or crime fiction per se: a skeptical, even pessimistic, view of the milieu in which the crime takes place. The mystery novels of other Scottish crime writers remain in the non-skeptical, mystery-novel genre (though I do vastly prefer the procedurals of Peter Turnbull--a former social worker, if memory serves me right--rather than the hard-boiled Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, which seem to me too concerned with people in high places to really be noir). For noir dealing with high-rollers, the comic novels of Christopher Brookmyre, particularly the early ones, are much more effective than Rankin, and certainly much more fun, whether they're really noir or not. Brookmyre's Quite Ugly One Morning eventually falls apart somewhat, but the first half (at least) of the novel is very funny in a very dark and violent way.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Irish noir

Of the numerous detective, thriller, and noir series set in Ireland, only a few measure up as noir, in my opinion. Ken Bruen's Irish novels are very dark, indeed, but for me a bit too self-consciously literary, as if J.P. Donleavy turned his hand to the dark detective story (I'm led to that comparison by the short lines of verse-like prose that both authors use). Victor Banville's detective stories are very dark, as well, and more firmly in the genre--much better than the late Bartholomew Gill's McGarr series of police procedurals (but there are only a few of the Banville detective stories, and a couple of them are really intended as readers for teaching literacy skills). Of the rest, the best is John Brady's series featuring Matt Minogue, a Dublin policeman. Brady actually lives in Canada, though he was born in Ireland (in County Clare) and purportedly returns often, perhaps to research his series, which now numbers 8 novels (6 available in the U.S., the 2 most recent ones only available in Canada). One feature of the novels that leads one to believe that Brady keeps in touch with his native country is the quality of the description of Dublin and the countryside, which has been undergoing rapid change during the time period of the series. Another is the language. Brady's ear for spoken, Irish-inflected English is astonishing, even achieving distinct regional accents within his eccentric pacing, spelling, and diction. Though all the novels are very good in terms of the detective/noir atmosphere and plot, it is the language that distinguishes them as exceptional, along with the distinct characters who speak that language. The best of the first seven books of the series is the 7th, Wonderland, which has a truly noir plot: events on several tracks hurtle toward one another not in terms of a puzzle or mystery but a dark inevitability. The story hunges (as is usual in the series) on the current state of Ireland's troubled history. As to the 8th book in the series, I'll post an update on that one as soon as I've read it.