|Three degrees of northern Noir
||[Feb. 20th, 2016|10:57 pm]
In accordance with the rule that you wait hours for a bus and then three come along together, we have failed to watch all the big TV dramas, but are dividing this weekend between three northern crime series. Two of them spin off from the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is both friend and client, and it is one of the vagaries of scheduling (rival channels, so it can't be collusion) that they are both running on TV at the same time.
Vera is the least northern of the three: it's set in Northumberland, but strays into neighbouring counties, and location-spotting is not the least of its pleasures. It's the least noir, too. The convention appears to be that crime fiction is divided into 'noir' and 'cosy', and cosy is inferior in both literary and moral terms, treating murder as an entertainment and avoiding the grim realities of life. The crimes Vera solves are personal, domestic in scale. They show violence - and the pressures that provoke the violence - breaking into the sort of life lived by the majority of her viewers / readers: I don't see what's so cosy about that (and the first story ended with something genuinely shocking and unexpected, so don't let me overstate this ;'cosiness'). One episode of the four in the current series was based on the latest Vera Stanhope book (The Moth Catcher), the others are original stories, but retain the flavour of the books. Much as I like the books, they suffer from being cut down to fit into however long remains of two hours when you have subtracted the interminable advertising breaks; perhaps I prefer to original stories because I don't have the novel to compare them to. Vera has been an agreeable way to spend Sunday evenings, and I'll be sorry to say goodbye to her tomorrow.
Shetland is made by the same company as Vera, but they have made some very different choices. Given six one hour slots, they have opted to tell a single continuing story, and that story is harsher and more violent. It's probably obvious from the previous paragraph that my own tastes in crime fiction tend towards the so-called cosy; I am more interested in exploring why an ordinary person might commit murder than in contemplating the actions of people whose wickedness is sufficient to explain whatever they might do. If you want me to stay interested when the investigation moves to Glasgow and the Mr Big of gangland, you have to work twice as hard to make me interested. This series of Shetland has achieved that, by keeping the focus not on the hard men but on the effects of their activities. (Here's what Ann had to say about this, though if you are watching the series you may not want to read it before you have seen episode five). There's enough suggestion that the dénouement will bring it all back home to Shetland to make me impatient for the final episode: a two week wait, thank you BBC schedulers!
Further north and more noir yet, we have just watched the first part of Trapped: which begins with a headless, limbless torso being fished out of an Icelandic fjord (later we get a good look at it). As in The Bridge, there's an international complication: the body may have come from the ferry which has just docked, and the captain insists that he is subject to Danish law. It's a curious mixture of grand guignol and officialdom. The scenery - before the weather imposes a white-out - is spectacular. In an extraordinary piece of negative product placement, the ferry, with its probable crime scene, obstructive captain and other suspicious characters is - as it is in real life on this route - the Norrona, which has been on my wish-list since the long ago days when it used to call at Lerwick on its way from Denmark to the Faroe Islands.