The author of Nordic Noir and British Gothic Cinema talks to Scott Malthouse for Waterstones’ The Book That Made Me campaign…
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the North. The interest in crime books came because a lot of American paperback had arrived on the ships, so you would have access to a lot of American books: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others. Also, I had a keen interest in film, and sought out the great American crime films –as well as Italian and French art house movies. Sometimes (as a boy) I’d get on the ferry across the Mersey to a cinema in Wallasey across the water that showed French and Italian films.
How old were you when you started to take an interest in cinema?
In those days I would be reading voraciously and seeing films at about the age of 10 or 12. I still have these battered ring-bound exercise books where I was writing film or book reviews. You could say I was a precocious brat, but they produce a dual response when I read them now because sometimes I immodestly think ‘wow, I was a bright kid,’ and other times I think they’re cringe-makingly embarrassing. That’s really where the writing about books and films started, and then at the age of 21, I came to London.
When you came to London, did you continue your writing?
Yeah, I had already been working for local papers in the North and really just changed to London papers. I worked in publishing but was also trying to write about books and films in various newspapers and magazines. Gradually I began to build a (very modest) reputation and that reputation is based on crime fiction and on film generally.
What’s the first book you remember having an impact on your life?
It would probably be three books. It would be The Big Sleep, which is kind of a boring choice, because everybody picks it. It was just that diamond-sharp dialogue and that sense of being taken to the completely alien place that was Los Angeles, which is kind of like science fiction – it was different to anything one had ever experienced. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t quite believe in Philip Marlowe, who was this slightly sensitive poetic soul but was also a tough private eye. But that dichotomy is the way the book works.
The other key book for me would be The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. It’s those indelible images that are left with you. The novella ends, which no film version has ever done, as the time-traveller leaves the future – this strange inversion of socialism – and he moves even further forward to the end of the world. He’s on a beach and the world is almost in cinders and there are strange things crawling on the beach – it’s the Earth with all its resources depleted — and this is written 1895! We didn’t know how accurate that might end up being. It’s an amazingly surrealist, provocative vision of what we might do to the planet.
I’d also mention The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, which is such an evocative picture of wartime London, where everything is dangerous; the streets are minatory and dark….
It sounds like you have an affinity with classic science fiction. What made you get into crime specifically?
I suppose in a way the two genres are not dissimilar. And several of my books have got the word ‘British’ in the title – British Crime Film, British Gothic Cinema, and one I’m writing now, snappily called (provisionally) Sex in British, American and World Cinema. The science fiction I like has a Britishness about it – the John Wyndham books like Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids, where you see British society falling apart and — what rushes in to fill the void when society is suddenly destroyed. Becoming interested in British crime writers started with Graham Greene- who frequently moves in crime/espionage territory. Oh –and horror, too: I avidly consumed the film and books – hence my new one, British Gothic Cinema.
You talk about Britishness and British writers, but you wrote The Man Who Left Too Soon about the Swedish Stieg Larsson, famous for his Millennium series. What attracted you to Larsson as an author?
The funny thing is that people assume that I am a massive fan because I wrote the first biography. In fact I was as interested in the Scandinavian phenomenon as in the man, and I do think the books have a lot of faults. But he became the poster boy for the Nordic crime wave. I’d already been reading people like Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum, who are probably better writers. It’s clear that something was happening with Stieg Larsson’s massive success and I started to look at that. I also find him a very interesting character. He’s of the generation that believes that the world can be changed, He was, of course, interested in Communism, and he still held the old-fashioned view of Marxism: people’s lives can be changed – not necessarily with revolution, but with the right thinking. It’s the same background as Henning Mankell, who has lived on to hold perhaps a more complex world than Stieg Larsson.
But clearly Stieg Larsson, like Dan Brown at the time, pressed a button in readers which meant that everyone read Larsson – he and Dan Brown were the E L James of their day. People who didn’t read books read Stieg Larsson.
Aside from Larsson, which authors have been the most inspirational to your work?
While you’re writing a book such as Nordic Noir or Death in a Cold Climate, you take on this mantle of proselytising for some people who aren’t as popular as they should be, so obviously I’m enthusing about Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Håkan Nesser – I’m also talking about a writer called Gunnar Staalesen. He’s a terrific Norwegian private eye novelist. He has not yet made the breakthrough that he should have done in the UK, though he has prodigious sales abroad. Another writer who hasn’t yet made the breakthrough — but is a remarkable writer is –another Larsson (not related) the Swede Åsa Larsson.
A lot of these writers are often absolutely massive in Scandinavia. If you go into a German book shop the writers who I’ve just mentioned have books everywhere, but as yet they’re not as big in this country. It’s Jo Nesbo, who is undoubtedly the current king of Scandinavian crime: he outsells everyone; Martin Scorsese may be doing The Snowman and Nesbo’s the only crime writer of any nationality whose name is part of the actual title of his films, such as Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters.
What is the difference between Scandinavian crime fiction and British crime fiction, or American crime fiction?
I meet a lot of writers who say to me ‘why the hell are you always talking up these Scandinavian guys?" and I say, ‘Well, one of my books is called British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia. Pound for pound I’ve covered more Brits and Americans than Scandinavians, but I’m now the go-to guy whether I like it or not. I don’t think necessarily they [Scandinavian authors] are better, but because they’re in translation and they have a kind of literary cachet, they are regarded as more serious writers than the British scribes — which is not necessarily true.
I suppose one thing that the Scandinavians possibly incorporate more than the British and Americans is that kind of social commentary, that critique. The British and Americans do definitely move in that territory, but we really do expect it from the Scandis, maybe because when we watch something like The Killing or Borgen, we think we’re learning something about their society — and we think we already know Britain.
Do you have anything in the pipeline?
Yes, I’ve got two in the pipeline actually. The first is Euro Noir, which is going to be the other European countries that I didn’t do in Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate, so it would be France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries. It really shows there’s a lot more excellent work to be investigated out there. There’s a lot happening in Germany, ditto France, and I think some provocative writers are making a breakthrough.
The other book I’ve done is called British Gothic Cinema, from Palgrave Macmillan. As I said, I used to devour all those classic British horror films, the Hammer films and their ilk. Still do, with all the spruced-up, restored Blu-Ray reissues! Now that Hammer is back with a bang with the massive success of The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe, and the success of such director as Ben Wheatley, it’s time for a new book on that subject, more up-to-date than other entries in the field. It’s a way of looking at how the genre has survived. It’s quite interesting that the horror film has had to change so it’s no longer Dracula or Frankenstein; it’s often more urban and contemporary. British Gothic Cinema will take from Dracula’s nocturnal activities up to caravan park killers in film such Sightseers.
This interview was done in conjunction with http://www.thebookthatmademe.com/ campaign by Waterstones.