Northern Noir in London

In October 2017 several SELTA members attended In from the Cold: Northern Noir, a symposium on northern crime writing, translating crime fiction and criticism. Fiona Graham reports back.

At In from the Cold, attendees heard interviews with crime writers and gained an insight into translating crime fiction from Norwegian in a workshop and a translation slam. Fiona Graham gives an account of Henry Sutton’s workshop on Purpose and prose in the modern crime novel.

Committing crimes… to paper

What makes a good crime novel?

As a seasoned practitioner of the genre he calls ‘North Sea Noir’, Henry Sutton is well versed in the essential components of today’s crime fiction. The features he highlighted in his workshop, ‘Purpose and prose in the modern crime novel’, are of as much interest to translators hoping to surf the Nordic crime wave as they are to aspiring Highsmiths and Chandlers.

So what are those magical ingredients? Henry began by distinguishing between story and plot, the second of which introduces causality. Thus ‘The king died, then the queen died’ is a story, whereas ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. And ‘The king died, then the queen died. No-one knew why, until it was discovered that she had been suffering from grief’ is a plot with suspense. A plot requires an element of risk or conflict that must be resolved. As John Le Carré put it, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ isn’t a plot – but ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is. The novel needs to start by establishing a situation with an element of tension, which may be slow-burning; a good example is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

Character, motivation and setting are bound up with one another. To build a sense of impending menace, the writer needs to enter the mind of her characters and create convincing motives for the way they act – be it as perpetrator or detective. Here, a sense of authenticity is more important than absolute accuracy. As for the setting, Henry argues that it should be observed and depicted through the eyes of the characters. It is the subjective view that catches and grips the reader’s attention. As with travel writing, what interests the reader is not so much an accurate description of place and period, but the perceptions of a particular individual.

Since crime novels are plot-driven, a well-crafted structure is essential. Henry recommended that new writers plan the structure carefully before starting to write. More experienced writers, too, need to have a good idea of the direction the plot is going to take; between 58% and 62% should be established in the writer’s mind from the outset. (Quite how the writer might quantify this remained a mystery!) Then there is the question of how to narrate the story: will the narrative be linear, will the story take place at different time levels that intersect at some point, will it include flashbacks, what length of time will it cover – a day, a week, a year?

And here we come to pace and suspense, those vital ingredients of a gripping crime novel. Henry pointed out that advances in forensic science and technology have put modern crime fiction under ever-increasing time pressure. When Sjöwall and Wahlöö were writing their famous Martin Beck series, they didn’t have to contend with DNA analysis, computer databases or Internet, and solving a crime could credibly take far longer. Today the pace is relentless, and it tends to accelerate as the novel progresses, building up more and more tension. The crime novel should be tightly written, with no superfluous material. Every scene should advance the plot. As for suspense, the key technique is to pose questions – and postpone the answers for a long time.

Finally, Henry stressed that the crime novel must, above all, be entertaining. To do this, it must engage the reader, mainly by creating believable and intriguing characters and arousing strong emotions. What stays with the reader long after he has forgotten the details of the plot is the impression of the characters whose minds he has inhabited. The novel also offers intellectual pleasures; be it a whodunnit or a ‘whydunnit’, it demands the reader’s focused attention and deductive powers. Trying to outsmart the fictional detective is particularly enjoyable.

Though Henry’s workshop was designed primarily for crime writers, it also provided plenty of food for thought to all those of us who are tempted by the idea of translating ‘Scandi-crime’. Creating believable characters in an atmospheric setting, and maintaining pace, tension and suspense, after all, call for narrative skills of a very high order.

By Fiona Graham