By Barry Forshaw, (Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2018. 223 pages). ISBN: 9780857301352
As one of the leading experts of crime fiction, Barry Forshaw’s Historical Noir marks the most recent entry in his Noir series, tracing the history of the sub-genre of crime fiction set in the past. Dividing the book up into thirteen chapters, Forshaw documents crime fiction texts set across a variety of eras, ranging from the Ancient World to the 1970s. Whilst the text is, at its core, a resource for crime fiction enthusiasts and scholars alike, it has its merits for budding Gothicists attempting to explore the intersections between the two genres.
Forshaw’s introduction attempts to define what he terms Historical Noir, noting that the use of noir ‘does not necessarily carry the connotation of darkness’ (p.10) commonly associated with the term. Instead, it is ‘a generic term used for all the books [he has] written in this series and simply suggests crime’ (p.10). Forshaw’s use of the term ‘noir’ is, therefore, nebulous in its nature and perhaps not entirely useful in its definition. However, his definition of historical is far more tangible; Historical Noir refers to any novel ‘with a crime theme and a historical background of any period up to 35 years before the current year’ (p.11). Despite this, Forshaw draws on the intersections such definitions necessitate, stating that ‘in the crime fiction field, most definitions are arbitrary’ (p.12). Certainly, these arbitrary terms are elucidated by Forshaw, who posits the question of ‘what, for instance, constitutes a ‘crime’ novel and what a ‘thriller’?’ (p.12) before going on to explain how ‘the cross-fertilisation of both genres renders such distinctions amorphous at best’ (p.12). Nevertheless, Historical Noir occasionally suffers as a result of Forshaw’s particular style; at times he assumes readers are familiar with the French language, with the use of phrases such as ‘eminence grise’ (p.126) and ‘jeu d’espirit’ (p.174) creating a tone that can be slightly inaccessible.
By positioning crime fiction as a fluid genre, Forshaw naturally lends comparisons to the Gothic. He argues that Ann Radcliffe’s seminal Gothic text The Mysteries of Udulpho is, perhaps, ‘an early progenitor of the genre, with Radcliffe setting her 1794 novel in the distant medieval period’ (p.13). This is where Forshaw’s text proves to be most useful for Gothic scholars; the comparisons between the genres of crime fiction and the Gothic create a lens through which both genres can be viewed.
In the second chapter, Forshaw investigates historical noir set in the ‘Ancient World’, drawing attention to works by authors such as Rosemary Rowe, whose book The Legatus Mystery is set in Roman Britain. It may initially seem strange to draw comparisons between a text set in Roman Britain and the Gothic, yet Forshaw illustrates such comparisons clearly. Revealing how ‘the corpse vanishes [and] bloodstains manifest themselves mysteriously’ (p.18) – the latter reminiscent of themes in Radcliffe’s The Italian – Forshaw highlights how Gothic tropes have been borrowed and adapted for use in novels of historical noir.
The third chapter, ‘Medieval England and the Middle Ages’ will also prove useful for Gothicists. Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death is a vehicle – as is so common with the Gothic – through which social commentaries can be explored. As Forshaw notes, ‘Children are being killed, and (as often in the past) the blame is being laid at the door of Jews’ (p.30), the othering of minorities being a familiar theme of exploration in the Gothic. Such commentaries are also present in Candace Robb’s A Trust Betrayed, set amidst the backdrop of thirteenth-century Scotland. Robb ‘cannily examines attitudes towards gender in the distant past’ (p.31), another theme synonymous with the Gothic.
Moving forward to ‘Tudor England and the Sixteenth Century’ in chapter four, SJ Parris’ Heresy ‘paints a picture of a society riven by religious intolerance’ (p.52) – Matthew Lewis’ The Monk is a clear point of comparison here. Indeed, the intersections of crime fiction and the Gothic are clear to see; both genres inform and enrich each other and Forshaw’s text is extremely useful for Gothicists seeking to explore the influence of the Gothic on wider literature.
In chapter five, Forshaw explores ‘The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. Most notable here is Deryn Lake’s Death in the West Wind, set in Georgian England, where ‘thrown into the mix is a highwayman and even a phantom coach’ (p.59) – very Gothic tropes indeed. Crucially, as throughout the rest of the text, Forshaw provides an interview with Lake, who notes his attraction to ‘the slightly bizarre, the Gothic’ (p.60). Certainly, if these literary interests pervade through Lake’s work, the Gothic becomes a mode whose influence is wide ranging and all encompassing, in turn highlighting the intersection of crime fiction and the Gothic. Lake is not the only author of crime fiction to be influenced by the Gothic however, Anna Mazzola, author of The Unseeing and The Story Keeper, both set in the mid-nineteenth-century, expounds her literary influences, many of whom are key progenitors of the Gothic; Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe to name but a few.
It must be noted that Historical Noir also focuses on texts set more recently in the twentieth century. While interesting, these latter chapters are not entirely relevant to studies of the Gothic.
Overall, whilst Forshaw’s text is focused on what he terms Historical Noir, its usefulness for Gothic scholars is evident; readers may be surprised that Forshaw himself does not directly acknowledge the influence of the Gothic upon crime fiction but his accurate recognition of the fluid nature of the genre is crucial and lends itself to these comparisons.
Review by Hamish Ratley