Nick Quantrill is the author of the Joe Geraghty trilogy – Broken Dreams (2010), The Late Greats (2012) and The Crooked Beat (2013) – in addition to Bang Bang You’re Dead (2012) and The Dead Can’t Talk (2016). He lives in Hull.
There’s something about places next to water which gives them a different resonance. Whether that’s through geography and landscape, or the often transient nature of populations and goods, dark thoughts and deeds often come to the fore. They’re different in feel and tone, and that makes them fertile ground for crime writers.
The relationship with the North Sea defines my home city of Hull. It’s a city of poets, but also a city of crime writers with a contemporary school of authors. For all its new found love of culture, it remains a tough city, one where fists are still more likely to be used to settle a dispute than a gun. It’s a city still displaying the scars from the death of its fishing industry. Its remoteness makes it static, a place you need a reason to visit; you don’t just pass through. It’s a place of urban myths and stories. It’s why my Private Investigator, Joe Geraghty, is still there after the premature end of his rugby league career. It’s why the crimes in my trilogy revolve around hidden secrets and explore unintended consequences.
But what crime readers don’t necessarily know is that Hull is the city that shaped Ted Lewis. Get Carter is naturally thought of as being a Newcastle story, but Lewis’s novel from which it was adapted, Jack’s Return Home (1970), is set around the Humber region, the stomping ground of his formative adolescent years. Towards the end of his all too short life, Lewis’s seminal work, GBH (1980), moves the focus to the Lincolnshire coastal town of Mablethorpe and London gangster, George Fowler, escaping criminals from London. It’s edgy and dangerous, cold and brilliant, the very essence of North Sea noir, holding up a mirror to the darkness within all of us as Fowler’s life disintegrates on the page.
Of course, the Humber isn’t the only place we see such darkness around the North Sea. On the face of it, Daniel Pembrey’s Detective van der Pol has the pleasure of working in Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Scrape away at the surface and you find a heady and dark noir brew in a dangerous port; murder, institutional corruption and human trafficking, a transient city always changing its shape, trying to stay one step ahead.
Head further north and you reach the Copenhagen of Lone Theils and her journalist, Nora Sand. Embroiled in a swirling plot centred on two missing teenagers from thirty years previously, Sand uncovers a connection to an infamous serial killer. Like Amsterdam, the facade of a beautiful, historical city hides something much darker and sinister.
It’s not just in cities that we find such a dangerous blend of North Sea Noir. Shifting the focus to the criminal, the Great Yarmouth featured in Harry Brett’s Time To Win is maybe symbolic of fading British seaside towns. The crimes are different in tone, the smaller number of people living alongside each other making everything that bit more personal, but we see the same themes and human shortcomings. Seaside towns are places we go to enjoy ourselves, but sometimes get more than we bargain for. People pass through and cash is still king, always a temptation for criminals. They’re places it’s possible to take a grip of and shape for personal gain, whatever the cost.
The places under discussion in North Sea Noir present one face to the world, but when you dig deeper, you find something altogether more disturbing with malevolent forces lurking below the surface. Such uncompromising settings for crime fiction are as rugged as their landscapes, the characters as conflicted as the swirling currents. Noir and water go hand in hand, a mutually beneficial relationship that continues to feed the other because things can always turn darker…
Nick Quantrill is the co-founder of Hull Noir, a crime writing festival which is part of the official UK City of Culture programme.