Anglesey writer Stephen Puleston argues the case for Dragon Noir to gain its place in the crime-writing hall of fame.
Tartan Noir has established Scotland as a source of high-quality crime fiction with the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Peter May [to name only three]. Indeed, there is a Wikipedia entry for Tartan Noir explaining its cultural roots and impact on the international crime writing scene. Iceland has world-renowned crime writers, as do the Scandinavian countries. Crime writing in Wales has a lot of catching up to do before ‘Dragon Noir’ has a place in the crime writing pantheon.
Ian Rankin didn’t set out to be a crime writer and he believes that crime writing can hold a mirror up to contemporary society. Although we write genre fiction crime writers shouldn’t shy away from doing the same and making contemporary comment about modern Wales.
When I planned my first Inspector Drake novel, I wanted to have a strong sense of place and give the books a distinctive Welsh voice. We have deep cultural roots that go back centuries, but it is true to say that Welsh crime fiction has never achieved the output or recognition that writers in Scotland and Ireland have achieved. Crime writing is a misnomer of course, it should really be ‘murder fiction’ as it deals with people facing the greatest challenges and examines the motives and reactions of those involved. Thankfully murder is a rare occurrence in Wales and the UK but it allows us to examine motives and character against the background of contemporary society [or a specific historical setting].
My Detective Inspector Ian Drake series is based in North Wales which meant having to address the issue of the bilingual nature of the society. And writing in English posed its own problems and challenges. I wanted the novels to give a flavour to the reader of the bilingual community and the fact that a lot of policeman do speak Welsh and that the language is a vibrant and everyday part of people’s lives. I decided to make Ian Drake bilingual which gives gave him the ability to conduct press interviews for S4C and engage with witnesses and other characters in Welsh. So occasionally I drop in a sentence or word of Welsh but rather than exclude the reader I settled on the mechanism of either Drake’s monoglot English speaking sergeant or Drake himself offering a translation of what is said. In that way I was able to introduce the reader to the everyday nature of the use of the Welsh language.
Inspector Drake is employed by the Wales Police Service, a body which does not as yet, exist. The ongoing nature of devolution inevitably means the criminal justice system and policing will, I believe, be devolved from Westminster in due course and I wanted to place Ian Drake in an all Wales environment.
Against the Tide, the third Drake novel, is set against the background of the proposed nuclear power station development at Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey and reflects the challenges for survival faced by the Welsh speaking rural communities by such a development. Nowhere to Hide, my most recently published novel, is set in Deeside against the ‘county lines’ drug epidemic which has been described by a chief constable as the greatest threat facing modern policing.
I didn’t just want to write about rural North Wales so I had the idea for a detective series in Cardiff and so my Detective Inspector John Marco series was created. I based John Marco in Cardiff and again he is employed by the Wales Police Service and there is an all Wales feel to these books. There is very little reference to the Welsh language but a lot about the cosmopolitan nature of Cardiff. The first adventure for John Marco – Speechless – delves into the world of people trafficking and immigration from Eastern Europe.
One of the greatest noir authors is Raymond Chandler and I love rereading his novels for the sheer energy of his prose. The tradition of writing in the first person comes from this American noir tradition and I challenged myself to write a police procedural using the first person.
At present we are living through a period of substantial political upheaval. Discussion about Welsh independence has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. Isn’t it about time that Dragon Noir claimed its place in the crime-writing canon?
Read more about Stephen Puleston
4th October 2019