Day two (although it’s the first full day of programming) of Iceland Noir in a snowy Reykjavik, and things kicked off for me with two panels this morning. People are currently milling and taking lunch, so it seemed like a good time to recap the two sessions I sat in on this morning: Heroes, Heroines And Villains, and Crime Fiction As Social Commentary.
Heroes, Heroines and Villains was hosted by novelist William Ryan, and the panel comprised Quentin Bates, American novelist Jessie Crockett Estevao, Helen Cadbury from the UK, and Icelandic actor Þór Kristjánsson. Up for discussion was what makes a hero or a villain and the fine line that often divides the two.
Þór made a very interesting point: behind any character, an actor has to find the ‘human child’ within and to really concetrate on the backstory in order to make a character plausible and believable.
As we all know the best heroes or villians inhabit a grey area: they should neither be too nice, nor too horrible. If they end up too far on either side of the divide they become pastiche and cartoonish. In fact Helen told us about the main character in her first two books – To Catch A Rabbit and Bones In The Nest – who’s a character that she sometimes thinks too nice. Sean Denton is someone readers want to mother and to protect, and she’s often thinking of making him do something nasty to give him more balance, she explained.
Jessie, whose main character is a con artist posing as a medium, told us brilliant and slightly spooky stories of clairaudience, but Quentin summed things up nicely when he said that villains should always have a reason to be bad.
The next panel session was Crime Fiction As Social Commentary. A sub-genre of crime fiction that has always been strong, moderator David Swatling quoted a critic who said that crime fiction is the genre to ask big questions and, indeed, tackle them.
The panel featured Hildur Sif Thorarensen (who I saw yesterday on the New Blood panel), Helen Cadbury (who stood in for David Mark, who couldn’t make the festival), Barbara Nadel and Italian-born, London-based novelist Valentia Giambanco.
It was a subject that seemed even more topical (just look at the world around us at the moment… really, the absolute state of it), and Barbara talked about the gentrification of her native east London and the way people who have grown up there – including herself – are being turfed out by ever-rising house prices. She also writes about Turkey, so there’s a lot of anger and sense of injustice there. Saying all that she said that social commentary in crime fiction, while timely, should never lecture.
And it was this balance that the panel discussed. Barbara said that the story should always come first and felt that crime writers do not have a duty to solve social issues. Helen disagreed. Having worked in women’s prisons in Doncaster, a town that was impoverished and had been under the control of a corrupt council, she absolutely felt a duty to not only expose but to really tackle social issues in her work. I suspect that there’s a balance between the two – crime fiction has always been a brilliant torch with which to shine light on social issues, and while crime fiction generally ties things up in neat ways and the perpetrators often receive justice, real-life crime often does not.
Great art (music, theatre, TV and film, painting etc) often comes from an inner rage and sense that injustice has been or is being perpatrated. Struggle produces a kinetic, creative energy, and while no one wants to see fools get in to power, it does give writers the chance to shine a light on things that go unnoticed.
After the panel, I spoke to Helen, whose first two books (she’s currently writing the third in her Sean Denton series) have been optioned for television. She told me that they have been taken up by Red Planet Pictures (the production company behind Death In Paradise and Dickensian), and is looking forward to the creative process – she comes from a theatre background and understands that it’s a collaborative business, and is very excited by the possibilities and ways it might be adapted.