'Ulster noir' draws on Northern Ireland's dark history of conflict

Thriller writers are getting inspiration from the province's memories of deprivation and sectarian violence

When the second series of The Fall, the BBC2 crime thriller set in Belfast, is broadcast later this year, it will be the pinnacle in a striking cultural phenomenon: the rise of "Ulster noir".

A remarkable number of gritty novels and dramas are coming out of Northern Ireland and the province's history of terrorism, sectarian strife and social deprivation is undoubtedly the catalyst. For the viewer or reader, dramas set in the north carry an extra layer of implied danger, even when terrorism is not explicitly featured. The recent arrest of Gerry Adams has provided a graphic reminder of the bitterness of the troubles, but the relative peace of recent times has allowed the release of artistic energy that was pent up for decades during the Troubles.

Alongside The Fall, the BBC's most-watched new drama for a decade, the morally ambiguous police series Line Of Duty is filmed in Belfast. The BBC is also adapting a series of books by Claire McGowan which follow a police forensic psychologist in a town close to the Irish border and depict tensions between the northern and southern police forces. In addition, a forthcoming anthology entitled Belfast Noir includes new stories by McGowan, Lee Child – whose hard-boiled hero, Jack Reacher, was recently played by Tom Cruise – and Derry-born crime writer Brian McGilloway, who is on the New York Times bestseller list.

Allan Cubitt, writer and director of The Fall, which is currently filming in Belfast, explained the draw of Northern Ireland as a setting for crime drama. "I think the best police dramas all have a strong sense of place, and it works well for the drama if that city functions as a character in its own right," he said.

"Belfast has a very particular quality – a product, perhaps, of its history, a history, in part, of violence. The Fall is undoubtedly dark, and the fact that some of its characters have their roots in Belfast's dark and troubled history informs their thinking to a large degree. The drama tries to capture the faultlines in people," Cubitt added.

For a long time, conflict was simply part of everyday life, moulding the character of the Northern Irish people, according to McGowan. "We have such a dark history to draw on, but we're quite stoical people," she said. "Years ago Ian Rankin said the reason there was so much Scottish crime fiction but no Irish crime fiction was that we were all living in a war zone and no one wanted to read books about it as well. But since the Good Friday agreement people are now ready to deal with it, and the fictionalisation of it helps."

The sharp divide in Northern Ireland's society is ever present in her novels, even when the crime itself is apparently non-sectarian. "I think we're now writing about that because we've archived those memories and drawn a line under them. And it's not just the Troubles – our religion is full of dark stories and there is a strong history of superstition. Also it rains a lot and it's much colder than England; that's why the gloominess is everywhere."

The recent popularity of dark Scandinavian dramas partly explains the sudden interest from television, according to Derek Johnston, who lectures in broadcast literacy at Queen's University, Belfast. "Before I moved here from the mainland, I taught Scandinavian noir, and there really is a similarity with what is coming out of Northern Ireland," he said. "It's all about contrasts: visually, it's between elegant buildings and the failing industrial sides, so there is an atmosphere of decay and corruption. In The Fall, the murder plot wasn't the only strand; there were also narrative lines about corruption in business and the police – the same as in [the Danish TV series] The Killing."

Brian McGilloway, whose new novel Little Girl Lost, set in Derry, is a New York Times top 10 bestseller, also pointed to the number of Northern Irish authors now ready to write about crime. The end of near-daily acts of sectarian violence means there is now space for dark writing, he said. "Crime fiction allows people to vicariously experience fear, but you don't need that if there is real fear out there. That's why crime fiction wouldn't have worked during the Troubles – it wouldn't have had a function.

"And I think people are relieved to have fiction coming out of Northern Ireland that isn't about men in balaclavas."

Writers from the province naturally gravitate towards examining and describing conflict because most had lived with it their whole lives, he said. " I grew up in Derry, which was quite literally split down the middle by a river and had two different names – Derry or Londonderry – depending on which side of the city you lived on. And there were all sorts of questions about justice and injustice, with people on all sides carrying out all sorts of atrocities. That's why it's natural that people who are writing here now are going to write about issues of right and wrong and how the past impacts on the present.

"Crime fiction is always about the past: it begins with a dead body and the detective has to go back to work out what happened. The whole genre is about starting at a point in time and then tracing back to work out where it all went wrong. That suits Northern Ireland right now, because whenever a society tries to move to a new identity you need to do a postmortem on the past."


Gareth Rubin

The GuardianTramp

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