Tag Archives: noir

Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan

Brighton Belle is the first crime novel from critically acclaimed author Sara Sheridan.  Her back catalogue is a combination of sharply written contemporary fiction and historical novels, impeccably researched and thick with atmosphere, which have taken her characters from the slave markets of the Arabian peninsula to the aftermath of the Opium War.  The common thread running through these diverse books is the presence of strong female leads and Brighton Belle is no exception, launching ex-Secret Service operative Mirabelle Bevan into the seamy world of post-war Brighton.

It’s 1951 and although the Nuremburg trials are over there are reminders of the war everywhere, rationing is still in force and swathes of London are razed to the ground.  In Brighton Mirabelle Bevan is quietly mourning for her married lover and the promised future which has been snatched away from her by his premature death.  She is living in a numb twilight, existing on crackers and Glenlivet, working for a debt collection agency.  Which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.  Not until her boss goes down with flu and she finds herself in sole charge of the office when a dapper Londoner comes in wanting to track down a young Hungarian woman who’s hightailed it to Brighton with a baby about to drop and four hundred pounds of his money.

With her boss away for a few days Mirabelle tells herself it’s only natural she should make some discreet inquiries.  Quickly she discovers that the missing woman Romana Laszlo has died in childbirth, along with her baby, and that everything is being smoothed over very efficiently by her sister and a local doctor who seems to have come into money suddenly.  She also discovers that the thrill of the chase makes her feel more alive than she has for years, temporarily shaking her out of her grief and making the most of her wartime expertise.

Romana Laszlo isn’t the only person to suffer a suspicious death in Brighton though.  A wealthy Spanish businessman has been murdered in his suite at The Grand Hotel, after an exhaustive session with a high-class call girl, and it doesn’t take Mirabelle long to sniff out the connection.  She enlists the help of Vesta Churchill, a young Jamaican woman who works at the insurance company in her building, and they get much closer to the action than is safe for either of them.  From this point the plot really begins to fly, moving into dark and brutal territory which reveals that the declaration of peace rarely marks the end of conflict.

On the surface Brighton Belle has all the hallmarks of a cosy crime novel, picturesque seaside setting, abundant period details and a feisty amateur sleuth with a rather fabulous wardrobe, but there is more than a touch of noir to this book and Sheridan gleefully dives into the seedy side of Austerity Britain.  We follow Mirabelle through Notting Hill dives and Soho nightclubs, on a house breaking mission to one of London’s better streets, and to an atmospherically worked race meet which felt like a respectful nod to Graham Greene.  Can’t quite imagine Miss Marple holding her own in such insalubrious settings.

Brighton Belle is perfect autumn reading, dark and cosy, the kind of book you’ll whip through in one long evening.  Sara Sheridan has an engaging style and she’s created an appealing character in Mirabelle Bevan, tough without being clichéd, a real product of the period.  For the first in a series Brighton Belle is highly assured and Sheridan’s literary pedigree shines out in her deftly written characters and evocative prose.  I will definitely be looking out for the next instalment of this series.


Criminal Classics – Stav Sherez

Stav Sherez is a journalist and author, his new novel A Dark Redemption is out now with Faber and Faber and you can follow him at his blog.

Stav’s pick is No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy…

In the realm of ‘serious’ literature there is one name that towers above all others and that is Cormac McCarthy’s. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award, McCarthy is widely regarded as the apotheosis of high-minded literary fiction. Yet surprisingly few people have commented on the fact that several of McCarthy’s works are also exquisite crime novels. His first two books, The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark, were rural revenge noirs in the mould later adopted by Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin. His third novel, Child of God, is about a cannibalistic serial killer. His masterpiece, Blood Meridian, has more crimes committed in it than perhaps any other book in the history of literature. But it’s No Country For Old Men that I want to talk about.

NCFOM is set in 1980, at the start of the 30-year drug war which has since torn northern Mexico to shreds. Moss is an ordinary working man who stumbles on the aftermath of a drug-buy shoot-out in the Texas desert. He takes a suitcase of money from a dead dealer’s hands. That night he suffers a pang of conscience and goes back to the scene to give water to a dying man. It is a measure of McCarthy’s sensibility and, indeed, of all noir fiction that this one moment of kindness sets off an inexorable chain of events, placing Moss squarely in the bad guy’s sights. And what a bad guy it is! Anton Chigurh is one of the most terrifying, appalling, and unstoppable forces in all literature. Like previous McCarthy antagonists he seems more a personification of evil, a howling wraith spewed up from the pit of hell to punish the living.

The set-up is both simple and crime-classic. From here on the novel becomes a white-knuckle chase through the scorched American borderlands. But it’s what McCarthy does with this narrative that makes NCFOM both an exemplary crime novel and, simultaneously, a trenchant and profound work of literature.

Bell, the sheriff and WWII veteran who tries to help Moss, spends large portions of the book meditating on the way life and society have changed since the days of his youth. He and his wife read atrocity stories from the newspaper to each other. These sections are aflame with a palpable sense of loss and anguished rage at the moral degradation of society. At how a human life means very little these days. (“They tortured ’em first, I don’t know why. Maybe their television was broken.”) Bell’s WWII experience is mirrored by Moss’ time in Vietnam as a sniper. McCarthy uses the two wars to highlight the chasm in morality and belief that cracked open between 1950 and 1980 and how the type of war waged by a country dictates its soul.

A major part of the reason this novel transferred so well to the screen is the dialogue. Some of the best dialogue in fiction, razor-sharp and cynical and funny all at once. Like when Bell and another lawman are discussing the coming future:

“Dope”

“They sell that shit to schoolkids”

“It’s worse than that”

“How’s that?”

“Schoolkids buy it”

With NCFOM, Cormac McCarthy explodes the literary / genre debate and proves conclusively that you can write a crime novel which follows all the rules and, at the same time, create a piece of fiction resonant with deep ideas, dire warnings, and cautious grace.

– Stav Sherez

The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.