The Bullet List #17: Crime Special
Let’s kick things off with a little announcement to the 6 people who follow these lists. I’ve decided to start publishing them on Bookwitty from now on rather than on my website. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being that Bookwitty is a project I work on every day and believe in very deeply and the more I think about The Bullet List, and the nature of cultural recommendations, the more I think that lists like these have found their spiritual home on this platform. You can find the previous 16 lists on my website, but from now on I'll be posting them here. So, sign up to Bookwitty, start following people, and start putting together your own cultural content.
Before we get to the list, I want to throw in a personal update and a little context about why it's all about crime storytelling. As some of you may know, I’ve been trying desperately to work on a new book for a few years now. The first one I published (Our Man in Beirut) in 2011 was a bit of a hodgepodge of half-baked blog posts, and although it was quite successful, it isn’t really what I see myself doing in the longterm. Over the past four or five years I’ve started and chucked away about four or five aborted novels — or novel ideas. One of the main reasons they were all stillborn was because I was trying to write something I thought I should be writing, rather than something I’d enjoy writing, and more importantly, something I’d enjoy reading.
Recently a friend — Musa Tariq — posted a Facebook status with the sole aim of creating a thread putting his friends in touch with each other so they could help on another out on projects. Through the thread, I met writer Katie Khan, who recently landed a two-book deal with Penguin Random House and works with my dream literary agent. We got to chatting about three main things. First of all, how do you write realistically when you have a pretty demanding day job (she’s Head of Digital at Paramount Pictures, and I’ve got my hands full working as chief media strategist for Bookwitty and Keeward). To which she gave the brilliantly simple piece of advice: write for 15 minutes every morning. Secondly, we discussed genre restrictions. I said that I felt as a British-Arab that if I wanted to be taken seriously in the UK and US, I’d have to write a “Middle Eastern Story” of some kind. And that felt cynical and dirty — besides being uninteresting for me to write. She told me about British Asian friends who’d freed themselves of that restriction and tackled genres they loved, forgetting their hyphenated identities for a moment. That simple sentence made me realize that maybe I should also abandon the notion of what I think I should be writing and focus on something more enjoyable. Thirdly, we discussed writing workshops, specifically the Faber Academy, which I’d been eyeing since I moved back to London in May.
I’m sharing all of this to say that, now free from mental constraints, I’ve decided to tackle my favorite genre: crime fiction. I’m currently in the process of plotting out a trilogy that follows a British-Lebanese (still had to shove that in there somehow) criminologist as she cracks her first serial killer case as a rookie and climbs up the echelons of her profession. As a first step I’m working towards having a good section of a manuscript done by end of September, where I'll then move it onto the workshopping phase at the Faber Academy. Then I'll start attempting to appeal to an agent by the end of the year. So, that's the plan for now.
OK. Now, onto the list which is heavily influenced by my current research into the crime genre.
The Son by Jo Nesbo (Vintage)
It's not exactly breaking news to say that the Scandinavians have been dominating crime fiction for the last decade. There have been endless think pieces about the reasons for Scandinavian Noir's success — such as this one in Slate — and it seems to boil down to some combination of a natural popularity of British crime stories in those countries coupled with a desire to add layers of social consciousness on top of the genre. A great place to start exploring is with Norway's Jo Nesbo, one of the most successful purveyors of the scandi crime lit. The Son was his first book.
Bron - Broen - The Bridge (SVT - DR)
Sticking with Scandinavian noir for a minute, I think it's also interesting to experience how the genre has extended to other mediums. Of course there have been film adaptations (such as the 2012 adaptation of Nesbo's Headhunters and Larsson's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy), but I think TV is where the stories really thrive. In their slow-build and austerity, it takes a few hours to get immersed in the quirks of the universe these stories build. You might have caught American adaptations such as The Killing, but I'd really recommend watching The Bridge. It's central characters are compelling, there's lots of Swedish-Danish interplay, and it explores (a bit unsubtly in its first season) five major social themes in the two countries.
River (Netflix Original)
A lot of British cop drama over the past few years have tried to emulate the success of the Scandinavians by tapping into the same aesthetic. If you watch something like Luther, you'll notice it replicates the bleached colors and existential bleakness of its northern cousins. River, an ostensibly British show, goes as far as casting a Swede — the legendary Stellan Skarsgård on top form — in the lead role. As the story unfolds you realize it probably has more to do with an exploration of mental health (River sees manifestations of the murder victims whose cases he is trying to solve) and understanding the spectrum of human perspective rather than crime. And that's a good thing.
Essentially Britain's answer to America's Serial (the first season, not the snoozefest second season). It takes a deep dive into the Daniel Morgan murder, an unsolved case from 1987 involving a private investigator, police corruption and an out-of-control tabloid press, all centered around the pubs of South London. It is a compellingly told story, even though a couple of episodes feel a bit flimsy or dependent on one narrative. I think its main strength lies in its music and reenactment (never thought I'd say that about a podcast), which makes it a very complete storytelling experience.