Monday, 25 July 2016

Turning Blue, by Benjamin Myers: Reservoirs of rural evil

Turning Blue

Benjamin Myers

Moth publishing, £7.99. Published 11 August 2016

Like any other trend of temporary grooviness, the hipster nature writing thing will surely run its course. There have been some outstanding pieces of tweedy, wind-scoured, leaky-wellie writing over the past few beardy years, but the whole Caught By the River cult, this back-to-nature reaction to cokefreak urbanism, will inevitably wither and fade. Too much of its confessional wing wallows in the river twee, and its fashionable links with the whole vintage canvas knapsack and hand-made clog scene is hard to take here in the real, Gore-Tex and ripstop world of remote living.

Benjamin Myers, though an enthusiastic participant in the Robert MacFarlane landscapery-worship movement, is destined to outlast and outgrow the merely transient Lawrence-lite, and there are some very good reasons for that. His body of work is a fascinating progression from commissioned cuttings-file rock biography (System of a Down, Lydon, Green Day, Muse, The Clash) through the hilariously transitional The Book of Fuck (squat-dwelling rock hack tries to interview a Marylyn Manson figure) to the pivotal Richard, a truly affecting fictionalisation of Manics songwriter Richey Edwards’ last days.

Carefully and lovingly written, that controversial book’s tale of a rural journey into oblivion saw Myers tackling landscape for the first time to great effect. Myers’ relocation to Yorkshire (he’s a Durham lad originally) then brought about a severing of ties with the rock music that had hitherto fuelled his muse and paid the bills, and initiated a concentration on overtly rural themes: The gypsy death-fighting of the ferocious Pig Iron and then the astonishing Beastings - a child kidnapping, a priestly pursuit, the utter corruption of religion set among the glowering Cumbrian fells.

Pig Iron and Beastings are both brutal, beautiful books, prose pared to the bone, owing greatly to the Hemingway via McCarthy school of American writers but uncompromisingly English in tone. And they benefit greatly from the fact that Myers is a pro. He’s been a prolific rock hack since his university days, he’s fought the sub-editing wars for decades; he’s grammatically armed, experienced,  and capable of subverting language to dangerous effect. Beastings has the power of folk myth, and some uncompromisingly disturbing scenes which led me to lend it out with stern warnings for the easily offended.

I wondered, though, when I heard Myers was planning a, for want of a better term, ‘detective series’. It would be ‘folk noir’, we were promised. OK, that could work. But was this an attempt to commercialise his vision of rural life, to render his themes more accessible to a bigger audience? And is there anything wrong with that?

No, in my opinion. And so we have Turning Blue, which is being sold as the first in ‘the Brindle and Mace series’. That would be Detective Sergeant Brindle of the mysterious Cold Storage unit (which bears a certain resemblance to Derek Raymond’s The Factory) and Roddy Mace, former tabloid journalist, who has renounced the moral soup of London for a local newspaper in the dales and a beer-and-vodka stymied attempt to Write A Book.

Rural detective stories are nothing new. The Midsomer Murders concept has become a joke (how dangerous IS Midsomer?) mainly due to its endlessly repetitive televising, and then there’s the Anne Cleeves phenomenon, with the Jimmy Perez books set in Shetland and the Vera Stanhope mysteries, which take place not far away from the desolate moorland of Turning Blue.

Barnaby, Perez and Stanhope are mass library fodder, inoffensive plodders whose agonising is all Mumsnet forum stuff. Myers is trying for something much closer to what we see Sally Wainwright going for in Happy Valley and in the first series of Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch or Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line. Only much, much darker.

I mentioned Derek Raymond’s Factory novels earlier and if you’re aware of how deep into the details of moral degradation I was Dora Suarez or How the Dead Live go, you’ll still be unprepared for the sheer amount of human horror in Turning Blue. The descriptions never cross the line into the truly unpleasant sadism found in the likes of Stuart MacBride’s Logan Macrae books, but finding yourself more and more inside the head of the appalling Steven Rutter grows increasingly hard to take. Yes, I know there are mythic overtones to what he gets up to, horrible old folk songs that clog dance the same murky territory, but still. I’d argue that this aspect overbalances the book, leaves the truly unique partnership that develops between Brindle and Mace, and their fascinating characters, a little swamped.

As for the Yorkshire landscape, as you’d expect it’s superbly captured, initially in a snowbound winter, then spring, then summer, the seasonal structure tracking the revelations effectively. It’s extremely well plotted, moving inexorably from the disappearance of one girl, Melanie Muncy, to a vast and pullulating evil spreading from the Dales throughout the land. Though I’m loath to give away too much, I will say that TV star ‘Lovely’ Larry Lister’s resemblance to Jimmy Saville, and what Saville was involved with (cf the last series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty) is more than significant.

There are echoes of the great Bill James (Harpur and Iles) at his peak, but in terms of the current pantheon of crime writing, there truly is nothing with Turning Blue’s dark power and literary ferocity, save perhaps some of Louise Welsh’s early work. It IS the first in a series. Good. This is very serious, very disturbing but hugely compulsive crime fiction.

Two things: the textual device of running the dialogue without any quotation marks may give a sense of uh, poetic literary-ness, but in a book of this length and with this many characters it truly messes up your appreciation of who’s actually speaking…(a sub-editor writes). And I should mention the ‘press pack’ (pictured) which came with my advance copy.

Experimentation has proved that was just dried moss in the tobacco tin...

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