The Lure of A Cold Climate – Sarah Ward
What’s so attractive about a cold landscape? There are numerous great writers who set their crime novels in the Mediterranean heat (Andrea Camilleri, Petros Markaris) or the humidity of the American deep South (James Lee Burke, Tom Franklin). But the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction attests to the continuing allure of isolated snowbound towns, frozen bleak landscapes and long dark winter evenings.
As a judge for the Petrona Award for translated Scandinavian crime novels I read a lot of books set in a cold climate. Around fifty books from the region are translated and published in the UK every year. There are some common themes when it comes to setting. First of all, the elements can play the part of the aggressor in a murder plot. Clearly landscape can’t replace an real life murderer, this would be too much for a reader to stomach. But Scandi noir is littered with references to children lost in snowstorms, planes and cars crashing into frozen lakes and train passengers stuck in snowbound mountains. It’s an extra layer of tension in a murderous narrative.
Scandinavian countries are also notoriously benign places to live. Iceland, with its raft of excellent crime writers, is one of the safest places to live in the world. The first killing by police of a gunman took place as recently as 2013. Scandinavia gives us that all important secure environment into which the serpent can be introduced. Whether it be the domestic dramas of Camilla Lackberg or the darker narratives of Arnaldur Indridason they take place within a society where justice needs to be restored.
But frozen landscapes aren’t confined to Scandinavia. When I wrote my book, In Bitter Chill, I wanted to use the elements of winter in a rural setting. The weather does make a difference when you live in the countryside. In the Derbyshire Peak District where I’m based, the first thing I do in the morning is look at the weather forecast to see what the day will bring. In the summer it more often than not means rain. In the winter, I can be snowed in for days. We’re adept here at coping with very cold weather. Our freezers are well stocked and car boots contain a shovel and torch. We often resort to using these emergency supplies.
But what holds true about Scandinavian fiction can also be applied here. It’s a generally safe environment where, because of the lack of a village shop or petrol station, we rely on our neighbours to help out in an emergency. In this setting, when a crime is committed it often has a catastrophic impact on the community. In Bitter Chill deals with the repercussions of the abduction of two young girls in the 1970s after which the freedom given to children is restricted. The elements also acted as a useful reflection of the impact of the kidnapping on the family and friends of one of the missing children. Her mother remains frozen, perpetually mourning the loss of her child.
However, unlike parts of Scandinavian, Derbyshire does experience a distinct Spring. And my second book will be set in this warmer season. A different climate but just as entrancing.
SARAH WARD is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces, reviews the best of current crime fiction. She is a judge for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Sarah lives in rural Derbyshire where her debut novel, In Bitter Chill, is set.