Want to know your Sherlock from your Salander? If so, Barry Forshaw’s your man. Stephen Griffin spoke to him about his life of crime
31 October, 2019 — By Stephen Griffin
Barry Forhsaw – ‘every other book that I’m sent to review is essentially Rebecca or Jane Eyre’
WHAT Barry Forshaw doesn’t know about crime fiction can be written on the barrel of a Beretta Alleycat with a stiletto dipped in arsenic. From Poe to Larsson and Doyle to Nesbo, he’s a repository of all knowledge when it comes to murder most foul.
Not only does he review crime books for several national newspapers, is former vice-chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, emcees its Dagger Awards and edits the Crime Time website, but he’s written more books on the subject than Frank Cannon had hot dinners.
All of which brings us to his latest book, his “magnum opus” and, he says, his last word on the subject (in book form, that is). The ultimate criminal record, Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide covers everything from crime fiction’s roots through the so-called “golden age” to current bestselling authors from across the globe.
No one is more surprised than Barry to find himself in this blood-soaked niche.
“The crime started by accident; I just saw myself as a book reviewer,” he says. “When my childhood home in Liverpool was bulldozed I retrieved four A4 ringbound exercise books of early film and book reviews – I’ve been doing it from the age of 12 onwards. It wasn’t specifically crime but I love genre things. I also love literary books and just the arts in general.”
Before moving to Islington he had various jobs, briefly an actor (at Liverpool Youth Theatre Alison Steadman “was one of my wives in The King and I”), he was later an illustrator of children’s comics, eventually running an independent bookshop called The Canonbury Bookshop.
“My claim to fame was that I had lots of big-name signings: Ginger Rogers, Muhammad Ali… We actually had mounted police to hold back the crowds. Can you imagine that for a book signing today?”
Self-effacingly describing himself as a “jack of all trades”, Barry’s interests range far and wide. Classical music is another passion. While freelancing for the Liverpool Echo he interviewed everyone from Janet Baker to Olivier Messiaen, and he’s also the author of an excellent history of British gothic cinema. Curiously, when asked to pick one interest, he alights on horror films.
“I’ve always loved the transgressive. That’s why I’m not at home in a world of political correctness.”
Among Barry’s many “trades” is contributing sleeve notes for DVDs. So what would be his favourite crime movie?
“The best British gangster film is Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, which has dated and is somewhat sexist, but no more sexist than other films of the 1970s, but it was the first British gangster film to take in the regions. It’s not just the accents, Hodges brings in local politics and it’s quite sophisticated.”
He also has a soft spot for Bryan Forbes’ The League of Gentlemen and across the pond The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
Throughout our conversation Chandler’s name crops up fairly often. Indeed, when pressed, he considers him the best of them. “But it would have to be a triumvirate of Chandler, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. If it’s modern writers, the darkest, the one that reaches furthest into the human psyche, it’s Patricia Highsmith.
“And the best of all detective writers is Ross Macdonald, who is as good as Chandler but people don’t know him.”
Enough of the past, what about the future of crime fiction? He confesses he’s a tad worried.
“It’s still the most popular genre but the trouble is we are so overexposed now to middle-aged alcoholic coppers, every other book that I’m sent to review is essentially Rebecca or Jane Eyre in which a woman finds she’s married to a man who may be a murderer or committed some crime. Sooner or later people are going to tire of that.”
He believes readers will grow weary of this so-called Domestic Noir because they’ll know that women are never the murderer. He points out it was the opposite with Chandler: it was always the femme fatale.
Talking of the fairer sex, crime fiction seems far more popular with women than men… both as authors and readers. Barry agrees and for Crime Time once asked every woman crime writer he knew why that was so. The replies that came back were interesting.
“The older women said it was because women have a greater sense of order than men and crime is about bringing order out of chaos. When I told younger women about that they said it was utter nonsense. Their theory was that women have suffered because of men for so long so there’s the cathartic element of crime. Women can enjoy unpleasant things happening to their spouses.”
So, given the fact that he’s read a good deal more crime fiction than most, in his life of crime has he ever wanted to write one himself?
“I’ve got some examples of novels I’d started writing as a boy and you could see exactly who I was reading at the time – this was my Conan Doyle period, this was my Chandler period…” he says.
“No, was it Shaw who said: ‘those who can do; those who can’t teach’? Maybe that’s true of reviewers too. There are enough people out there writing crime, you don’t need me as well.”
• Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. By Barry Forshaw, Oldcastle Books, £12.99