In his last two novels, Pig Iron and beastings, Benjamin Myers has contributed to the renaissance of British nature writing (alongside Robert Macfarlane et al) with a historical vision and ambition that can mainly be found, it often seems, in Cormac McCarthy’s or Ron Rash’s writing.
Turning Blue carries on all that was vital in those novels while bringing in elements of the crime novel. It is a crime novel, in that a crime occurs and is investigated, though the crime Detective Sergeant Brindle investigates is as much an attempt to comprehend the elemental savagery of human nature as the disappearance of a teenage girl. Turning Blue, then, is another of Myers’ stories of a self-contained, isolated community, surrounded by the implacably imposing landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, while the characters who are “valley blood” act out “the myths of Britain: the folk crimes from the dark side.” If Cormac McCarthy’s novels, especially Blood Meridian, are wide-screen, expansionist depictions of the American West and its, equally limitless, manifest destiny for violence Benjamin Myers’ fictional world is contained within a ring of mountains, enclosed, where any escape is impossible and the nature of his characters is introspective.
In Brindle Myers has created a thoroughly modern (fictional) detective; he is more taciturn than Rebus and less attractive than Luther but, like them, he is one of “those who fail at everything in life except detective work.” The disappearance of the girl uncovers a conspiracy of local paedophiles, including a lightly fictionalised version of Jimmy Saville; several of whom pine nostalgically for old-fashioned pornography, the days of dogging and video-tapes, and lament that once upon a time porn actors had body hair and no tattoos. In contemporary novels a paedophile ring has replaced the Freemasons as the source of all corruption in local government, the police and business.
Turning Blue stands awkwardly as a crime novel because of Myers’ consistency of vision. His fictional universe depicts a brutal, indifferent landscape that makes all individual action meaningless; a particularly bleak approach to the promises of resolution and the possibility of justice (and redemption) that crime novels tend to offer. The trappings of the conventional crime novel within this novel restrain the rhythms and drive of Myers’ language while the mythology of the northern landscape that he has developed over these three novels deserves to be explored with a greater freedom. The idiosyncratic power of Myers’ writing is best found in beastings, perhaps, where the vaguely depicted historical period and the plot of a mad priest chasing an innocent young woman across a mountain gives Myers a freedom that he uses to its full advantage but Turning Blue has enough moments of a similar, unsettling, freedom to justify reading it in preparation for the next novel Benjamin Myers will produce.
Any Cop?: It is a pleasure, and fascinating, to read any new novel from Benjamin Myers and to observe the building of such an individual fictional world.