I have a weakness for murder – in literary form. From the icy decadence of Louise Welsh's 'The Cutting Room' through Liam McIlvanney's Bible John musings in 'The Quaker', or his father's Laidlaw (out of Eddie Boyd and Bill Knox's Daniel Pike), Glasgow's deathscape seems unending. The purveyors of Clyde Noir parade their wares from Partick to Dennistoun, Pollokshaws to Springburn, although of late (notably with McIlvanney junior and Alan Park's 'January Man') there has been a move into the recent past – a pre-sandblasting tenemental Glasgow where mobile phones, the internet and CCTV don't exist, with their plot-busting capabilities and necessary concealment or curtailment of chibbings and choppings.
But while Glasgow – 'No Mean City', Scotland's metropolis – has always seemed an appropriately gritty setting for tales of serious crime and appropriate punishment, rural slaughter is all the rage too, in print and on screen. From the southern reaches of Midsomer through Benjamin Myers' extraordinary Yorkshire killing fells, west to Peter May's Hebridean horrors and the furthest northern edges of Faroe and Iceland. And 'Shetland', where Anne Cleeves's series of books about detective Jimmy Perez have been turned into five seasons – the latest has just finished – of increasingly gory TV killing sprees which now bear little resemblance to the much less histrionic books.
I live in Shetland, and have written, journalistically, about the place for almost 40 years. As the TV series has seen its non-accidental body count escalate to truly epic proportions, I have been wont to agree with the knee-jerk reaction of folk who say its portrayal of my island home is woefully, often hilariously inaccurate. There are no
murders and have been
no murders for decades, people mutter. I nod assent. Non-accidental death does not stalk the crofters, fishermen, oil workers and pony-wranglers. Shetland is a peaceful idyll, a close-knit community of laughing fiddlers and wool manipulators.
And we appreciate what 'Shetland' – Dougie Henshall and Anne Cleeves between them – has done for us. In making our island landscape the biggest character in both the books and TV show, in allowing its spectacularly rugged beauty to reach an international audience, the murderous antics of Perez and Co have brought tourists by the thousand to our shores, most of them alive. All looking for the places the bodies washed up, were stabbed, shot, gored, dumped or crushed.
So far, so good – for the local economy. Finding myself casually joking about Shetland's fictional murder rate on the radio, I belatedly checked the figures. And came to a freezing, shamed halt. Because the last murder wasn't
last century, as I'd thought. It was, well, it was relatively recent. I knew both victim and perpetrator, as you would expect in a small island community.
I'd not forgotten what happened, but I'd locked it away in a part of my mind marked 'do not disturb; do not remember'. And I don't want to talk about what happened here, risking the opening of not very old but still aching, still terrible wounds. But I began to wonder about our – my – obsession with fictional death. Why is there a seemingly endless appetite for the worst thing that can happen within a family, to a loved one? Why the enjoyment of violent, sometime sadistic details? What is the lascivious revelling in forensics and post-mortems all about?
It is, I suppose, nothing new. From gleeful Biblical references to disembowellings, blindings, beheadings and suchlike spree dispatches, through the astonishing bloodthirstiness of Jacobean tragedy, continuing to the extremities of 1970s film (Craven, Peckinpah, Carpenter... I'm still haunted by scenes in 'Cross of Iron', 'Halloween' and 'A Nightmare in Elm Street') to today, when extreme cinema gorefests are run of the digital mill.
The reasons for thrillers and horror films being popular have tantalised psychologists for generations. Jung believed they 'tapped into primordial archetypes buried deep in our collective subconscious – images like shadow and mother play important role in the horror genre', while much older is the notion of catharsis – that in confronting evil, violence, death and horror, we are better able to get rid of our fears and deal with the realities we face in our non-fictional lives. And there are other theories such as the notion that cultural and societal changes are reflected in the horrors we face in print and on screen.
When it comes to 'Shetland', and indeed the current fashion for 'rural noir', perhaps what we're seeing is the erosion of a pervasive romantic idyll, the subversion of that 'Escape to the Country', 'Countryfile', 'Landward', Lillian Beckwith notion of the island or wild landscape where a welcoming, close community embraces the escapee from the threats of the city and provides peace, safety and security.
Jenny Colgan's 'Island of Mure' series of books seems like escapism on first glance, but there's a very dark thread of despair and tragedy in all her recent work. They're far tougher-minded than you might expect. Reality, violence, death and disease intrude. But the 'despoiled arbour' notion is nothing new in literature in and film. Scottish author Gordon Williams's 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm' is perhaps the most iconic and earliest example of full-on rural threat. It was first published in 1969 and adapted by Sam Peckinpah as 'Straw Dogs' in 1971, infamous for a rape scene so extreme the film was not released uncut on video or DVD in the UK until 2002.
The latest series of 'Shetland', in common with several recent dramas (notably 'Baptiste' and the Icelandic 'Trapped'), used human trafficking as its main plot driver, which resulted in some extremely uneasy clashes between content and context. Not only is this kind of thing impossible in the 'real' Shetland due to the insatiable inquisitiveness of a rural population, the light dramatic infrastructure of the Henshall 'Shetland' couldn't sustain such major issues, just as it could not the 'rape theme' of two seasons ago.
But lots of people loved the programme and the tourists continue to come – the cruise ships disgorging their Perez-obsessed hordes. Sometimes they bring their own little crime waves, these crowds, as some all-inclusive cruisers have an embarrassing tendency to shoplift our crafts and souvenirs.
Another psychological theory about horror and crime in fiction is that we watch and enjoy out of 'curiosity and fascination', without applying what we read or see on screen to our 'real' lives. We get upset by a documentary about puppy farms or a slaughterhouse, but will merrily watch make-believe autopsies and torture. Perhaps some Shetlanders can watch the body count rise in the televisual version of their native heath with amusement and dissociation. But – perhaps because part of my job these days is dealing with the bereaved – I don't find it easy to do so. Death is real, murder is real. It happens. It happens here. It happens to us and ours. And it hurts. It will always hurt.