DVD Review: Amber – The Complete Series

Having bid an emotional farewell to Wallander BBC Four and Arrow Films steadfastly refuse to rest on their laurels and are continuing their quest to reward fans with exciting and innovative quality popular drama sourced from every corner of the continent. The remainder of 2014 will be packed with more examples of Nordic excellence in the form of 1950s detective series Crimes of Passion and costume drama 1864.

Resolute in their determination to source the finest foreign language programming for UK viewers this partnership is moving beyond Scandinavia’s frontiers and has already acquired the intense Israeli drama Hostages. With a commitment from the BBC to maintain its world drama slot for the foreseeable future continent hopping and genre, shifting is the order of the day in the quest for thrilling and emotionally potent shows which push back the boundaries of what is expected from a specific type of programme whilst offering glimpses of other cultures. Exemplifying the core ethos behind this daring form of broadcasting is the brave and poignant Irish series Amber.

With the notable exception of Channel 5’s acquisition Love/Hate, in recent years Irish drama has been under-represented on British screens. Redressing this imbalance BBC Four’s screening of Amber affords UK viewers the opportunity to see first hand an example of the vital and powerful drama regularly being produced by our neighbour.

A massive hit when it first aired. Screened over four evenings, according to overnight figures Amber was watched by forty-two percent of the available audience. Filmed in 2011 whilst the country was in dire economic turmoil, Irish broadcaster RTÉ instantly realized that it had something very special on its hands that deserved to be awarded a prestigious slot. Determined that this provoking drama would not be buried under a sea of competing programming the network elected to wait until it could find a window in the schedule enabling Amber to be stripped across a single week. Generating a social media frenzy and column inches in the national press, this show became part of the national conversation. Before crossing the Irish Sea it was exported to Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Latin America, Portugal, and Sweden. Critically acclaimed in each territory, international audiences responded favourably to the show’s universal themes of love, pain and the lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children.

One evening fourteen-year-old Amber Bailey (Lauryn Canny) fails to return home after visiting her friend. Over the next two years, her parents are thrown into a whirlwind of chaos and confusion as they try to discover what happened to their daughter and come to terms with the possibility that she may have been murdered. Presenting the same events from four different perspectives, the story is told in a non-linear format that leaps forward and then back on itself revealing fresh layers of meaning with the addition of each new vantage point.

An uncompromising and unsentimental approach to the subject matter, Amber paints a picture of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland in which people vanish every day and investigations are curtailed due to a lack of resources. Caught up in the whirlpool is a diverse cast of characters including a feature journalist, a prisoner, and an economic migrant. Practically demanding the viewer pay close attention to the on-screen action, each sequence is written so that every reprise either adds to the viewer’s existing interpretation or forces the audience to reevaluate everything they think is known about what has happened.

The series was inspired by a personal tragedy. Producer Rob Cawley’s brother-in-law went missing (sadly he was later found to have taken his own life). Knowing all too well the near insanity experienced by a family when a much-loved member vanishes he drew from that painful moment in his life when devising the show with screenwriter Paul Duane. Unshakeable in his dedication to communicating the many emotions experienced when confronted with such an inexplicably incomprehensible traumatic moment Cawley was firm when stressing he would not be dramatising something that will always remain painful for his immediate loved ones but instead used it as a starting point for a drama focusing on a suburban household and the many people they come into contact with.

With such an emotionally charged subject matter the tendency to be either exploitative or sensationalist is hard to fight against and yet against all odds in every single scene Amber remains grounded in reality due to some very well researched writing and a succession of truthful performances. Eva Birthistle (Waking the Dead) who played Amber’s mother, Sarah Bailey, won the IFTA award for Best Actress. Equally breathtaking in its depth and range is a sublime screen masterclass from David Murray (Silent Witness) portraying a father trapped by feelings of impotent rage and the knowledge he will forevermore be denied closure.

At each stage of the writing process, Amber‘s ending was a fixed point in the plot. Controversial and thought-provoking, the ambiguous nature of the conclusion positioned the viewers so that they would momentarily experience the confusion and anger endured by the family of the missing teenager. Brave, arresting, and stimulating  TV seemingly tailor-made for DVD. The show’s intensity is magnified when watched in a single sitting. Highly recommended.

Amber is available to order from Amazon.


Event Review: Noir is the Colour – Crafting Crime Fiction

Fielding a team of crime writing talent comprised of players from either side of the channel the third event of Institut FrancaisNoir is the Colour festival put together a package of talent proving that Europe is an unbeatable world champion in the Noir stakes. Alongside Barry Forshaw’s recently published Euro Noir, this celebration of the potent contemporary scene offers up a melange of the familiar and unknown. Authors new to UK readers sit alongside more established names discussing common ground and differences in stylistic approaches, influences, and working methods. For those who prefer the allure of the printed page to a soccer tournament the opportunity to sit in an enchanting reading room and see four of Europe’s most vital current writers talk about their craft and careers before that all important first publication was a fruitful experience. Akin to a camp fire conversation, an informal and inviting commemoration that embraced newcomers and rewarded long term enthusiasts.

Current co-director of Books by the Beach festival and former crime critic for The Observer, Peter Guttridge is the author of the well received Brighton mystery series and a remarkable account of The Great Train Robbery. His latest novel Those Who Feel Nothing has been published by Severn House, a review will be posted on this blog at a later date. A visible passion for the genre, familiarity with the European scene paired with an informal style of questioning that set the tone for an evening in which the panellists were made to feel completely relaxed and the audience were stimulated proved Institut Francais had picked the right person to referee the opening match between the World Cup and literature.

Playing for team Europe were Nicci French and Bernard Minier, unlocking the secrets of writing and confirming that within a crime book are moments every bit as dramatic as the action on a Brazilian soccer pitch.

Published in 2011 Bernard Minier’s print début The Frozen Dead was met with a warm reception, this tale of murder in a snowbound valley became an instant best-seller. The UK edition was issued in 2013 to widespread critical acclaim. Growing up at the foot of the Pyrenees Minier knew that the landscape was an incredible environment which would make the perfect backdrop for a Noir crime novel.

A lifelong love of literature was formed during primary school after hearing a teacher read Robinson Crusoe to the class. Entranced by the written word’s power he spontaneously decided that his life would be dedicated to crafting narratives. Cutting his literary teeth writing short fiction, he submitted stories to contests. This confidence building exercise replayed over many years sharpened his talent to the point that after completing a six hundred page draft of his première novel he was able to submit it to publishing houses with accompanying evidence of a clear vision for exciting future literary projects.

Describing himself as a “young, old writer” he worked as a civil servant whilst composing his first book. The product of two and a half years creating the cinematic vistas so elegantly described in The Frozen Dead was a lonely experience. With nobody to bounce ideas off he toiled away in relative isolation and wouldn’t allow anybody to see the product of his work before a publisher had given its verdict.

The sequel novel is currently being translated into English, a third has been released in France and a TV series is in the early stages of pre-production.


Former journalists Nicci Gerrard and Sean French write together under the pseudonym Nicci French. Masters of the genre, this husband and wife team, best known for a series of novels featuring psychotherapist Frieda Klein, have authored eighteen books. Thursday’s Child their most recent publication sees the analyst turned investigator confronting some painful demons as she returns to her home town.

Revealing a few tricks of the trade, Sean French admitted that sometimes the ideas which light the blue touch paper of the creative process are comparatively simple. The work begins when along with his writing partner he evaluates this creative seed to ascertain if it has potential to grow into something which will excite them over the many months of sculpting a narrative they hope will enthral their readers. Armed with that initial plot point they discuss why it needs to be written and once both are animated the hard work of translating it into compelling prose begins.

As Nicci Gerrard explained, the evaluation process doesn’t stop with the writing of a first draft, sometimes only after they have a finished manuscript in their hands is it possible to appraise the core concept’s worth. She once scrapped an entire novel after falling out of love with it but instantly got back in the saddle after becoming excited by a new story concept.

Currently working on the fifth Frieda Klein book, Nicci offered an insight into an author’s mind when she revealed that for most writers reaching the end of a book is a terrifying experience because of the fear that never again will be they be able to recreate the alchemy of transforming an idea into a dramatic book that readers are unable to put down. With acute perception Sean French noted that Stephen King’s two most terrifying novels concern writers; Misery and The Shining.

As London settled down to watch the première match of the soccer tournament Institut Francais provided an arena for some of the most distinct writers in Europe’s contemporary crime fiction scene to reveal details about their working methods, personal backgrounds, and approaches to genre. A relaxed and informative evening that gave those who were fortunate to attend an increased awareness of the precise disciplines required to create a book length manuscript.

The latest titles from all the authors appearing at Noir is the Colour can be ordered from Amazon:




For more information about Noir is the Colour contact:

Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT

Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/


Event Review: Noir is the Colour – Simenon and Monsieur Hire

Building on the success of an enlightening and rewarding launch event, Institut Francais‘s second programme of its Noir is the Colour festival was a screening of Patrice Leconte’s adaptation of Monsieur Hire’s Engagement followed by a free and frank discussion of the film and Simenon’s legacy chaired by biographers Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham.

One of the 20th century’s most prolific and widely read authors, French-speaking Belgian novelist George Simenon’s prodigious output consists of 193 novels under his own name, numerous short stories, and an estimated 200 books written under a variety of pseudonyms. Effortlessly crossing the divide between literary and mass-market genre fiction, he is best known by English speaking readers for the seventy five Maigret novels which are now being reissued by Penguin on a monthly basis in newly translated editions.

Writing professionally since fifteen, his talent for producing page upon page of concise prose at a rate that astounded his peers and would entertain millions of people across the globe was honed in the competitive worlds of a newspaper’s crime desk and the pulp fiction industry. Two years after arriving in Paris he embarked on a literary apprenticeship producing erotica, romances, crime and adventure novellas under a variety of pen names including Germain d’Antibes, Christian Brulls, Jacques Dersonne, Jean Dorsage, Luc Dorsan, Georges Gom Gut, Georges d’Isly, Georges-Marin, Jean du Perry, Plick et Plock, Georges Sim, Gaston Vialis, and Poum et Zette.

A master of publicity and subterfuge, in 1927 he signed a contract with entrepreneur Eugene Merle to write a novel whilst locked inside in a glass cage. An opportunity to publicly demonstrate his gift, giving fans a literal window into the creative process along with a chance to influence the book’s outcome. Conceived as a launch event for a newspaper, the terms of Simenon’s arrangement with Merle specified that he was to provide the publication with an exclusive book which would be serialized over several weeks. Members of the public were to vote on the book’s theme and its title. Paid a princely sum of 50,000 francs upon signing the contract with the promise of a further 50,000 once the completed manuscript was delivered, the attendant media interest boosted Simenon’s profile. Over the next few decades this incident became a core part of the mythology which had grown up around the author.

In the 1990s after reading about accounts of an author so confident in his industrious output that he turned the writing process into a public spectacle science fiction writer Harlan Ellison decided to repeat the experiment. X-Files creator and showrunner Chris Carter was enlisted to supply Ellison with a sealed envelope containing the story’s theme. As each page was completed it would be plucked from Ellison’s typewriter and placed in the store window for passers by to read. At the day’s end Ellison could bask in the glory of having a completed draft in his hands and feel satisfied at following in his literary hero’s footsteps. Some time afterwards he learnt that Simenon never got to write a story in that glass cage. Eugene Merle’s newspaper Paris-Matinal went into liquidation before the publicity stunt took place although under the terms of the contract Simenon kept the advance payment of 50,000 francs. The confusion about this incident’s occurrence (or lack of) grew, in part, because the author sensed a good publicity opportunity and when confronted with people who claimed to have witnessed him toiling away in that cage never corrected them.

A gigantic figure in the pantheon of 20th century European popular culture. Penguin’s exhaustive work in ensuring that only the finest translators bring his prose to a new generation of readers in the year in which long time fans will mourn the 25th anniversary of his passing brings the spotlight firmly back onto his unrivalled literary legacy. Compared by Paul Theroux to Albert Camus. Simenon’s admirers included Ian Fleming, Dashell Hammett, Somerset Maugham, and Henry Miller.

With a fresh edition appearing on the shelves of the nation’s booksellers each month new found converts to his intensely atmospheric paintings with words may become ever more curious about the man who gave life to Maigret. An enigma every bit as perplexing as those investigated by the pipe smoking detective, Georges Simenon’s life is shrouded by a sea of misdirection, inaccuracies, and falsehoods, some of his own creation. More than twenty volumes of memoirs contain either vague or contradictory information leaving the task of peeling away layers of a densely constructed public persona to diligent biographers.

Commercially successful and critically acclaimed, the Maigret novels raised the question of whether genre fiction could be treated as serious literature. Harbouring a yearning for “respectability” he wrote stand alone psychological novels alongside the steady stream of populist detective fiction. Melancholic and filled with the trademark Simenon immersive descriptions, these texts which he referred to as romans durs (hard novels) were existential angst ridden depictions of men confronted, and often corrupted, by greed and lust. Physical, spiritual, and emotional torment were constant companions of the doomed protagonists in these fatalistic fables.

Two years after Jules Maigret lit his first pipe his literary parent wrote Monsieur Hire’s Engagement , a gritty account of obsession and murder. Adapted for the big screen in 1947 by Julien Duvivier and released as Panique the film’s depiction of an angry mob hounding a man to his death struck a chord with a country coming to terms with all that had occurred during wartime occupation. In 1989 Simenon’s novella returned to the cinema courtesy of a claustrophobic re-imagining by Patrice Leconte.

Best known to UK audiences for The Girl on the Bridge and Man on the Train, Patrice Laconte had been making films for two decades by the time Monsieur Hire was released. Displaying a chameleon like ability to work within a variety of genres his craft demonstrated an understanding of the form along with a precise individual signature. Sympathetic to the material being filmed but never fawning, his style is based on an inherent ability to know when a sequence requires cynicism or compassion, sometimes setting these two oppositional approaches upon each other within a single scene.

Georges Simenon’s tale of obsession and isolation is in Laconte’s hands filtered through the prism of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang with a tip of the hat to German Expressionism. A concise novella translates into an equally precise motion picture that with a running time of seventy seven minutes never outstays its welcome and yet still manages to make viewers feel as though they have experienced a myriad of emotions.

The body of a murdered young girl is found and the Inspector (André Wilms) assigned to the case is convinced he has found the guilty party after hearing reports of a man fleeing from the scene, seeking refuge in an apartment block. Statements from neighbours lead the investigating officer to Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc).

A loner, uncomfortable in his own skin and deeply unpopular with his neighbours Hire spends each night gazing at Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) who lives just across the courtyard. One evening she catches a glimpse of her stalker and soon the balance of power is shifted… Exploiting his affections, she makes him feel impotent and it is not long before Hire is completely under her spell.

Simenon’s tale of fatalistic flaws, compulsion, repulsion, and misanthropic star-crossed pessimists is merged with Laconte’s exploration of scopophilia, paranoia, and erotomania. Highly intelligent filmmaking that plays games with the audience’s passivity, making the viewer experience the sensation of being complicit in the dark deeds whilst sharing in the pain of the inevitable downward spiral that Alice and Hire are dragged into.

Newcomers to Simenon’s legacy may have initially been unsure about the film’s place within his significant body of work. With the audience concentrating on reading subtitles a live DVD commentary explaining key plot points and recurrent themes would not have been a viable option but Noir is the Colour had the perfect solution… As the lights rose two leading Simenologists took to the stage fielding questions from neophytes and purists. Simenon’s career and life away from the printed page was dissected with the precision of a master pathologist. Shining a light into every aspect of the public and private persona, the lack of consensus about the man is something biographers have wrestled with for decades.

An afternoon that for those who were lucky to attend was a curtain raiser to many months enjoying Penguins reissues and for some the beginning of a quest to discover who was the real Simenon.

Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham’s Simenon biographies are currently out of print but second hand copies can be ordered from Amazon:



Monsieur Hire can be ordered from Amazon:


For more information about Noir is the Colour contact:

Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT

Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/

Event Review: Noir is the Colour – The Anglo-French Connection

The publication of Barry Forshaw’s sterling critical overview Euro Noir represents a significant acknowledgement that something remarkable is happening to crime fiction. Across mainland Europe murder is firmly on the agenda. In print, on TV, DVD, and in the cinemas the genre is undergoing a creative renaissance.

For decades commissioning editors remained resolute in their conviction that translated fiction was an unprofitable niche market with no possibility of crossing over into the mainstream. This long standing reluctance to issue significant amounts of English language versions of European texts was perplexing when confronted with data which reveals the phenomenal sales figures for George Simenon’s work.

Emboldened by the unexpected success of Scandinavian fiction publishers are now casting their nets wider, looking across the continent for new authors to introduce to the British market and finding a genre in rude health. Similarly, TV stations chasing the next breakout cult hit have looked at what Europe has to offer and been rewarded with a bounty of shows offering bold storytelling, dynamic characters, exciting locations, and layers of rich social commentary. Fans of European series have embraced Braquo, Inspector De Luca, and Spiral with the same passion already given to The Killing, The Bridge, and Wallander. BBC4’s foreign language slot is a permanent fixture in the broadcast landscape and it has been joined in the pursuit of excellent TV from the continent by Sky Arts, More 4, and FOX UK.

An exciting time for fans of Noir, the movement is continually being refreshed with intriguing variations; Nordic, Latin, Neo, Gallic, and Tartan. Recognizing the cultural significance of a renewed interest in European crime fiction Institut Francais has launched Noir is the Colour. a month long series of events celebrating France’s contribution to the genre.

An oasis of French culture based in the heart of central London, Institut Francais‘ raison d’etre is the promotion of Gallic cultural practices and the facilitation of a dialogue between our nations based on shared values. Initially founded in the early twentieth century to teach the French language it now exists as a space offering appreciation of and engagement with the arts and current affairs. Routinely presenting a cornucopia of varied and dynamic talks, seminars, screenings, and demonstrations the institution’s ever changing schedule never ceases to be anything less than intriguing and is frequently supremely enlightening.

The staging of Noir is the Colour is first and foremost an opportunity for fans of the genre to embrace their enthusiasm, meet fellow aficionados, quiz their favourite authors about a particular scene or plot point, and possibly forge new friendships. Not explicitly stated, in addition to celebrating the contemporary scene the festival must surely have been set up in part because of France’s unique relationship with the genre. It’s not every country that can lay claim to having its cultural DNA woven into a stylistic category. Possessing a harder, slightly more cynical edge to its Scandinavian counterpart, French crime fiction has never fallen out of vogue. Continually cool and dancing to its own unique beat, the Gallic approach to the genre is currently gaining new fans thanks to FOX UK’s screening of Braquo‘s third season. How did this nation become midwife to a genre that nearly two hundred years later continues to entertain people all over the world?

A combination of real life events and canny publishers catering to shifting public tastes placed France at the vanguard of an emerging literary movement and ensured its influence has remained constant. Long before Arsène Lupin battled Sherlock Holmes in the marketplace for the title of Europe’s most popular fictional sleuth an American born author with a taste for the macabre was midwife to an entirely new genre and made sure that no matter what iterations may materialize in the coming centuries it’s heart would always beat with Gallic blood coursing through its veins. Edgar Allan Poe’s Paris based Murders in the Rue Morgue invented the modern detective story and established France as the spiritual home of crime fiction. A grotesque story that played on then prevalent fears of urbanization, it was published as science was establishing its credentials and challenging religion’s supremacy. In C. Auguste Dupin Poe created a template for fictional sleuths that is still in use, scintillating and unconventional, prone to philosophizing and psychologizing but ultimately reliant on deductive reasoning.

Away from the printed page, the founding of the Gendarmerie and Sûreté represented trailblazing initiatives in approaches to policing necessitated by the new breeds of criminality that had begun to emerge as society moved away from a predominantly rural infrastructure and migrated towards the newly expanding cities. Transformations in law enforcement coupled with a rise in literacy led to an increase in interest about the men keeping the streets safe. Poe’s use of a city he had never visited as a backdrop for a trilogy of stories featuring Dupin was due to his having read press reports about the effectiveness of this new form of civic protection.

Despite some inaccuracies, including sassafras grass growing on the Seine’s banks, Murders in the Rue Morgue was a best-seller in America, France, and the UK. The near simultaneous transformation of the printed press into widely distributed mass media meant for the first time citizens had access to affordable newspapers and serial magazines. Frequently sensational, this new form of literature required a constant stream of salacious content to satisfy its readership and editors soon found that one way to please its audience and drive opponents out of business was with the inclusion of real-life and fictional tales of criminality and judicial process. An early beneficiary of France’s new found enthusiasm for accounts of wrongdoers being brought to justice was Eugène François Vidocq. After being made head of the Sûreté several volumes of ghost written memoirs were published, inspiring characters in Balzac’s novels Le Père Goriot and Le Député d’Arcis . Victor Hugo drew heavily from the public image of Vidocq, the former villain who became France’s most notorious police officer, whilst writing Les Miserables. Two archetypes, one fictional and the other based on a real-life public figure, the merging of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Vidocq into Inspector Bucket the detective in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House represented a significant milestone in the history of crime fiction and ensured that as the generic template traversed the globe and evolved into different forms it would forever more have indelible French fingerprints.

To kick-start a month long critical appreciation of the genre in terms of its current and historical legacy Institut Francais opened the doors to its recently renovated reading room and invited the always entertaining author of Euro Noir to chair a discussion about the French approach to crime fiction. Readers of Barry Forshaw’s work or anybody who has seen him give a talk at another event will testify that his knowledge of the genre is without equal. Justly renowned for several benchmark texts including Nordic Noir, British Gothic Cinema, and British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, his work is work is always filled with a mixture of appreciation, affection, and tempered criticism. In print and on stage he is a supreme communicator, pitching his discussion at precisely the right level. Seemingly acquainted with every major author working in the field at the moment, his warm and witty style of questioning backed up with an encyclopedic attention to detail means he gets fuller, more rounded replies from interviewees.

To explore the extent which British and French approaches to the genre may have taken slightly different paths, the speakers included Prix Goncourt winner Pierre Lemaitre, John Harvey recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for Sustained Excellence in Crime Writing, and Irish born translator Frank Wynne.

The term ‘Noir’ is rich with meanings, some culture specific. A conceptual category filled with associations, the connotations relating to crime fiction varies dependent on cultural context. Harvey first became acquainted with noir via double bill screenings of classics at a local repertory cinema and cites The Killers directed by Robert Siodmak and featuring Burt Lancaster as a personal favourite. Proving that he most definitely knows his onions, Harvey spoke about the importance of post War French intellectuals in defining the categories parameters.

Offering a live demonstration of the translator process Frank Wynn relayed Pierre Lemaitre’s comments. In mainland Europe the distinctions between crime and noir are not so clear cut. Defining Noir in the English literary sense to a French readership is fraught with obstacles. The term may have originated on the other side of the channel but it has very different meanings when applied to literature. Lemaitre conceded that the oft used French term Romans Noir cannot be confused with the Anglo conception of Noir. Despite some overlap they are related but ultimately separate approaches to crime fiction. Tipped by those in the know to be the next Stieg Larsson, Lemaitre offered an informed perspective on a literary scene about to ignite this side of the channel.

Educational but not polemical, the first Noir is the Colour event perfectly set the tone not only for the rest of the festival but also as an introduction into the world of contemporary French literature. On a warm summer evening against a backdrop of thousands of French texts in a beautifully restored library fans were given a rare opportunity to learn about where ideas for crime novels came from, how a translator approaches the material she or he is working with, writer’s perspectives on the inclusion of violence and when they feel it’s time to rein in the descriptions of physical assaults.

Several fans were heard expressing a wish for this to become an annual event, surely the ultimate compliment. As the literary marketplace becomes ever more cosmopolitan and new authors from the mainland are introduced into the crime sections of our friendly neighbourhood bookstores the need for a second festival grows. The best kept secret in the crime fiction scene, fans should not miss out on the opportunity to attend any of the remaining talks.

The latest titles from all the authors appearing at Noir is the Colour can be ordered from Amazon:




For more information about Noir is the Colour contact:

Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT

Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/