Cambridge, England and the Noir that Lurks Beneath
I have been asked a few times now why I set The Bursar’s Wife in modern-day Cambridge, England, a city that is hardly considered to be an urban cesspit of drug-ridden vice and crime. The question got me thinking as to why I did, beyond the fact that it meant the research was easy because I live here. Coming up with an answer meant giving some thought to what noir crime means to me.
Noir, and more specifically the sub-genre hard-boiled private eye version of it, can seem dated, and is easily parodied, what with its wisecracking cynical protagonist and dubious attitude to women. But to my mind one of the conventions of noir is that there exists a decadent reality lurking beneath the façade of respectable society. And the more respectable, cloaked in tradition and monied, the more decadence the façade camouflages.
This obviously makes somewhere like Cambridge (both the UK and US versions!) an ideal setting for such a crime novel. Cambridge is chock full of brilliant minds and academics who embody the best of British intellectual life and also happens to be a major tourist destination. People come from all over the world to see the gothic spires, go punting on the Cam, and generally clog up the streets trying to catch sight of students in their graduation gowns.
Of course there exists a whole other side to the city, namely the folk who tend the gardens, cook the meals, dispose of the rubbish, make the beds, look after the children and generally deal with the domestic worries of the great and good. So there exists a friction (it used to be a full-blown conflict) between what is called Town and Gown, which of course provides plenty of material for any book.
Noir of course is also about tone and attitude, which for me was the real attraction of writing it. The private eye stands outside of society, both observing and getting reluctantly drawn in when things go wrong and the carefully constructed pillars of established society start to crumble. Given access to people and places we normally wouldn’t experience ourselves, it allows him or her to comment (hopefully wryly) on our behalf and to mete out poetic justice when it isn’t delivered by the authorities – because it rarely is.
Hopefully all this goes some way to explaining why I set The Bursar’s Wife here in my hometown and why the next two cases featuring George Kocharyan will also take place here. As I cycle around the city hoping I don’t knock down and incapacitate one of our greatest philosophical or mathematical minds, I wonder what lurks behind the those ancient arched gothic doorways.