Books: Whodunnit? One of the ciphers
Mark Timlin deplores the dismal state of British crime fiction and asks why Americans do it best
Sunday 29 August 1999
But one thing I will predict, and I'd stake my life on it. In the world of crime fiction, the late, great Agatha Christie will still sell a barrowload of old-fashioned, hold-in-your-hand, print-on-paper books. The stories that these books contain are anywhere between 30 and 80 years old. And no one will turn a hair that she will outsell authors who weren't even born when she died, and who will be long forgotten as The Mousetrap reaches its millionth performance to a full house sometime in the distant future.
Now why is this?
The sad truth is that most people who buy crime novels in this country would rather look backward than forward. Back to the age of butlers, tweenies, cars with running boards and wind-up gramophones. Most contemporary crime novelists still write as if that golden age were still with us, even if they dress their novels up with everything from the World Wide Web to drum 'n' bass.
Take a look at the state of play. Go into any branch of W H Smith in the country - which still, by the way, has the lion's share of book retailing in the UK, despite the competition from supermarkets and the Internet. Step inside those hallowed walls where all wish their books to be on display, and look for the crime section. I warn you, you may have to look hard. And which British crime writers are represented? Dame Agatha and her acolytes, that happy band of camp followers - and I mean that in both senses of the word - who still revere the great dame as the leader of the pack.
Someone once worked out that on average there was a crime novel published every 17 hours in the UK. (That's not just Brits, of course.) Yet in Smiths you'll be lucky to find a score of crime writers represented.
It's not sour grapes. I've given up on Smiths taking my own crime novels. They do not sit comfortably next to the Morses and Frosts and Wexfords. And it's not just me. I know an awful lot of British crime writers whose incomes do not excite any great degree of interest from the tax man because if your books don't get into the shops they don't get bought. It's simple economics. Most of us would be better off on the dole. Then we wouldn't have to sit down and write the damn things.
But I promise you this. As you're reading this over the breakfast marmalade, someone, somewhere will decide that this is the day that they will start their first crime novel, and within a few years it'll be a best seller, serialised on prime-time TV, and they'll have retired to the Channel Islands.
Provided they follow the rules, that is. The rules are simple. Forget characterisation. Just invent a bunch of ciphers to inhabit the pages and be pushed around like pieces on a chess board. Second rule: simplicity sells. Remember that the lower classes are always reckless rascals who eat their dinner in their vests in the kitchen, with milk and ketchup bottles on the formica-topped table. The upper classes are equally capricious, but at least they have the decency to decant the milk into a jug. The middle classes? Volvos, private schools, and usually there's an Aga lurking somewhere in the background. Third rule: everyone has a secret. Even the cops. And almost all of them could bore for Britain.
You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Oh, all right, maybe a bit. Of course there are some British crime writers who try to inject a modicum of truth about what's really happening in our sceptered isle in the 1990s. But mostly, these attempts are gauche and clumsy. The majority of British crime novels are tedious, characterless puzzles, written with no knowledge of what's going on outside the bay window and even less interest. It's join-the-dots whodunnits all the way, and anyone with any sense won't care less who done it anyway. And there's never a taste of sentimentality. Brit writers don't do sentimentality.
On the whole, the women are the worst. A harder faced bunch of harpies I'd hate to meet. They sit, high on the blasted heath, the Rendells and the P D Jameses with their witch-like followers behind them, free from all criticism, as they state - quite rightly - that they shift units, and that any mere male who dares criticise them is just jealous of their sales. But do they ever stop to think that some writers don't want to be read by their kind of public? That, in a classic snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, cutting one's nose off to spite one's face scenario, some writers (me included) deliberately introduce aspects to their fiction that will make the good citizens who read that kind of crime fiction push our books to the back of the pile as soon as they see our names on the fly leaf. It doesn't help the old bank balance, but there's a kind of pleasure that money can't buy in doing it.
So where do we go for good crime writing?I hate to say it, but it's true now, was true 20 or 50 years ago, and I'm sure will be true after I'm dead and gone.
Go to the USA.
Yanks do sentimentality to the max. Sometimes, of course, they overdo it. It's a bit like their crime shows on TV.
For a very simple example, take the difference between Inspector Morse and NYPD Blue. Inspector Morse is a nasty little snob who treats his subordinates like dirt. Detective Sipowicz is a nasty homophobic racist who treats everyone like dirt. In one episode, when I saw Morse's house start to burn down around him I prayed that he'd be burnt to a crisp inside. Him and his opera collection. When Sipowicz's wife was shot dead in the penultimate episode of the last series shown here, and he was left to care for their small child in the final one, I make no apology that I was in floods of tears throughout both. Sentimentality, see. You can't beat it.
It's exactly the same in the crime writing from both countries. I read stacks of crime, old and new, all the time. I couldn't care less about Tommy and Tuppence, in fact I actively want them tortured for their mealy- mouthed platitudes. The same goes for the heroes and heroines of most contemporary British crime. But if anything happens to the men and women of the Sixth Precinct I'm crushed.
So after all that, which Brit crime is worth reading? I'm afraid it's a very short list. The deceased first: Derek Raymond, Ted Lewis, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And the living: Ian Rankin, creator of the Edinburgh policeman DI John Rebus (soon to played by John Hannah on TV) and John Harvey, writing about detective inspector Charlie Resnick who patrols the mean streets of Nottingham searching for the perfect sandwich as he solves another bloody murder. It's a short list I know, but what can a poor boy do? There's a lot of saviours of crime out there, just ask their publishers. But most of them have the brief life of a mayfly and soon go back to being stand-ups or soap opera actors, and leave real
writers to take care of business. Even if business is bad.
But as I've said, there is a new trend among us Brits. Go west, young man and woman! Go to the USA and try to outdo the natives at their own game. There's just so much more room over there.
In this country, if one of our heroes sets off on a cross-country odyssey, it takes about five hours and they have to eat at a Forte service station. In the States it can take days and you get to visit all sorts of eccentric, gun-toting characters in greasy-spoon diners along the way. And maybe take the Tamiami Trail through Florida, or Route 66 to from Chicago to LA, or race a Mississippi paddle boat to New Orleans. I'm afraid the M62 from Bolton to Leeds just doesn't have the same cachet.
And believe me, these writers can cut it. Forget the sorry spectacle of British actors trying to do a southern accent in an American film; it's not in the same league. Check out Lee Child, Rob Denise Danks, Tim Willocks and John Connolly. And yes, I know, he's Irish but it's still relevant. All have recently written books set in America, and all have done a good job. In fact some I would have believed were native to the country if I didn't know better.
So where does that leave us over here? God alone knows. Sadly, our best talent is sloping across the Atlantic and leaving us with the rest. But don't worry. Like the poor, Dame Agatha will always be with us.
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