Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Grim in Great Britain?

So why are British mysteries so grim? I can understand grimness in mysteries by Swedes and other Scandinavians. They've got  the long, dark nights and long, crazy-cold winters, contrasted with the bland pseudo-socialism of their political system -- it's enough to make anybody long for a good, sadistic sociopath. But friendly, normal, stiff-upper-lip Brits? If sweet tea isn't the cure for everything, surely a pint of the local pub's best would be. So why the long faces?

I'm guessing the answer has to do with the prevalence of British police procedurals, as opposed to other sub-genres. Aside from the Agathas (Christie and Raisin), there are hardly any amateur -- which is to say cozy -- detectives left in British literature. The U.S. is spawning amateur detectives and cozy mysteries left and right, with cats, bookstores, ghosts, recipes, or at least craft-and-hobby tips, galore. But I can hardly think of any amateurs in the U.K. after the Golden Age. The spirits of Golden Age gifted amateurs Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion live on, perhaps, in the poetic and/or aristocratic policemen, from Dalgleish to Lynley. But they are policemen and therefore the books are police procedurals.

Also there are hardly any British private eyes. I can't remember a British private eye since Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan. You would think that U.S. cities were full of P.I.s, they are so thick on the ground fictionally. Private eyes can range, of course, from the perky (Kinsey Milhone) to the deeply dark and pessimistic (Matt Scudder, at his most depressed), but the Brits don't seem to have this outlet for their quirks and passions, nor for the noir impulse. It's all police.

British police procedurals are not sweet little village mysteries anymore, either. No vicars or fetes in sight. Except for a few ongoing series by authors such as Catherine Aird,  M. C. Beaton and Rhys Bowen, British police procedurals lean heavily toward psychological suspense. With writers like P.D. James and Ruth Rendell making the mold, it's no wonder that others would want to write similarly dark, rich, and complex novels

I'm not about to criticize the reigning queens of English language crime writing. (Well, actually I did -- in a previous post, "P.D. James and Other Austen Imitators"). I will say, though, that even Rendell and James have become downright depressing. Gone are the days when one could chuckle gently over the wonderfully named Constable Burden, while watching the gracefully aging Inspector Wexford open his mind to the evils of sexism and racism. Lesser lights like Elizabeth George and Susan Hill tend to go way over the top. Reading British mysteries these days is to take on child murder, pedophilia, serial killers and sociopaths. Should we blame it on the economy? American TV? The post-terrorism zeitgeist of the 21st century?

It seems I'm still not done with this rant. More to come, but comments welcome.


  1. This bleak outlook in crime and detective fiction has pushed me away from it mostly. Except for my beloved Inspector Montalbano! Thanks for the blog Nan! Thought of you today as the Edie Windsor case is being argued and found you here. Hope all's well.

  2. Hi, Michael! Great to hear from you! I have often thought the Camilleri books with Inspector Montalbano looked wonderful, but I haven't tried them. So great to see Edie Windsor on the steps of the Supreme Court! Let's hope she wins. I thought of you when watching the Academy Award nominated "How to Survive a Plague." Ah, youth -- wasn't it a bitch! More later.