Julian Symons reports in the final edition of Bloody Murder of an exchange he had with Mexican crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo III who complained to him about how out of date and artificial British crime fiction was at the time, as though caught in a time loop. The underlying criticism was of course that Britain, a unique case in the Western world, had not embraced the « American revolution » – hardboiled and noir had never really taken foot there except as exports, and local writers were more interested in planting clues or plombing the dark undercurrents of the human psyche than commenting on social and political issues. Symons granted Taibo’s point and observed in the same chapter that a darker and more confrontational, « anti-establishment » in his own words, school was burgeoning, which he unenthusiastically predicted would eventually become dominant. The concomitant advent then rise of BritNoir proved him right, though he didn’t live to see how deeply and irrevocably it changed the British crime fiction landscape. Did it for the better, though? I’m not so sure, and not only because most BritNoir is not to my taste. It seems to me that something got lost on the way to « relevance », and that thing is individuality.
Traditional British crime fiction was the polar opposite of its American cousin. Even in its darkest forms it remained significantly « cosier » avoiding excessively graphic violence and sex. It was mostly apolitical or at least politically consensual; open « anti-establishment » writers were rare. Finally and perhaps most damningly in some eyes, it was extremely low-key, a probable result of Simenon’s influence. The typical British detective was a conventional lower middle class guy, married with children and without any of the quirks or issues that many now associate with a fictional sleuth. He relied on procedure and on his brains rather than his fists and rarely had use for the latter. Being a British cop he didn’t carry a gun – not that he’d need it anyway. « We don’t do gunfights and car chases » as Celia Fremlin put it to a French journalist who asked her what in her opinion made British crime fiction special. Some, especially the ones who’d rather drink whisky than tea, found it dull and no one reading this blog will be surprised to learn that the French were particularly averse to British mysteries, calling them boring, unrealistic, formulaic among other niceties. It’s telling that Robin Cook was at the time and remains today the most celebrated post-war British crime writer in France, much to the confusion of Symons, who hated his books.
This broad picture like most broad pictures needs to be nuanced, first because the relative paucity of action and violence doesn’t mean that British crime fiction was innocuous – it could be extremely disturbing and provocative in its own unassuming way – and second because the landscape while narrow was home to a wide range of approaches and individualities. Britain sure never had a Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson of its own, but neither America did have a Ruth Rendell, a Colin Dexter or a Reginald Hill. I’ve never found an equivalent anywhere of what I call the « British Weirdoes » school, an informal group of writers whose unifying feature was the love of the bizarre, the outré, the macabre and the seemingly or genuinely supernatural which I’ll have to discuss in fuller detail someday. This leads one to the paradox that while America went further in shaking off the chains of traditional crime writing, British writers sometimes enjoyed greater freedom to be themselves and write the stuff they wanted to, as evidenced by the comparatively higher number of those that were able to make a career without the help of a series character, a nearly unthinkable thing on the other side of the Atlantic. American crime fiction, for better or worse, is an industry. British crime fiction was more of a craft.
All that precedes is not to mean that modern British crime writing has nothing good to offer. The kind of fiction that I described is still being written and may even experience a resurgence, with readers if not – yet – with critics. I think however that the Americanization of British crime fiction in recent years is to be lamented rather than praised. Paco Ignacio Taibo finally got what he wanted, but whether it was really needed remains open to debate.