Probably the most glaring difference between the American and British schools of detective fiction is that of pacing. American mysteries tend to move significantly faster than their British counterparts.
There are several reasons for that, most of which are cultural rather than structural. American writers for instance write a briskier, more straightforward prose than their Albion colleagues, the former being rooted in journalism and movies whereas the latter display more « literary » influences and ambitions. American crime fiction almost from the beginning had a « just the facts, Ma’am » approach that long remained virtually unheard (or unread) of in the British Islands. Differences in police and judicial systems also matter. The British style of investigating and litigating is much more complex and punctilious – some might say « arcane » – than the American one, which inevitably results in slower narratives. Finally, deliberate pacing has always been a feature of the British literary tradition, which can also be found in the local movie and TV production.
None of this must be taken as criticism: I love British mysteries and even see their slow pacing as one of their many charms. Still, the fact remains that British crime writers need more time, if not space, than their colleagues from abroad to make their cases. What’s more, and we’re getting to the point of this article, British mysteries don’t just move slower. They read slower too.
I’m currently reading Cyril Hare’s Death is no Sportsman and while I’ve been at it for two days, I’m only halfway through whereas I’d already have finished it were it an American or even French detective novel. One of the reasons is the language – I often struggle with British English and the abundance of fishing and country terms certainly doesn’t help in this case – but it is only a minor factor. The actual « problems » are Hare’s witty and ornate prose that requires being savoured rather than gulped, and the abundance of information for the reader to assimilate with Hare’s vexing refusal to present it in a straightforward, « efficient », manner. At this point you might say that I’m just not that into the book and nothing would be further from the truth – I’m a big fan of Hare and this novel is one of his best. What’s more, that’s something I have experienced with many other Golden Age and later British mysteries in the past. I need more time and attention to fully appreciate a British mystery than an American one, and assuming I am not the only one it might be the explanation for why our time-hungry culture favours the latter rather than the former.
What do you think? Did you ever had the same reading experience? I’m particularly curious as to what my many and beloved Brit readers think of it.
P.S.: I’ve observed the same phenomenon in TV series as well. British ones tend to run longer (the 40-minute format doesn’t seem to have reached the Islands yet, at least on the basis of what we’re shown here) and once again require more careful viewing than your average US show (there’s no watching, say, Endeavour like you do NCIS)