“We have the rope of Agatha around our necks,” notes Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. “She created an expectation [about British mystery writers] that was great for when she was writing, but now we want to write about the society we live in and the Agatha Christie formula doesn’t work anymore.” To American audiences, the British mystery once signified quaint villages, bloodless crimes and heroes like the sweetly perceptive Miss Marple or the fastidious Hercule Poirot.

But the noir traditions set down by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett made their way across the Atlantic, seeping into the consciousness of a new generation of U.K. crime writers. Multiple award-winner Ruth Rendell, best known for her Inspector Wexford series, began incorporating this darker, edgier American tone in her nonseries work. Rendell and fellow award-winner P.D. James, whose first novel featuring poet and police inspector Adam Dalgliesh appeared in 1962, are often credited with helping to sharpen British mysteries with their focus on the psychological motives of the criminals and those who pursue them. Writing as Barbara Vine, Rendell tackled twisted obsession in A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), shifting memories of a long-ago crime in A Fatal Inversion (1987) and kidnappings gone awry in Gallowglass (1990). Minette Walters, often called the “queen of psychological suspense,” followed in Rendell’s footsteps with her 1992 debut, The Ice House, where the discovery of a corpse ignites a murder investigation that spans a decade with three reclusive women at its center.

It wasn’t until Ian Rankin’s troubled, alcoholic Edinburgh Insp. John Rebus arrived on the scene in 1987’s Knots and Crosses that the U.K. found its first answer to the American copper. Rankin, the U.K.’s top-selling crime writer, received the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award in 1994 and the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 1987. Otto Penzler—owner and founder of Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop as well as publisher of Otto Penzler Books, a Harcourt imprint—calls Rankin one of the first U.K. writers “to show what you could do with a police procedural.”

Another Penzler favorite is John Harvey, whose first Det. Charlie Resnick novel, Lonely Hearts, appeared in 1989. Harvey brought “a little of the sensitive American hero to the British procedural,” says Marilyn Stasio, longtime crime fiction reviewer for the New York Times. Despite Harvey’s critical success, his older work soon went out of print in the U.S. and only recently became available again through the efforts of McDermid’s independent publishing house, Bloody Brits Press, which began reissuing the Resnick series last September. Harcourt published Harvey’s stand-alone novel, Gone to Ground, this February.

Joining Rankin and Harvey is Irishman Ken Bruen, whose Dublin-based Jack Taylor series (The Guards, 2001) has made him the model for this new style of gritty, hardboiled crime with a U.K. (or Irish) twist. Bruen’s work is about integrity, says Stasio: “Jack Taylor’s mental state is intrinsic. He is Ireland [and] he stands for more than himself.” Is Jack drinking? Did he make amends with his friends? These questions, Stasio argues, are integral to Bruen’s plots, as opposed to the (anti-) heroes of American crime fiction who too often upset the balance of external procedure and internal life and become mired in a “miasma of self-absorption.”

Publishing Across the Atlantic

Even as publishing becomes a global rather than a national enterprise, there is often at least a year’s delay between publication in the U.K. and the U.S. For Mark Billingham, British author of the popular DI Tom Thorne novels, the fall 2008 release of his stand-alone, In the Dark, will be the first time his work has been published simultaneously in the U.K. and the U.S. The day that Irish playwright-turned-crime-novelist Declan Hughes sold his first book, The Wrong Kind of Blood, in the U.K., his agent took a copy of the manuscript to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he ran into an old colleague from Morrow. “I’ve been published simultaneously... for three books now,” says Hughes, though he admits that this makes for “more arduous and rigorous editing [since] everything is done twice.”

For publishers, the decision to pursue a U.K. author is often governed by personal taste coupled with an assessment of the current American market. Often it is the success of another foreign author that piques the interest of American readers. HarperCollins editor Claire Wachtel cites the popularity of Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Redbreast (Harper, 2007) as a driving force in increasing the demand for U.K. and other non-U.S. authors in the States.

Though British mysteries are no longer exclusively cozy affairs and American whodunits have expanded beyond the dames and private dicks of noir, most U.K. and Irish crime writers draw varying distinctions between their crime stories and those in the U.S. Billingham says he tries to incorporate both the American “straightforward A—Z approach, with a lot less subplots [and] parallel story lines” and the British emphasis on setting and character. Peter Robinson, whose award-winning DI Alan Banks series has gained popularity in his native Britain and in the U.S., observes that “British writers have certainly developed a harder edge over the past few years,” which he attributes as much to “changes in British society during and since the Thatcher era” as to American crime fiction. But for Robinson, the “most obvious difference between American and British police procedurals is guns.” American cops carry them; British cops don’t. Denise Mina, whose Paddy Meehan series follows the young reporter through the streets of 1980s Glasgow, wonders if it “may be due to the size of the country,” but thinks that “U.S. crime fiction is more plot driven and U.K. [crime fiction] is more character driven.” Mina is quick to point out, however, that “all generalizations are mince, aren’t they?”

Mina, Billingham, Hughes, Robinson and McDermid have become the new guard of this psychologically complex brand of U.K. crime fiction. Stasio at the New York Times commends Mina’s Meehan series—2005’s Field of Blood, the Edgar-nominated The Dead Hour in 2006 and Slip of the Knife in February of this year—as “making up for all the indignities that all the women have gone through in crime fiction. [Mina] doesn’t let up.” Mina’s fellow Scot Stuart MacBride is also an integral part of the group and an emerging talent, with his series featuring Aberdeen Det. Sgt. Logan MacRae. In MacBride’s 2006 debut, Cold Granite, Detective Sergeant MacRae is faced with a child’s murder and the disappearance of other local children that has the public screaming for blood. His fourth MacRae installment, Flesh House, will be published this October by St. Martin’s Minotaur.

Irishman John Connolly puts a twist on the police procedural his fellow countryman Bruen helped create with Jack Taylor: Connolly’s Charlie “Bird” Parker series is set in America. Parker, a former NYPD detective turned PI, still struggles with the gruesome murder of his wife and daughter that occurred in Connolly’s 1999 Seamus Award—winning debut, Every Dead Thing. Coming this June from Atria, The Reapers, Connolly’s eighth Parker novel, finds the PI on the sidelines as his confidantes Angel and Louis face down an elite group of killers known as the Reapers.

New Blood

In recent years, a new crop of talented U.K. voices has reached American readers. Nick Stone, whose 2007 debut Mr. Clarinet (Harper) introduced Max Mingus, a washed-up PI who follows a case to the slums of Haiti, returns this fall with The King of Swords, a prequel to Clarinet. Stone, the son of a Haitian mother and a British father, cites the cross-cultural “spaghetti westerns” of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone as his “first creative touchstone,” explaining that as Leone made “quintessential American films from a European perspective,” Stone is “writing American-based books with an American character from an apartment in a South London council estate [housing project].” He is quick to add that he’s “not in Leone’s league... just outside, cleaning his windows, looking in.” Another Brit who sets a portion of her novels in America, Zoë Sharp’s series features Charlotte “Charlie” Fox, a tough, British Army soldier turned bodyguard who will stop at nothing to protect her clients. Her U.S. debut, First Drop, appeared in mass market from Minotaur in 2007, with Second Shot published in hardcover that same year and Third Strike coming in hardcover this fall.

Though she’s nominated for a 2008 Edgar Award for Best Novel by an American Author, Tana French set her 2007 debut, In the Woods, and its upcoming July sequel, The Likeness, in Ireland, her home since she was 17. Growing up an “international brat,” French says she “knows Dublin well enough to describe it in intimate detail but because I’m not quite from [Dublin], I notice things that native Dubs take for granted.” This outsider perspective, she adds, is also reflected in her characters: Rob Ryan from In the Woods grew up in England and Cassie Maddox from Woods and The Likeness is part French.

Another Irish writer making waves in the crime world is Benjamin Black, the pseudonym of Booker Prize—winner John Banville. Nominated for a 2008 Edgar for Best Mystery Novel, Black’s 2007 debut, Christine Falls, introduced Quirke, a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. In March, Holt published Black’s follow-up, The Silver Swan, which found Quirke investigating the apparent suicide of a young woman in Dublin Bay. Leaving Quirke behind, Black penned The Lemur, a novella coming in paperback in July from Picador that shifts from 1950s Dublin to present-day New York.

Drawing comparisons to Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters, Scottish-born Morag Joss embraces the tradition of psychological suspense. In 2005, her Half Broken Things (Delacorte), about a trio of misfits trying to coexist in an isolated manor house, was awarded the CWA Silver Dagger. Last February, Delacorte published The Night Following, in which Joss explores the ramifications of a hit-and-run and the stories we tell ourselves about guilt, innocence and the gray area in between.

There exists no single recipe for success in crime writing in America, the U.K., Ireland or in our increasingly globalized world where national boundaries begin to blur. Declan Hughes declares that “we’re never going to have a world without political corruption, greed, lust, violence, family plots, unfaithful women and gin. So there will always be a place in that world for a hard-boiled detective.” And there will always be a place in the world for readers of crime fiction. McDermid argues that fiction can address social issues better than nonfiction and “when you write a crime novel, you’re engaging in things that provoke a reaction.” Readers on both sides of the Atlantic have responded to this new breed of U.K. and Irish mystery writers, and their rise in popularity in the U.S. is evidence enough that American readers want to be provoked. But perhaps only to a point. Denise Mina says wryly that in America “you can cut up a woman who is working as a prostitute and post her to her mum, but you mustn’t hurt a cat. Kind of makes you want to hurt a cat, doesn’t it?”

Bloody Brits
“Publishing is a fascinating business,” observes Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. “Why would you, as a writer, not want to be involved?” With the 2007 launch of her independent publishing house, Bloody Brits Press, McDermid added executive editor to her already extensive list of accomplishments. Among her writing credits is the successful Dr. Tony Hill series, which features a clinical psychologist with a knack for getting inside killers’ minds, working with DI Carol Jordan in the fictional northern English town of Bradfield. The series was adapted for television by the BBC as Wire in the Blood. McDermid’s previous work includes her Lindsay Gordon series, focusing on a Glaswegian lesbian journalist, as well as stand-alones like the Edgar-nominated A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2007). McDermid recently moved from St. Martin’s Minotaur to HarperCollins, which will publish her new stand-alone in 2009.

McDermid launched Bloody Brits with the hope of creating a niche for British writers who weren’t being published by the larger American houses. McDermid praises specialty bookstores in the U.S. because “these are the people who know and love the [mystery] genre and who can help build a base of readers.” She hopes that by partnering with these independent bookstores, “readers will come to know that when they see a Bloody Brits book, it will be something that they’ll like.” One of the authors McDermid is most excited about releasing is John Harvey, whose Det. Charlie Resnick series was out of print in the U.S. until Bloody Brits started rereleasing the titles in 2007. “Harvey is one of the finest British crime writers of his generation,” says McDermid. “He left the genre different than how he found it.”

In her own writing, McDermid says that her often gruesome subject matter evolved out of her desire to address systemic problems in society. “I never start out with a message,” she says, but instead strives for authenticity, writing what readers know and fear and allowing them to confront it on the relative safety of the page. “Sometimes it’s necessary to write about violence in a way that’s honest, not as a cheap thrill to get to the next chapter. Writers confront [violence] head-on and what it means in society.” But McDermid adds that in fiction, “we can be scared in a safe way. Readers can go to bed and sleep easier knowing that Tony Hill is out there.” —J.F.
Severn House and Soho Press
In a crowded crime market dominated by American authors, it can be difficult for U.K. and Irish writers to get noticed. Severn House and Soho Press are two independent publishers who are helping open the door. Established in 1974, Severn House “tends to specialize in [U.K. and Irish] writers just under the level of top rank, who deserve to be wider known,” says chairman and founder Edwin Buckhalter, a Dublin native. These writers most often have established track records in the U.K. or Ireland, but are virtually unknown to U.S. readers. Severn’s April publication of Irish author Jo Bannister’s Fathers and Sins, a novel of psychological suspense surrounding a suspicious fire, will appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters, while Roderic Jeffries’s An Instinctive Solution (Apr.), another installment in his long-running Majorcan Inspector Alvarez series, showcases a more leisurely approach to U.K. crime writing.

Soho Press, founded in 1986, has two imprints devoted to crime fiction. In 1994, the press launched Soho Crime, whose entries must be part of a contemporary series set in a foreign country. A mainstay of the imprint is veteran crime writer Peter Lovesey’s series featuring Det. Supt. Peter Diamond in Bath, England. Lovesey’s twisted narratives and troubled protagonist make the author one of the genre’s old masters. In January of this year, the press introduced Soho Constable, devoted to U.K. mysteries published abroad by Constable Robinson. With settings ranging from Victorian England to contemporary London, books published by Soho Constable recently include Mick Herron’s nail-biting thriller Reconstruction (Apr.), featuring London MI6 agent Ben Whistler racing to defuse a hostage situation at a nursery school.
New to Our Shores
These five summer debuts from both up-and-coming and established U.K. crime writers will leave U.S. readers eager for more.


Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Set in the Shetland Islands, Bolton’s debut finds young obstetrician Tora Hamilton caught in the middle of a present-day murder with connections to ancient folklore.

The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Waddell introduces a wholly new brand of sleuth: genealogist Nigel Barnes, recruited by Scotland Yard to help solve a gruesome murder with ties to a 19th-century serial killer.


Close by Martina Cole (Grand Central)

Cole, the U.K.’s #1 bestselling adult fiction author, makes her U.S. debut with this gritty, in-depth look at a London crime family that makes The Sopranos look tame by comparison.

Rough Justice by Bill Kirton (Bloody Brits)

In this U.S. release, Kirton introduces American readers to Aberdeen DCI Jack Carston, charged with investigating the death of a low-level thug with ties to a protection racket allegedly run by Carston’s longtime enemy.


The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters (Berkley Prime Crime/paperback original)

In his U.S. debut, Walters transports readers to the streets of Mongolia, where a serial killer has claimed four victims. It’s up to Nergui, former head of the Serious Crimes Squad, and British investigator Drew McLeish to catch the monster. —J.F.