“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.
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?”