Saturday, September 29, 2007

National characteristics in crime fiction and a question for readers

Yesterday's discussion of political pot shots cited three examples, all from Australian crime fiction. Two of the three were gruffly humorous; no surprise considering the source. Humor, often of the bluff sort, is a distinguishing feature of Australian crime fiction, just as social concern is a part of so many Swedish crime novels and food of so many Mediterranean ones.

The list goes on. Hard-bitten P.I.s are prototypically American, amateur sleuths of independent means typically British. French crime fiction has given the world few private investigators.

Here's your job, readers: What characters and characteristics are especially prominent in the crime fiction of particular nations? And what examples run counter to national type?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

20 Comments:

Anonymous Maxine said...

Those meals in the Camilleri books!

I've read quite a few Italian and French books that feature lots of mediterranean hotbloodedness among the police, and Fred Vargas sometimes creates an almost Clouseau-like image for her Parisian squad (unlike Manotti's -- they are also very keen on their food).

Plenty of slow, calm, rational thought in various Scandinavian authors -- Sjowell/Wahloo, Erikkssen, Fossum, Edwardsen etc.

Ian Rankin (scotland) presents the Irn Bru/white-bread-diet, hungover stereotype as part of Rebus's character and assorted individuals he encounters across the series.

I always remember getting cross with Jonathan Kellerman when he created an English character in an early book (who turns out to be the villain) who has "yellow stained teeth from his English habit of drinking tea". Wouldn't coffee have the same effect, but more so?

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Barbara said...

My dental hygienist surprised me once by saying "you're drinking more tea."

Guilty as charged. Of drinking tea, anyway. I'd be surprised if you could tell Englishness (or villainy) by the color of teeth.

To address the question - yes, there are several Scottish writers who do a great job of portraying the nation in all its gritty, down-at-heels Irn Bru and whiskey glory: Rankin, Denise Mina, Val McDermid, Steward McBride, Louise Welsh, Allan Guthrie ... and then there's Alexander McCall Smith and the Sunday Philosophy Club, just up the street from Rebus.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I think American authors do better with the cities and regions they set their crimes in than with the country as a whole. Chandler in LA, Hillerman in Navajo country, MacDonald in Florida, Haddam in Philly.

Speaking of, no exultation at the NL East results here? ;)

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Linkmeister, I always regard the NL East with a tinge of sadness since my hometown team was the Montreal Expos. Also, living and working in the home city of the National League East champions means I have to put up with idiotic newspaper features and TV segments about local fans in local bars. I will, however, not resist the temptation to needle my Met fan colleagues from New York.

Another author who expresses a region's proverbial eccentricities well is Robert Crais.

September 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

And the occasional sense that the meals are the only things anchoring Camilleri's Montalbano to this planet! What would he do without them?

Maxine: More than hotbloodedness, I notice interbranch rivalry and politics among police in Mediterranean novels. That's famously a feature of Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels and, probably inevitably, at least a part of any police novel set in Italy because of that country's multiple police forces. Fred Vargas does something similar with the flics and the gendarmerie in Seeking Whom He May Devour. I found this especially interesting, since I had not known of such rivalries in France.

Another occasional feature of French and Italian police procedurals is rivalry between the capital and the provinces. This does not seem to be the case in British police procedurals, outside of Desmond Iles vituperations against the Home Office in Bill James' Harpur & Iles novels.

Manotti has been floating in the far reaches of to-read list for a while. Maybe I should move her up the list.

I very much liked your comment about slow, rational thought in Scandiavian crime novels. Hakan Nesser's Borkman's Point and , especially, Karin Fossum's He Who Feeds the Wolf spring immediately to mind. Of the latter, I wrote that even the dogs in the book are thinkers.

Barbara and Maxine: Regarding the vexed question of the English and their teeth, a regular commenter on the blog is a retired English dentist. I suggest we seek his thoughts on this matter. But that bit about the yellowed teeth could be one of those tired, lazy,annoying stereotypes, something like P.G. Wodehouse's less successful imitations of Hollywoodspeak -- and I love Wodehouse. Perhaps Kellerman, to be gentle,based the description in stereotype rather than experience.

I'll have to read a bit more Scottish crime fiction. I've read three of Rankin's novels, I've just begun my first Christoper Brookmyre, and I have my first Stewart McBride in the TBR pile. In the opening chapters of Boiling a Frog, Brookmyre has fun with at least one old Scottish stereotype and one new one: the thick accent, and the notion that development and devolution have meant a "new" Scotland.

September 30, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

British police procedurals don't tend to have the the tension between the capital and the provinces because the police forces are structured regionally as independent entities, and there isn't the two-tier system that exists in, say, France or Italy (or with the FBI in the US). The only national entity we now have is the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is relatively new and has a rather different remit. But it does work with local forces and I was interested to see that John Harvey is including a SOCA presence in his next book. Reginald Hill has some good sport, from time to time, with rivalries between neighbouring forces and also (as in his latest) with tensions between the police and the security services.

On the subject of British teeth, you might be entertained by the extended discussion of the topic in The Guardian newspaper's excellent 'Notes and Queries' column at http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-22429,00.html

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Michael. The subject of national police forces is, of course, exotic to those of us in North America and the source of productive plot tension in Italian and French crime fiction. Thanks for explaining why this is less the case in British fiction.

Thanks also for your notes on teeth. I hope we will hear from the expert on this.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I am very far from being an expert on teeth or anything else.
Nowdays my main pleasure is setting difficult questions that can't be answered by distinguished crime fiction bloggers who write interesting articles about Nordic crime.
We British from the post war generation do have apalling teeth caused by the removal of sweet rationing in the early 1950s and the "drill and fill" NHS dental system that blighted our childhood. The habit of coming off bikes on to our front teeth adds to our problems.
I have not checked the Guardian link yet because it is now 44 years since I started my dental course and I can't really see how anyone could possibly be entertained by a discussion of the topic of teeth!
The only interesting part might be forensic odontology.

October 01, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Fascinating discussion-- make a blog post out of it, Peter!

There is a cliche in English crime fiction-- that of the tension between the "upper class" detective who solves the mystery, and the "below stairs" coppers "PC Plods" who serve mainly to show the brilliance of the main character. Eptitomised by Lord Peter Wimsey, the genre is now continued by American lady authors writing "authentic Britain" -- Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie both feature brilliant, titled detectives in a sort of alternative Scotland Yard.

October 01, 2007  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

For the Brits, I think the particularly prominent characteristic of the British crime novel protagonist (often a police detective) is that of being a loner. These loners may have good friends and good colleagues, but even when they do they don't party much and they make reluctant attendees at any social gathering involving more than one other living adult...

I think the list is almost endless, but some that spring to mind are: Dexter's Morse; P D James's Dalgliesh; Rankin's Rebus; John Harvey's Frank Elder; Jim Kelly's Dryden (a journo in this case); Billingham's Thorne; Val McDermid's Tony Hill (a psychologist in this case).

All find refuge in something, but this is never frequently another person. Perhaps the protag reflects the talent of the writer in some way with an ability to observe human life, in all its forms and in detail. Unlike the writers, perhaps the protags are more reluctant to experience life first hand. Just a supposition there...

All I'd say in conclusion is that we have plenty of crime fiction protags created in the UK who have a loner disposition and a reluctance to diverge from observation into experience of life as seen. They may be thrown into it too, with no choice. But refuge is sought at the bottom of a pint glass or a bottle of whisky; in music; in poetry; in Cornwall; in hospital visits; in academic study.

I'm not about to suggest the Brits' crime fiction reflects an isolated island life; we are now too "global" to remain resting in previous culture on that piece of history. But the reluctant loner rules, which is why it is now so good to see a divergence on this with debut authors in the UK. That leads to originality where the classics can't be matched; or they can be matched, where the author has a twist on the formula that is point perfect.

October 01, 2007  
Anonymous cfr said...

By the way, I've just read a sub-genre for the genre at hand. I normally read contemporary novels and would be led to the purist historical only via some sort of device that gives me no choice, like a scold's bridle.

But this time, no, I embraced medieval crime fiction and I'm pleased to say I've found another protag who is also a reluctant embracer of life of the norm.

Bernard Knight's Crowner John series has John as someone uncomfortable in his personal world. Apart from his ability to read in his professional world, he's a confident and sometimes a grumpy man. In his personal life he has a wife of ill match; although both sets of parents thought it would make a good one.

John has an ongoing affair with an eye for the ladies that needs to be curbed, both my his wife and mistress.

He too, has great talents when it comes to observation. In personal life, he's always clutching at straws. He's also another one who does not thrive in a "party environment"; he can focus on one and one only.

Is it a male/female thing perhaps? Women are held in high esteem for their ability to multi-task; men not so. Perhaps this was in evidence then? Where Nesta flits about meeting the various needs of her customers and those of her consort; can Crowner John still manage to concentrate on Nesta for long enough to make it real and enduring?

Oh Hell! Do read the book please! It's as in your hands as it is in mine.

A knight to remember?

Ooh! I think our destinies were set many moons ago; decades or centuries, if you please.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

crimeficreader, I think you left off Jane Tennyson when making your list of British loners.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, surely you must have some residual expertise on teeth. Surely the dental school old boys must get together to quaff ale and talk about canines and incisors!

British teeth are obviously of greater general interest than you think. I find in your observations two fascinating nuggets of social history. I can also attest from personal experience that the problem of coming off bikes on their front teeth is not restricted to the British.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine, T.J. Binyon has some interesting passages in Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction about the awkwardess early fictional British police officers experienced in dealing with their social superiors, especially criminals. I've yet to hear a better explantion for why the British police procedural was slower gaining popularity than the American. And "a sort of alternative Scotland Yard" is a marvelous description.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm posting these comments in idle hours while my hosts are off checking on their children or catching a bit of sleep, which is why the replies are somewhat fragmentary.

In any case, CFR, thanks very much for your comment about British loner protagonists. I'd add Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond to the list. Your comment also has me thinking about differences between British loner protagonists and American ones. I'll give the subject some thought, and, if any of the thought is worth sharing, perhaps I'll post a comment.

October 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

CFR, you're an efficient commenter. You raise a number of potentially interesting points in a small space.

I, too, have recently made an atypical foray into medieval crime fiction, with the first of Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma novels. Fidelma is not especially uncomfortable in her personal world, but your comment nonetheless raises an issue for readers and writers of historical crime fiction. If a character is too recognizeably a type from modern crime fiction -- a loner, a wisecracker, and so on -- the author runs a risk of shattering that suspension of disbelief that is probably necessary for any good fiction to work.

Linkmeister, you are not the first person to suggest Jane Tennyson in response to a comment or post here about loner detectives. That honor goes to my mother, though, for fear of embarrassing her son, she restricted the suggestion to a private communication and restrained from posting it here.

October 02, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

After reading British and Scandinavian police procedurals with their string of loners Donna Leon's Brunetti is a bit of a culture shock with his lovely Venetian life and wife.
I wonder what the reaction in real life would be to Maxine's "alternative Scotland Yard". Lynley/Havers and Dalgeish for example sail in to another police force's jurisdiction and solve the case with absolutely no local knowledge. Does this really happen or do the Met just provide technical assistance?
The antagonism in Italy between the provinciale [in Smartcars] and the Carabinieri [in Alfa Romeos] is fairly clear in both fiction and from just observation on the street.
Tony Hillerman is always referring to the Federal Bureau of Incompetence in his Jim Chee mysteries, but then I have never understood how the various jurisdictions can possibly not get in each others way in the USA.
cfr's accurate comment on the British loner that "refuge is sought at the bottom of a pint glass or a bottle of whisky; in music; in poetry; in Cornwall; in hospital visits; in academic study." The problem for the Devon and Cornwall constabulary is that one option is not available for them.
One of my retired policeman patients was a technical advisor on the Wycliffe TV series set in Cornwall, and it was very interesting to listen to him. Oh...I have probably breached patient confidentiality by even mentioning this! Better stop now.

October 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

“Alternative Scotland Yard” has a beguiling fantasy aspect, like those comic books of my youth that called themselves “imaginary novels” and tinkered with the “real” world by imagining stories in which, say, Superman and Batman switched cities and the like.

Local police forces’ jealousy of the FBI invading their patch is an occasional motif in American crime novels, but the delineations of responsibility should be clear in theory, at least. I’m not sure that’s the case in the France and Italy of the crime fiction I read. One of the attractions of Carlo Lucarelli’s De Luca novels is that they provide historical background for the jumble of jurisdictions in Italy.

Your man Reed Farrel Coleman gave an interesting interview this year or last explaining why his protagonist, Moe Praeger, is married. The loner detective, Coleman said, is played out.

What option is missing in Devon and Cornwall?

October 03, 2007  
Anonymous cfr said...

Thanks for the comments, Peter!
For me, it's great to find a "find" in the long swilling crime fiction output. I was averse to the historical stuff before, but now I have found a gem I want to pursue.

It's so good to see the range out there; but I still have my preferences...

October 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yes, it is a special pleasure to find a book one enjoys of a type one had not enjoyed before. I was also averse to historical stuff until I found that Carlo Lucarelli expanded the range of what I thought of as historical crime fiction.

October 04, 2007  

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