I remembered that reply when a publicist asked if I'd host Slaughter on a blog tour to promote Fallen, her eleventh novel and the third in her Georgia series. I also remembered — or thought I did — that one of her anecdotes at that Bouchercon panel involved a sauna in one of the Nordic countries. This moved her closer to normal Detectives Beyond Borders territory. "Fine," I told the publicist — if Slaughter could come up something that crossed national lines.
Ladies and gentlemen, Karin Slaughter.
For many years, American crime writers used our perceived violent society as shorthand for character development. There was no bad guy an American detective or PI couldn’t take down. There was no crime so horrific that our white knight couldn’t prevail. And no matter whether he was shot, tortured, beaten or stabbed, he always found time to make love to the tragic heroine in his life. Dashiell Hammett gave way to Raymond Chandler. Mickey Spillane begat Ross McDonald begat Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley and so on and so on.
Our overseas counterparts haven’t had it as easy. Their pop culture does not work as shorthand. Sure, James Bond always got his man—and his woman—but the brutality of Fleming’s anti-hero was dumbed down for the masses when Bond made the transition to the big screen. It was as if the filmmakers had to Americanize him to make it believable that a British spy would have such a pivotal role in international crime-fighting. Bond was Superman using the Queen’s English.
While American crime writers were mining the familiar tough-guy tropes, Europeans were cobbling together a more nuanced vision of the world. Let’s keep in mind that post WWII, many countries were struggling to make sure there was enough food on the table. The Marshall Plan in all its wisdom created a set of homogenous countries that saw their national identities unchallenged for over a quarter of a century. Thus, European literature became more focused on the day-to-day struggle of existence and what it meant to be British or German or Swedish. By the late fifties, the French had almost completely erased plot from their literature. Stripping away action to make room for strife became the standard by which “good” authors were judged. The excesses of their cross-Atlantic counterparts seemed lush and full of spectacle compared to the small stories of struggle that native authors were creating.
By the sixties, we saw an amalgamation of these cross-Atlantic forms. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones weren’t our only artistic imports. I think the greatest American beneficiary of the European literary influence was Patricia Highsmith, whose work hit its stride during this tumultuous decade. An ex-pat living in suburban Moncourt, she successfully married American-style plotting with European pathos. While Hollywood eagerly produced adaptations of Highsmith’s work, her books were considered too dry, too introspective and too European by most American audiences. While they accepted this sort of thing in Daphne Du Maurier, they never embraced Highsmith’s take on the form. This is the sort of snobbery that still exists in America today, where critics will celebrate the work of Europeans over Americans because our ruling elite believe that everything sounds better with an accent.
Of course, our ruling elite don’t often deign to read crime fiction, or at least not the books labeled as crime (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lovely Bones, Alias Grace—these are literature, not crime fiction novels about a rape trial, a pedophile and a murderess, respectively.) The everyday reader of crime will tell you that we have all benefited from globalization. One look at the bestseller lists show many familiar names alongside foreign ones. Current American crime writing is far more nuanced than the tough guys of Chandler’s noir. Women are no longer props, only there to be saved or screwed. European crime has changed as well. They’ve not only found the plot, but morphed their work into tense studies of humanity’s response to violence. We influence each other even as we influence ourselves. The relationship is simpatico in every sense of the word.
Every form of art is cyclical, but I think there are no finer examples of good American-born writers than Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn. When I look across the pond at writers like Mo Hayder and Denise Mina, then farther still at Sara Baedel, Liza Marklund and Tomas Ross, I think that we’re seeing the true evolutionary vision of crime stories. There is no longer such a thing as big American crime fiction and little European stories. Neither is there English nor German nor Scandinavian crime, though people seem desperate to put them all into different, market-driven categories. We’re living in a golden age of good literature, where setting is neither exotic nor foreign; it exists as an omniscient narrator pulling the reader into the author’s world vision.