Friday, September 22, 2006

The British are Different

It's a truism that the British take crime fiction more seriously than Americans do. This may be responsible for the curious effect that two stories in The Best British Mysteries 2005 had on this North American reader. The collection has some superb choices, Brian Thompson's "Geezers" and Robert Barnard's "The Cairo Road" chief among them. But two of the stories repelled me, and I'd like to hear how others, especially in the U.K., feel about them.

Edward Marston's "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre" and Anthony Mann's "Esther Gordon Framlingham" are meta-mysteries -- mystery stories set in the world of mystery writers. The former is about a gathering of crime writers, of whom one is especially successful and especially obnoxious. The latter is about a writer who competes to become the new ghostwriter for a looooooooong-running series of historical mysteries. The Mann, especially, has some delicious jabs at the field's penchant for ever-more outlandish sleuths. Here's one snippet of tasty dialogue:

"How about a late seventeenth-century Russian peasant?" I asked.

Across the room, my agent Myra raised an eyebrow. "North or south?"


"Been done."

"Ah, I meant north," I said quickly.

Myra shook her head. "Sorry, been done," she said. "Sheila Trescotchick's Ivan the Irascible series. Ivan's an irascible Russian peasant, disliked by all and sundry in his small northern Russian village, tolerated only because of his extraordinary ability to solve the most perplexing of crimes."

That's wonderful stuff, a little gem of comic timing. So why did the two stories make me shift uncomfortably in my chair? That's easy: A mystery about a mystery, even one as clever as Mann's, strikes me as arch and excessively self-referential. OK, but why? Is it a matter of taste? Is it some natural British flair for zany and self-deprecating satire that I don't quite get? Or is crime fiction so much more a part of everyday discourse and taken so much more seriously in Britain that it makes a fine target for satire?

There, blog readers, are your essay questions. Discuss.

© Peter Rozovsky 2006



Blogger Bill Peschel said...

The Brits have always been much more skilled in taking the piss out of each other. Their tabs are much more sensational and nasty than ours; we've had to import British editors to help us out on that score. And it's not uncommon for government officials and celebrities to release memoirs that are rather frank about their colleagues, co-workers, lovers, etc.

Just now, I'm thumbing through the John Mortimer biography, and it's filled with reflections from his lovers on his ability, his (lack of) hygeine and his love of flogging. There's plenty of discussion about his work and its faults, and quick judgments on what will survive and what won't. Only Kitty Kelly and the late Albert Goldman are comparable to the stillleto work of an English biographer.

September 23, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

British soccer players, too, from what I read in the weeks after the World Cup, when an astonishing number released astonishingly bad "autobiographies," according to the Guardian.

John Mortimer, that nice man? Next thing, you'll tell me Agatha Christie was a dominatrix.

September 23, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, I hadn't really thought that either of the two writers might be taking nasty little jabs at others in the British crime-fiction scene. I suppose I should put the question to my British readers and see if they can break the codes.


September 29, 2006  

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