The Difference Between British And American Crime Novels

sexy young woman with a gun ...
sexy young woman with a gun ...

I was an imaginative child. I read a lot.

I got into crime fiction when I was seven or eight and spent my pocket money on batteries so I could read by torchlight under the bedcovers. And like all slightly odd kids I wanted to emulate my literary heroes. Unfortunately, on the council estate in Northern England where I grew up, nobody was keen on joining in.

Looking back, I still can't understand it. What kind of eight-year-old would turn their nose up at the chance to spend the afternoon sitting in a rocking chair and knitting a scarf while trying to work out who poisoned the vicar of St Mary Mead?

Thankfully by the time I was a couple of years older (and for the sake of my dad's mental health) I had discovered that Americans wrote crime fiction as well. And they wrote it rather differently. It was loud. It was brash. It was dark streets and neon signs, fancy cocktails and dames with lipstick the colour of blood. It was, well, American.

Essentially, I didn't want to be Miss Marple any more (although the stockings were incredibly comfy). I wanted to be Philip Marlowe. Or Sam Spade. I wanted to be able to knock out a bad guy with one punch or say something witty in the face of death. I wanted to drive a car that purred along the mean streets. I wanted to pop into Sam's Diner and order pastrami on rye and a black coffee then shoot the breeze with Blousy Malone as she made suggestive comments about what to have for dessert.

I didn't know what any of it meant, of course. Shooting the breeze sounded distinctly dangerous and counter-productive. Pastrami-on-rye? I'm presuming that's some kind of sandwich. But boy did it sound sexy.

As the years have gone by and I've dipped in and out of the various schools of crime fiction from around the world, it has become increasingly clear that the boundaries are blurring. The best of British crime writers can do brash, ultra-violent and cool as well as anyone. The Scandinavians are producing noir so hard-boiled that you can use it to bend horseshoes.

It wasn't always so. The American and British schools used to be poles apart. Both were entertaining, but in markedly different ways. In British novels, a crime was an aberration. It was something that upset the balance of things, and tended to happen to bad people. It involved complicated poisons, ingenious alibis and an uncanny number of twins. It happened in stately homes in pretty rural villages and tended to be solved by a middle-class outsider who could figure everything out while doing a crossword and making scones.

In American novels, crime was a part of life. People were crooked, decent folk could get a hole blown in their guts as easily as somebody rotten to the core, and the kind of hero who put the pieces together usually had a taste for whisky, a soft spot for the ladies, and a never-ending supply of witty rejoinders.

As an adolescent, I knew which I preferred. I admired the traditional British crime novel and the intricacy of the plots, but the characters all seemed so one-dimensional and the heroes insufferably rich and smug. I was drawn to a world where characters could be introduced one moment and then blown away in a hail of bullets the next. It was all stiletto knives and squealing tyres, smoky bars and kohl-eyed, silk-stockinged hookers with hearts of gold.

These days, the differences are far fewer. British crime writing has moved away from cozy fireside tales and locked room mysteries. They're brutal. They're hard. They're set in the real world and there are no black and whites. The hero and the villain both recognise something of themselves in the other, and good people die in horrible ways.

There has been a change in America too. Sometimes, only one or two people will die in a novel, rather than the dozen or so disposable characters that seemed to be consistently bumped off in days gone by. The cops aren't such rule-breakers. There's paperwork to be considered. The cost of overtime. Test results can take a few days to come back from the forensics lab and fewer cops make wisecracks at crime scenes. I don't know if it's deliberate. It all just seems to be getting a bit more believable.

The world has got smaller since the 50s. We know more about other countries and cultures and crimes. We're a big homogenised melting pot of other people's corruptions, fears and notions of justice.

And it makes for a very interesting place to read crime fiction. Just don't ask me to make you a pastrami-on-rye. I've no bloody idea.

David Mark's Best British Crime Novels