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A New Golden Age?
Contemporary British Crime Fiction

By Barry Forshaw

When Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins introduced several of the key tropes of crime fiction, in such classics asBleak House and The Woman in White, neither had any thought of creating a genre. This was popular fare, dealing in the suspense and delayed revelation that later became the sine qua non of the genre, and lacking the literary gravitas that later scholarship conferred. Similarly, the immensely successful crime writing in Britain between the World Wars – including Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie – was only later recognised as the ‘Golden Age’ of British crime fiction. Has the low esteem in which British crime writing was held for so many years allowed it to cultivate a dark, subversive charge less evident in more respectable literary fare? Compulsive genre fiction was long accorded critical indifference, with the exception of such highbrow commentators as W.H. Auden. The readership – while relishing crime and murder narratives – looked upon the genre as nothing more than harmless entertainment. Yet here in the twenty-first century we find the field in ruder health than ever: are we experiencing a second Golden Age?
Agatha Christie

Over time, those original prejudices have been eroded, and the status of the field has been elevated in critical esteem by writers such as P.D. James. Crime fiction is now frequently reviewed in the broadsheets alongside more ‘literary’ genres, though mostly still in crime column ghettos. Let’s be frank, the genre is still beset by much maladroit or threadbare writing, particularly in an age of self-publishing. Yet alongside these the genre continues to produce highly accomplished, powerfully written novels on an almost daily basis. What’s more, the UK and Ireland are enjoying a cornucopia of crime writers who have the absolute measure of the four key elements of crime writing: strong plotting, literate writing, complex characterisation and vividly evoked locales.

The range of contemporary crime fiction in the British Isles is surprisingly broad, given its geographical parameters compared with the massive canvas of the United States. Perhaps the parochial nature of much British crime fiction is precisely what imbues it with its customary sharpness – when murderous secrets confined in British suburban spaces are set free, the result is explosive. And then there is the (perceived) British love of order. Crime novels invite us to relish chaos, before the status quo is satisfyingly reestablished – a process that has a particular resonance for the British character. The barely contained pandemonium of the large American city, on the other hand, is never really tamed.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of reading a meaty crime novel, the ‘added value’ in many of the best examples is the element of social criticism incorporated by the more challenging writers. Best-selling modern writers continue to develop this tradition, though rarely at the expense of sheer storytelling skill, the area in which the crime field virtually demolishes all its rivals. Given the continuing issue of class in Britain, it is surprising how little the subject exercises current writers. The detective figure is able to move unhampered across social divides. Detectives from a patrician background are rare in contemporary crime, with the exception of the American writer Elizabeth George. Her books, set in Britain, keep the Sayers/Wimsey blueblood tradition alive with her aristocratic sleuth, Lynley.

The male, middle-aged, dyspeptic copper still holds sway, generally reserving his resentment for his professional superiors and always struggling to relate to his alienated family. The female equivalent of this archetype is the woman who has achieved a position of authority but is constantly obliged to prove her worth. Not necessarily in terms of tackling male sexism – although that syndrome persists as a useful shorthand. The influential figure of Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison has often been replaced by women who simply get on with the job – and their professional problems stem from the fact that they are simply better at solving crime than their superiors; a mirror image of the prevalent male detective. This hard-to-avoid uniformity inevitably makes it difficult for writers to differentiate their bloody-minded female protagonists from the herd, but ingenuity is paramount here. In the current crop, for instance, M.J. Arlidge’s D.I. Helen Grace differs from her fellow policewomen in having an inconvenient taste for rough sex and S&M.

The Anglo-American domination of the crime fiction genre has been under siege by Nordic Noir for quite some time, but another juggernaut is crashing its way into the genre – the influence of varied and exciting crime fiction from continental Europe. From important early writers such as Georges Simenon to more recent giants such as Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø, Ferdinand von Schirach and Andrea Camilleri, writers in translation are breaking down the parochialism of UK writing. And the invasion cannot be divorced from the Scandicrime television phenomenon. Swedes such as Henning Mankell and Åsa Larsson influence British writers such as Ann Cleeves and M.J. McGrath, both of whom demonstrate a very un-English approach to locale and climate. As time goes on ever more attention will be focused on foreign crime fiction, with its atmospheric, elegant writing and social concerns – not to mention its more graphic treatment of violence and sexuality.

Barry Forshaw Photo: private
Barry Forshaw’s books include Euro Noir and Nordic Noir.