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All Over Again

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Yesterday, I daid that I had two things on my mind, one of them related to books, and the other not.  I never got around to the one related to books, so let me start there.

I’ve got a lot of books in my office.  I mean a lot.   We’re talking a hundred or so, at least.  Some of these books I’ve already read, but many of them I have not.  I bought them at one time or the other, or they were sent to me, or something, but here they are, piling up, and often nothing much happens to them unless one of the cats decides he hates one.  Then we’ve got a shredding and marking problem.

Every once in a while, I feel the need to start reducing the numbers of unread books I have lying around, and then  I go looking for something that fits my mood.  And it’s easy for me to know which books I have read and which I have not, because I have this sort of odd habit when I read–my right thumb is constantly ruffling the bottom of the pages while I hold the book, leaving a distinct dark swath across those bottom edges when  I’m done.   If you want to know if I’ve ever read a particular edition of any book, all you have to do is pick it up and turn it upside down.

I’m going on about this because I’m having a peculiar experience at the moment with a book called The Stargazey, by Martha Grimes.  I found this in my office on Sunday, looked at the bottom of the pages and realized I hadn’t read it, and decided that I’d give it a shot.  It’s been years since I read any of Grimes’s books, which is interesting in and of itself.  I loved her work when it first came out, and I read every book as it was published for years, and then I just stopped.

I don’t have any of the usual explanations for stopping.  I didn’t think her work had fallen off.   She hadn’t taken it in a new direction where I couldn’t follow.  She writes well–extremley well, in fact–and she’s not so light I can’t concentrate.  I just stopped being interested for a while, and then I forgot all about her.

I’ve had the book for a good long time.  It’s a nardcover, and what feels like it must have been a book club edition, and the pages have already started to yellow.  Chances are good that I got it in the year it was published, which was 1998, and I know I’ve run across it on and off in the years since.  And part of the reason I hadn’t read it has to have something to do with the fact that I went “off” murder mysteries entirely for a while. 

Now that I am reading it, however, it bnrings up a question I had even back when  I was a big fan of the seires, and that’s this–why do American writers write murdery mystery series set in England?

Okay, let me try to straighten out the question a little bit so that it doesn’t sound as silly as that. 

Martha Grimes was the woman who invented the practice of American writers setting their mystery series in England.   The Man  With A Load Of Mischief was the first of those books to come out, and later there would be rumors that Grimes had threatened to sue Elizabeth George when George’s series carried on in the same vein.

Writers set books in all sorts of places.   They don’t always write about their home countries, even if they’re living at home and not in whatever semi-exotic locale they’ve decided to set their stories in.  But this particular example is peculiar for a number of reasons.

The first of these is the fact that the Brits themselves have embraced these books as if they were “real” British mysteries.  They didn’t right at the beginning.  There were a lot of complaints about the things Grimes got wrong about London streets and Scotland Yard jurisdictions and British police procedure. 

As the years passed, however, the complaints died–or rather, they didn’t.  They just started to seem as if they didn’t matter.  British reviewers complained long and hard about George’s love affair with an aristocracy whose ins and outs they didn’t think she understood, but the BBC produced a series of television movies about her books and thos were then sold back here to PBS. 

What’s more, even  American reviewers started treating these women-and for whatever reason, all of these writers are women–as if they were “really” British, too.  The New York Review of Books, which reviews crime novels every once in a while but actual detective stories only if they’re written by the  English, started reviewing Elizabeth George and taking her seriously. Given the general attitude over at TNYR,. this is not a small thing.

What interests me, at the moment, is what it is about the British setting of these American books that so many people feel drawn to.  And they do feel drawn.  Both Grimes and George have appeared on the major American best seller lists, which is more than you can say for a lot of actual British writers writing about Britain–Ruth Rendell, for instance, or Val McDermid.

And what occurs to me is this:  I think that what American readers find in Grimes and George that they can’t find in “real” British books is the picture of an imagined civilized society that they know doesn’t exist in America, and that they aren’t interested in hearing doesn’t exist any longer in the UK.

Civilization is an odd thing.  I keep using the word without defining it, which can cause all kinds of problems.  In this case, though, I think I know what it is that these readers want.

The first thing is the picture of a world where money is not the most important, the defining thing.  Grimes and George present worlds that are very different in a number of ways, but they are the same in this–status is not determined by money alone, and simply having or not having money does not pigeonhole anyone as either “elite” or “white trash.”

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the way we do it in America.  Given a reasonably open society, money is available to anyone who wants to work for it, and therefore status mobility–not just financial mobility–is open to anybody, too.   We’re about to inaugurate as President a man who is not only a member of a racial minority, but the son of a mother who was once on food stamps.  It has been possible for him–and for dozens others like him–to make the transition from “lower” to “upper” class here in a way that is still seriously closed to most people in Britain.  I think that if most of the people who enjoy these books were forced to live with the actualities of an entrenched class system, they’d hate it.

But the downside of a society that uses money as the sole criteria of status is the tendency to think that money is the only thing that actually matters–so we celebrate not only Bill Gates and Barack  Obama, but Paris Hilton and various romanticized organized crime figures.  We don’t know what to do with people like Myron Rolle at all.

The other thing, the other reason why  I think  Americans not only like to read mysteries set in England but often prefer mysteries written by Americans set in England is this:  they’re looking for a place where they find it believable that crime is not what they know it is..

I’ve said several times on this blog that most real crime is unbelievably stupid.  Let me now say that it is also unbelievably brutal.   If you know anything at all about real crimes and the ways in which they’re committed, you know that they are committed by violent, savage thugs who show less intelligence and finese that your average inbred hillbilly member of a lynch mob.

When we in America are afraid of crime, what we are afraid of are thos thugs.  We see them on TV news, on shows like Lockup and Cops, on the front pages of newspapers, and they are always the same.  Pummeling the crap out of some other human being, watching the blood and skin and bone fly into fragments, committing rape in a way that cracks the vixtim’s public bone and tears the hell out of her insides–it’s violence for the sake of violence, a pornography of violence, a celebration of ugliness and death.

Those thugs occur on the pages of Rendell and McDermid, but they almost never appear on the pages of Grimes and George.   The landscape of crime in the books of Americans who set their detective stories in the UK has more in common with Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers than it does with actual crime in the UK today, or with the work of British writers chronicling that crime.

Real crime in the real Britain is much the same as real crime in the real United States, and if you’re worried about being set upon by thugs, you’re probably safer in New  York than you would be in contemporary  London.

But most Americans don’t know this, or if they know it they know it only intellectually.  What they do know–or what some of them seem to–is that they do not find it believable that “civilized” crime and “civilized” (meaning intellectual) policing could occur in the United States.  What they want is not Brtian, but the fantasy of Britain my late husband used to call Christieland.  When British writers and production companies produce Christieland, they become very popular here–think Foyle’s War.   When they produce reality…well, we’re got our own writers who produce that, and all too well.  

The question becomes this:  is “civilized” crime, “civilized” murder, different in kind or only in degree from the stuff meted out by grunting halfwits waiting in alleyways with knives?

Written by janeh

January 15th, 2009 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'All Over Again'

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  1. “The question becomes this: is “civilized” crime, “civilized” murder, different in kind or only in degree from the stuff meted out by grunting halfwits waiting in alleyways with knives?”

    Different in kind. The pretty villages in Midsomer and the handsome aristocratic Scotland Yard officer are all fantasy. So are the carefully selected motives and the so interesting characters. The drug-addicted prostitutes who end up in local hospitals with nasty injuries and the idiot young man sentenced recently for terrorizing very ordinary young students (he and his buddies wanted to carry out an armed robbery of a drug dealer, but got the wrong address) are real.

    It’s like romance in romance novels. There used to be – maybe still are – people who couldn’t figure out why so many women would read books with these violent domineering men in them, assuming that the readers were looking for realism. But they aren’t. They’re looking for fantasy, in a harmless form. Fantasy is the all-powerful, gorgeous, rich hunk. Reality is the reasonably good-looking hard-working nice guy she lives with.

    cperkins

    15 Jan 09 at 7:51 am

  2. Well, if your real interest is crime, why read fiction? There are plenty of “true crime” stories, and serious statistical studies of crime. Reading “realistic” crime fiction only adds an additional possibility of error. And if reading crime fiction or detective fiction is done for another reason–simple pleasure, intellectual challenge, or some more general human understanding–do the grunting halfwits contribute?

    From a moral standpoint, theft is theft and murder is murder, and poisoning an inconvenient uncle for one’s share of the million dollar inheritance is no different than bludgeoning an elderly woman to death for the meager contents of her purse. However, most of us probably find poisoning Uncle less distressing. After all, we’re not likely to have a million dollars to be murdered for, but I could easily envision myself slain by some “mousepack” of vicious children as I walk home from the Wal-Mart in my old age, and I doubt it would be quick or clean. It is wise to give thought to avoiding misfortunes, but pointless to dwell on those which cannot be averted. Besides, being set upon by savages may serve for crime fiction or police procedural, but it leaves little scope for the Great Detective.

    As for writing set in foreign parts more generally, first, it’s easier to “improve” a world with which one’s readers aren’t familiar, and sometimes an improved world has its merits. Second, even if both writers are equally honest in that regard, the native contemporary and the outsider have different strengths. Had Harriet Vane written her contemporary mysteries set in Hitler’s Berlin, she would have spelled out matters for her British readers that a German writer would have expected her readership to know. And when Georgette Heyer or John Dickson Carr journey to Regency Britain, they explain a good deal that Jane Austen doesn’t. Austen and Sayers will never make a mistake about contemporary customs or material goods, but modern readers may more than make up for them.

    I read novelists who write of their own times, historical novelists and, for that matter, fantasy and science fiction novelists. Among those I would rather be spared, though, are those most conscious of the wider setting.

    “We men of the Middle Ages must remember that we are about to embark on the Hundred Years War.”

    robert_piepenbrink

    15 Jan 09 at 6:12 pm

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