Monday, October 20, 2014

A Scottish Author Discusses Crime and Mystery Fiction

by Bill Kirton

I’m a fan of both crime fiction and mystery novels and I know that they’re the same thing. It just depends which side of the Atlantic you live. It was only when my first book was published in the USA, in 2007, that I started to wonder whether the different labels signified a difference in readers too. I still don’t know, but it’s made me think about the genre there and here. And guess what? I’ve come to no conclusions.

It all started with an American, Edgar Allan Poe, in 1841. Then a Scotsman gave it a boost with his Sherlock Holmes later in the century. Between the wars, the UK started its Golden Age, typified by cosy tales, with amateurs making the police look silly and clever old ladies riding on bikes past thatched cottages stuffed with eviscerated corpses. In the USA, Hammett, Spillane and Chandler created their private eye archetypes and started crafting the gritty, hard-boiled version. For the Brits, it was a game, a puzzle; for the Americans, it was serious.

I’m generalising, but from the start there seemed to be a contrast: on the one hand reflective, genteel stories in a rural setting; on the other violent, fast-moving accounts in the mean streets of cities. Restraint versus mayhem.

Nowadays, it’s not that simple. Leaving aside the TV series such as CSI, the preference in the States still seems to be for Private Eyes – male and female (although Ed McBain and others focus on team efforts). And the British produce police procedurals.


Statistics seem to suggest that there’s a strong cult appreciation of the hard-boiled genre in Europe while readers in the USA gobble up cosies and Golden Age-style mysteries. Maybe staid Brits with their alleged sang-froid and taciturnity long for the brash, up-front individuality of the American Way. Maybe helter-skelter Americans, surrounded by technological expertise and the responsibilities of being the sole remaining superpower dream of sipping Earl Grey on the village green.

Or perhaps it’s the exoticism of the differences between us. The mysterious implications of the distinctions between felonies and misdemeanors (or, as we’d call them, misdemeanours), the quaint notion that an Attorney General actually has to solicit votes. Or, over here, the arcane role of the Procurator Fiscal in the Scottish system or the plusses and minuses attaching to Scotland’s ‘Not proven’ verdict, and the striking differences between police procedures north and south of the border.

If only it were that easy. No, in the end, there’s no future in trying to second guess readers. Wherever they are, you either entertain or you bore them. In a recent email, an English reader wasn’t impressed with me because, as he wrote, ‘your story disturbed me, and do readers really want to be disturbed?’ Well, I’m not sure, but do they really expect laughs in a story which exploits the fear of being buried alive? I guess I’d better work out how to turn it into an Edgar Allan Feelgood tale.

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