I am tempted to suggest - a sense of location. From the window of my London home, every day of the year I can see hordes of tourists flocking to 221B Baker Street in search of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.
But Arthur Conan Doyle’s foggy Victorian London is, in all honesty, no more brilliantly evoked than the small-town Georgia of Karin Slaughter or the Los Angeles of James Ellroy or the Boston of Dennis Lehane.
All great crime writing has a strong sense of place.
Then perhaps what makes British crime different is the eccentricity of our detectives? Certainly British crime abounds with singular sleuths – often “consulting detectives”, in the grand tradition of Sherlock Holmes.
From Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple to Cormoran Strike – the one-legged, lovesick romantic of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, the latest star of British crime writing – who also writes as J.K. Rowling.
But these Brit crime-busters are, in the end, no more unique than James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux or Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Kay Scarpetta or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. All crime writers are steeped in the lore and tradition of the genre. And yet all great heroes have to be completely original.
I have heard it suggested that what really separate British and US crime fiction is that the American taste for violence is more mild than British. I just don’t buy it. No country that gave the world Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter can claim to have a delicate stomach.
Raymond Chandler, perhaps the quintessential American crime writer, was perfectly placed to gauge the difference between British and American crime.
Born in America but educated in England, Chandler returned to States after fighting with the Canadian Army in World War One. He had no doubts about what was unique about British crime fiction – the Brits were phoney and dull.
Chandler believed that Agatha Christie and her many imitators had turned murder into a parlour game with all those whodunnits of Cheesecake Manor. Chandler hailed his hero Dashiell Hammett as the man who gave crime fiction back to “people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life.” Out of the drawing room and into the city streets.
Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie were direct contemporaries and it is true that there were light years between Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Agatha’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? As Edmund Wilson famously said in the New Yorker – who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?
But for a century British and American crime have been converging. Our world grows smaller. It is surely no coincidence that one of the most successful writers on either side of the Atlantic is Lee Child – an Englishman who lives in New York. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is every inch a US male but he was raised on military bases around the world. Reacher looks at America with a stranger’s eyes and yet nobody ever saw those bus stations and all-night diners and lonely roads more clearly.
Yes, we all carry a sense of home with us. I am a London writer and the hero of my novel The Murder Man is Max Wolfe, a young London detective lives with his 5-year-old daughter Scout in a loft overlooking Smithfield, the great London meat market. Max buys his morning triple espresso in Bar Italia, a café in the backstreets of Soho, London’s old red light district. He works in the Homicide Department at West End Central, 27 Savile Row – a few doors down the street from where the Beatles played their last gig on the roof of number 1 Savile Row. London is in my blood and it runs in the veins of Detective Max Wolfe.
But if The Murder Man is steeped in a love of my city it is also the product of my all-American influences – from Chandler to Thomas Harris to Elmore Leonard to James Lee Burke to Karin Slaughter to Jeffrey Deaver to Lee Child.
A hundred years on from Miss Marples investigating the dirty doings at Cheesecake Manor, British and American crime fiction now share infinitely more than divides them. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to tell them apart.
And crime, as always, taps into our most elemental fears and desires. Raymond Chandler said it best. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
We all speak American now.
TOP FIVE BRITISH CRIME NOVELS
Number One: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
More than a century after publication, the third Sherlock Holmes novel retains its strange power. A brilliant detective, a willing sidekick, a horrific crime. And hovering over the proceedings, a curse that fell upon “a monstrously evil man.”
Number Two: The Murder Room by P. D. James
Now 94 years old, James is the supreme master of British crime fiction. A writer with experience of the real world, she has served as a judge, worked for the police and the government. Finely wrought characters, baffling crimes and in her hero Adam Dalgliesh, an uncomplicated, old-fashioned goodness. There is no moral ambiguity in James. For all the flawless prose, this is a tale of good versus evil.
Number Three: Night and The City by Gerald Kersh.
London’s Soho between the two world wars – illegal drinking clubs and cutthroat razors, crimes committed incompetently for small sums of money. As a portrait of the banality of crime – and the stupidity of many career criminals – Night and the City (filmed with Richard Widmark) foreshadows all the lowlife classics that came later, from the novels of Elmore Leonard to Fargo on screens of all sizes.
Number Four: The Wire in The Blood by Val McDermid
McDermid has been compared to Thomas Harris but she is closer to Patricia Cornwell – no stranger to real dead bodies, she knows what it feels like to hold a human heart in her hands. The Wire in the Blood features Dr Tony Hill, head of the National Profiling Task Force, on the trail of a serial kidnapper and discovering the hunter can sometimes be captured by the game.
Number Five: Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.
Is Rogue Male a really crime novel? It hovers on the border between crime and thriller. But with action this good – who cares? And it does start with an attempted murder – perhaps the ultimate attempted murder - an upper class Englishman who has Adolf Hitler in the telescopic sights of his hunting rifle. That’s the first sentence. What follows is the greatest thriller ever written, and a major influence on First Blood by David Morrell – the literary debut of Rambo.