Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Brits

This is the second of a few catch-up posts, to give an idea of where my crime reading ranges. 

Of course, the British are acknowledged masters of all kinds of crime fiction.  Conan Doyle, Agathe Christie, need we say more?  Well, yes, and this select list barely scratches the surface of this deep pool.

A late-breaking fave for me is Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series. These are a must for any anglophile or London-ophile or really anyone who admires brilliant eccentricity. They verge on the too-cute, so if you don't like humor, esp. the British kind, steer clear of Bryant and May.  That said, the later ones get rather darker at times and that helps to keep the cute in check. They are also so drenched by a topically narrow flood of intellectual minutae (London history), that one can drown in the details.  But what an enjoyable way to go.  The culinary notes here that stick here, truly, are obscure British boiled sweeties, and Arthur Bryant's West Indian landlady Alma (who cannot cook according to Bryant, but does, quite a bit).  Fowler's next installment starring the indomitable and apparently indesctructable duo is due out in March, hoorah.

In a rather different vein, yet still very very British, is Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge series. Classic village mysteries starring Rutledge and his hant, Hamish. The conceit of Rutledge's WW1-generated shell shock manifesting itself as a the ghost of a man whom he executed for dereliction of duty is inventive, proper in an English way, and just shivery enough to keep you on guard as you read. Here's an interview with Rutledge himself.  One must drink gallons of tea while reading an Ian Rutledge novel., and look forward to thick buttered toast served in farmhouse kitchens. None of the anglophilic pleasure of these books is diminished by the realization that Charles Todd is actually a mother-and-son writing team living in North Carolina.  What fun they must have researching and writing these novels. 

I don't think those creepy ones set in the English churches count here, Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series. The premise is that Merrily, the parish priest in a postcard perfect English village, is also an exorcist of sorts (although that term is a bit dramatic for the locals), and apparently there is loads of dark and evil stuff just sitting under that picturesque frosting, with which Merrily must do regular battle. They grabbed my attention for a while but ultimately I found them providing not so much a frisson of creepiness but a shrug of depression.  Lighten up, people.
Ian Rankin is a fave author among those who follow British crime, and I've just read the first in his John Rebus series, Knots and Crosses. Edinburgh this time (so, technically not a Brit but let's call it the UK until they get that indepedence vote), and again working the theme of exposing-the-dark-underside-of-a-beloved-city, a bit like Rickman above.  But while Rankin's Rebus is as depressed a detective as one can run across in this literature (maybe only surpassed by Kurt Wallander), he's a little nastier than Merrily Watkins, and since you can't blame the bad stuff on the underworld or the afterworld or whatever they call it in the border country, the story is far more compelling.  It is also better-written.  I look forward to reading more of these.

And finally, in a complete departure from Rebus, I recently read Charles Finch's A Beautiful Blue Death, the first in a series starring a Victorian gentleman sleuth named Charles Lenox.  Here we are back in England in her glory days, height of the Empire, country houses, urban gin pots, lords and ladies, etc.  It could all be a bit twee, but just when it threatens to settle into costume drama, Finch manages to move the plot along with a brisk twist, and he's a pretty good writer for a Yalie.  I confess a certain pleasure at settling in with Lenox this winter, since his genuine delight in a good cup of tea in front a roaring fire is so very evident from the start.  I could do with less of his lady friend, since it is only her wealth and station that permits her to operate so independently (his too, for that matter), so readers who are offended by class-consciousness should look elsewhere for their 19th sleuthing. 

This is obviously a very short list.  Ranking them on a pure enjoyment scale, I'd probably say Fowler, Todd, Rankin, Lenox.  Writing-wise, mybe Rankin would top this list.  Fowler and Todd have new ones out or coming out, and I want to read more Rankin and Benjamin Black (if we include Scotland here, maybe Ireland?).  That's going to be a lot of tea.

Update:  I'm realizing that I left a couple off of here.  John Lawton's Frederick Troy series gets a lot of love from the critics, I gather.  I read Second Violin, which is the sixth book in the series, although it offers the backstory for all the others, so one can read it first.  Didn't take to it - too many plot lines, cliffhanger-y chapters, and a hero who has a lot gals on strings.  It felt much shallower than I had thought it would.  Still, people love these, so maybe I'll try another someday. 

Finally, I tried out Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England, with The Last Detective.  Another that really didn't stick.  Diamond is supposed to be hard-boiled and gruff, but doesn't really have any other character traits as far as I can tell, and lacks the introspection of other hard-boiled but more complicated detectives such as John Rebus or Salvo Montalbano. 

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