From: John Williams ( johnwilliams@ntlworld.com)
Date: 31 Jul 2002

Warning - long, dense and somewhat muddled post

At the end of UK month I've been thinking a bit about the differences between UK and US hardboiled/noir. As a critic in the late eighties it seemed to me that US hardboiled - as written by Leonard, Higgins, Ellroy, Crumley et al - was the most vital literature being written in the English speaking world. British crime fiction in particular - with the exceptions of William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond (neither of whom really set out to be a crime writer), seemed stuck in a cosy neverland. So at the time I wrote a book, Into The Badlands, in which I proselytised for this viewpoint and talked to most of the leading writers of US crime fiction.

And at that time it seemed to me self evident that what we in the UK needed to do was to follow the American lead, and write crime fiction that explored the darker side of life in the UK in just the same way as the American writers did.

A decade or so later on it's interesting to take look around and see what has developed. There's certainly a younger generation of British crime writers with an explicit American influence. Ian Rankin is the most successful of these, commercially speaking, with his canny fusion of traditional British police procedural and just a little of Ellroy's dark stuff. (while John Harvey's Resnick series are at least as good as Rankin's and his relative lack of success a considerable injustice) . David Peace , meanwhile, with his sui generis Red Riding Quartet seems to me far and way the most successful artistically.

Moderately sucessful - though generally morally and artistically bankrupt - are the burgeoning ranks of the serial killer specialists - but that's a US blight as well (then again I suppose serial killer novels more properly belong to the horror tradition than the h/b). Least successful, both commercially and artistically, tend to be the most explicitly US influenced writers - UK private eye writers. These days the private eye is hard to take seriously in American fiction let alone British fiction. Val McDermid's Kate Brannigan novels are probably the best but generally there is only so far suspension of belief can go.

So, somehow it seems to be more complicated than it looks - this translation of the American idiom to the UK - and it's not just our lack of guns and palm trees and lost highways ( though it may the case that our climate and gloomy victorian cities may contribute to the fact that contemporary horror is a very natural British genre - especially the noir-horror crossover as written by the likes of Chaz Brenchley, Stephen Gallagher and Iain Banks).

But then again, when I come to think of it, I'm not sure that US crime fiction is what it was a decade ago either. It may just be that the seventies and eighties writers were lucky to come up at a time when crime fiction as a genre was moribund, while newer writers - in the US just as the UK - have to struggle to emerge from the shadows of Ellroy, Leonard et al - and are, ironically enough, in some ways limited by the very strength and popularity of the genre. .

Now and again, new writers - like George Pelecanos or David Peace - succeed in this struggle thanks to exceptional skill and freshness of milieu, but it strikes me - talking right off the top of my head now - that maybe the most interesting way for the noir/hb writing to develop is to move out of the genre confines. The challenge, certainly, that interests me as a writer, is to apply the things I like about noir/hb - the sense that the world is not OK, that the underdog viewpoint is the one to take, that corruption is everywhere, that the evocation of place can be crucial to the creation of character - to novels that do not neccessarily need to revolve around a dead body or a zillion dollar coke deal.

Apologies for the rambling nature of the above. Any thoughts?


# To unsubscribe from the regular list, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to
# majordomo@icomm.ca.  This will not work for the digest version.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 31 Jul 2002 EDT