Saturday, October 24, 2009

Some types of literary genre are inalienably linked with a culture or nationality. For example, the ‘western’ is an art form always set in the American west. There is no absolute reason why this should be so. Westerns could be set on the frontier of any expanding empire be it Rome, Russia or Britain, but they never are. Similarly, one associates serial killer stories with the modern United States notwithstanding that the media-serial killer was invented in London. Gangster stories are another American literary genre. Again, there is no particular reason for this. The American mafia never got a hold in London because there was no opening. London has always had its own organised crime.

But there is one literary form that is indisputably English dominated and that is the murder mystery story. The bestselling novelist of all time is Agatha Christie. Only Shakespeare has sold better and I am not sure we should class him as a novelist. Christie did not invent the genre; she is simply the most famous exponent.

An English murder mystery is quite different from a crime story or a police procedural. Murder is committed on some upper class or generally respectable member of society for reasons that are not immediately apparent. There are always plenty of suspects but those that have the motive do not have the opportunity and visa versa. More murders follow. Eccentricity spirals through the story like a bright copper wire. The victim and suspects are eccentric and the detective is, if anything, weirder. Midsummer murders, the latest successful TV murder mystery broke the mould slightly by having a perfectly normal family man as the detective. That did not last, however. Barnaby’s wife and daughter take up increasingly eccentric activities and recently it transpired that Barnaby was an MI6 agent. Murder mysteries are solved by ‘the little grey cells’ not by car chases, shoot outs, or patient police work.

So why is this genre so associated with England? Is it just because of Christie or is there something deeper going on? To put it another way, are there real life murder mysteries in England? Well take a look at these.

There is a village in Herts, one of the Home Counties, called Furneux Pelham (pronounced Furnix) of 250 residents. One morning in 2004, an NHS carer found their patient, Colonel Workman (rtd from the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), dead of a shotgun blast on his doorstep. The Liberal Peer, Dame Shirley Williams is a neighbour. The Colonel has lived there for 40 years, alone since his wife died the previous year. He had no enemies and was not robbed or professionally assassinated. Suspicion fell on the Puckeridge Hunt because they have shotguns but, then, so does everyone in this area.

A 999 call was received that morning alerting the police to an incident in Furneax Pelham from a phone box in the nearby village of Braughing, referring to the Colonel’s cottage by its old village name of 24 years previously. A year later a prisoner in Parkhurst alerted the baffled police to the Colonel’s secret life as an active homosexual in London gay clubs in the 50s and 60s. As far as I know neither the murderer nor the caller has ever been traced despite police investigations in America, Africa and the Med. The problem was that neither Miss Marple nor any of her relatives lived in the village.

Or how about the English civil servant with gambling debts who cancelled his wife’s car insurance forcing her to cycle everywhere then trying to run her down in a stolen sandwich van? Or the sex-mad spiritualist minister who murdered his wife, who was a TV makeup artist, and left her body by the track of the steam railway which he helped run. Or how about the farmer who tried to kill the postmistress, his wife, with a tractor so he could collect on her life insurance and run off with the village pub barmaid? Then there’s the royal dentist who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband.

There really is an English murder.


C Kelsey said...

Fascinating. We certainly don't tend to find murders quite like that over on this side of the pond. The thing about the quirkiness of the English murder mystery is how matter-of-fact they tend to be. Very strange goings on, but it's taken as it comes without much pontificating on how odd it is.

WangZheng259 said...

Ed Gein, who was apparently to original inspiration for the slasher movies, was an American. Slasher movies probably are different from the serial killer stories you mention. I had a professor in college who said that 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' was an American cultural statement. (I forget what he said exactly. This was in the context of Greek Dramas that were seen as definitive statements of Athenian culture.)
I think there have been space westerns, although I don't know how succesful they've been. Lois Bujold's Sharing Knife books are sort of a fantasy western, but the environment does closely resemble America. Building westerns for other historical settings would be an interesting experiment.
I am wondering if the gangster story might not be so much about organised crime, as the interactions of the native law enforcement with the organised criminal gangs brought in with the immigrants. I mean, you don't really see gangster novels for say, the segregation era South, where the same people ran organized crime, politics, and law enforcement. Isn't it more big cities, criminal groups of different cultures, and law enforcement riled up because the crooks are not staying below the radar?
I think I've heard of some fairly peculiar American murders, and many of the Murder mysteries I've read have been set in America. (On the other hand, back when I watched PBS, there was a show, that did a lot of Mysteries from England.) Thinking back, I think it is posible that i haven't read any Agatha Christie.

C Kelsey said...


Firefly is the most popular space western that comes to mind. It didn't do to well when on TV, but it's a hit on DVD now and spawned the movie "Serenity".

If you haven't read Agatha Christie I do recommend her. Murder on the Orient Express is quite fun and very accessible. I own the first three seasons of the Poirot tv series. I enjoy them immensely.

It just occurred to me, the American TV show "Columbo" is perhaps as close as we tend to get to English style mysteries. Columbo (IMO) is one of the best tv shows ever made.

Anonymous said...

I love British Mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Marjory Allingham, for my "Oldies" favorites. And don't forget the colonials, Ngaio Marsh and Arthur Upfield.

P.D.James, Reginald Hill, Martha Grimes for current writers. I'm not sure Dick Francis quite fits the specific subgenre. Too many action thriller elements.

What do you think John? Who are the best now?

Kate said...

Actually, while the cozy is pretty English, I'd say that the quintessentially English genre is the boarding school adventure.

Westerns are very 'Merkin, and while Oz has several distinctive styles, the Oz publishing industry isn't large enough for the styles to have developed into full-fledged genres. Certain subsets of space opera are very much "westerns in space" - replace the spaceships with horses and wagons, the ray-guns with colts, and you've got it.

Gangster fiction is another very 'Merkin one - despite there being organized crime just about everywhere.

I think that national distinctions in genre preferences are blurring, at least in the English-speaking world.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, one of my favorite Gangster movies is actually an English flick -- Guy Ritchie's "Snatch." I particularly liked the character Brick-Top's "nemesis" speech :-D

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris
That indifference to oddness reflects English life. The cliche of the eccentric Enghlishman is not without foundation.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Wang
You make an interesting point. British gangsters have traditionally been home grown.
Do read Christie. She was a superb storyteller and has great line by line.

John Lambshead said...

dear Chris
Colombo is popular in the UK. It is a strange cross between an English mystery story and a police procedural.

John Lambshead said...

Dear matapan
I have a liking for Simon Brett.
His amateur detectives include people like a retired lady civil servant, an alcaholic jobbing actor and the wife of a dead London gangster who has all sorts of interesting contacts.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate
Hogwarts being an obvious example. My kids liked The Worst Witch series about a girl who attends witch school and lears to ride a broom....

The film with Dianah Rigg as the headmistress and tim Curry as the Chief Warlock is a scream. It was one of those British movies that worked at two levels - "Oh Chief Warlock, what a large broom stick you have."


John Lambshead said...

Dear Cruze

London has gangsters, always has, always will. The most famous are the Krays who ran East London and their rivals, the Richardons, who ran the south London rackets. When you cross the Thames from east to south London you enter a different world.

One of the funniest moments in London crime was when a bunch of Maltese pimps from the West End marched into the East End pub that the Krays used as an HQ to demand protection money.

Brown bread Freddie Foreman ran an enforement team for the Krays and Mad Frankie Fraser did the same for the Richardsons. Recently the two had a punch-up on the street besides being in their 70s. Old emnities die hard.

Currently, the Clerkenwell mob run North London. They pioneered the motorbike assassination.

My favourite London ganster story is the Italian Job, the real one not that ridiculous Hollywood traversty.


Anonymous said...

Well of course the original Italian Job was better -- it had Michael Caine. IMO, one Michael Caine beats ten Mark Wahlbergs any day of the week. ;-)

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must once again lament the utter lack of a reasonably-priced (under $25) Region 1, NTSC DVD of "The Ipcress File." :-(

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Actually cozies with a strong sense of place -- and sheer insanity -- can be set in the US. John, you should check out the first three of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum Series. New Jersey as you never saw it before. or again. Or...