When I’m not reading SF, or Anthony Trollope, I usually turn to a detective novel for literary comfort. Started off by my dad at a young age on the Sherlock Holmes stories and then Agatha Christie (terribly quaint and old-fashioned when I look back on them now), I finally landed at Raymond Chandler at the age of 18. In my opinion Chandler is unsurpassed and indeed unsurpassable, and I would give my finest fountain pen for a style as spare yet full as his. The richly described Californian landscape and archetypal private detectives (notably Marlowe, of course) leave me open-mouthed in silent wonder.
Police-based detective stories can be quite enjoyable; I’ve mentioned before that (rendering of dialect aside) I like what I’ve seen of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe output, and I’ve enjoyed McLevy (police inspector in Victorian Edinburgh) on BBC7. On the whole, though, they don’t have the freedom a private detective has; Tony Hillerman’s series of Navajo Tribal Police novels work particularly well once Joe Leaphorn has retired and can poke his nose in anywhere, while his erstwhile colleague Jim Chee is constrained by his official business. If you’re going for detection, the private eye is king.
However, now that the romance of 1930s California is gone and the harmless British (or British-based, in Poirot’s case) dilettante has no place in the world, where does that leave us? Gritty realism is all very well, and I’d be the first to admit that Lord Peter Wimsey can get a bit cloying sometimes but the relentless depressing nastiness of many modern crime writers puts me off. In its own way, that doesn’t seem very realistic either, it’s as far removed from anything I’ve encountered in real life as Conan Doyle’s London, only not as interesting. What I find I enjoy in detective fiction with a contemporary setting is humour, homeliness, some quality that makes me smile with recognition even as it’s presenting some tense and thrilling scenario or a satisfying sequence of logical deductions. By humour I don’t mean spoof (though Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels are well worth a read, particularly when he forgets to try so hard), I mean realistic touches; people in tense situations crack bad jokes to make themselves feel better, nervous people create their own slapstick scenes, everyday life is rarely without some lighter moment, however bleak the day.
BBC7 aired a well-written series called The Blackburn Files a while ago, in which redundant miner Stephen J Blackburn becomes a private detective in the small town where he grew up. It’s billed as a comedy drama but to me it just seemed Northern (think of the difference between Coronation Street and Eastenders. Unless you’ve never heard of either, in which case you can’t). You can’t get much further South than Adam Death’s serial novel Lapland, set in Cornwall, but it grabbed me for similar reasons (I admit I’ve slacked off recently at about a dozen chapters in, but it was good up to that point and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the rest when I get there). Our hero’s office is above a fish and chip shop and he lives in a caravan; refreshingly different from the po-faced, relentlessly cool and serious American detectives I’ve read in the last few years.
So to sum up, I like effortless cool and I like effortless uncool; British, and British-viewed Californian; spare and lyrical. I like down-to-earth and upper-class. I like the twists I feel clever for spotting and the ones that come at me from nowhere. I like a good detective story, and someday I’d quite like to write one.