thrillers, detective and spy writing

   British mystery writing has undergone a significant series of changes over the past three decades. The detective mystery story, highly restrictive, narrowly defined and dominated by the Queens of Mystery —Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh—reflected an image of England at odds with the realities of life in Britain during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. A backlash against the highly restrictive, conservative format of ‘genteel puzzle’ fiction began in the 1950s and challenged the homogeneity of that format in which suspense and atmosphere, action and characterization were generally sacrificed for the purity of the puzzle itself. There is now a recognition of the existence of ‘evil’ and a shift in emphasis to a greater interest in psychology. Thrillers, suspense and crime novels, including the psychological thriller and spy stories, have attracted a wider reading public at the expense of the ‘pure’ detective novel. Although the pure detective story is still continuing to attract new readers and has had some revival during the 1990s in a wave of nostalgia for the manor house settings, upper-class characters and a comedy of manners tone, it is no longer the dominant force in British detective fiction.
   As many new writers of mysteries in England reacted against the limitations of the genre itself, they also moved away from the ‘well-made’ plot format, the artifices that had their field of play in the puzzle, the near distinction between good and evil, and the insistence that the values of societal norms be upheld, particularly in plot resolutions. These crime novels have moved closer to investigating real sociological problems in contemporary Britain, and although they often have the familiar elements of humour and horror, more often they provide new insights into human behaviour and social conditions.
   The genre, in effect, has become far more domesticated, as in the novels of Colin Dexter and his creation, Inspector Morse, and in many instances the family conditions of the police official/ detective parallels those of the victims and suspects, so that plot situations are intricate and charged with dramatic irony. In addition, complex and perverse sexual relationships are part of the interpersonal complications both inside and surrounding the crimes; homosexuality and even incest are important subjects in crime fiction, as psychologically determined characterization has become a major emphasis. Ruth Rendell, a major force in modern detective fiction explores the criminal mind, homosexuality, misogyny in her psychological novels as well as an optimistic view of friendship, and village life in her Inspector Wexford novels. Since the 1960s, some of the strongest reputations in British detective literature belong to women writers, particularly P.D.James, the aforementioned Ruth Rendell and, latterly, Lynda la Plante.
   In apparent contrast to detectives whose professional and personal problems are determinedly contemporary, there are ‘historicallydistanced’ detectives, such as Ellis Peters’s medieval monk-detective, M.J.Trow’s Victorian inspector and Peter Lovesey’s Victorian police sergeant. Yet they too are observed with minutely scrupulous attention to realistic detail. These new thrillers were actively in competition with—and often indistinguishable from—serious works of literary fiction. In particular, a strong sociological perspective, at times even quite political, influenced crime literature, describing and analysing an England caught between traditional and progressive modes of behaviour, the changes wrought by the advent of the welfare state, the new permissiveness, the disruption of conventional family life and, most recently, such problems as unemployment, drugs and racism.
   Espionage fiction, which had burgeoned with the first Eric Ambler novels, persisted through the cold war years and on into the 1970s and 1980s through the works of John Le Carré, Ian Fleming and Len Deighton. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, Agent 007, began writing in the 1950s with a realistic approach to the spy story. In the character of Bond, he expressed reaction against the sobriety of the 1960s. His use of details and brand names, real and fantasy worlds became intertwined. Bond’s sexual confidence made him into a hero of the more sexually open world of this time. Fleming’s heroines (his ‘Bond women’) had their own agendas, independent but often tragic figures in his books. His works left a legacy for John le Carré and Len Deighton to follow. Action and adventure dominate the novels of John le Carré. Since his first publication Call for the Dead, he has returned again and again to the same subject matter, the affairs of the British Intelligence Service, and to the same character, George Smiley. His writings reflect his disillusionment with society in the second half of the twentieth century, and his books analyse an individual’s relationship with that society. Cynicism and pessimism pervade his ten novels in which George Smiley became his seeker after humanity, epitomized in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Len Deighton, on the other hand, portrayed a more rebellious reflection of the cultural tendencies of the 1960s. In later books, the hero opts out. His contributions were to style and the depiction of the anti-hero. Harry in The Ipcress File typifies the maverick individualist that Deighton uses as a vehicle for his anti-establishment sentiments. He shifted pragmatically in later works to make a more topical series of responses to political, social and cultural climate of postwar England.
   Literary conservatism in detective fiction is well established, with conventions that are consistent and recognizable. The overwhelming majority of published detective novels provide the safe view of the world in which a single hero can both know and correct an important problem, usually as serious as deliberately caused death. This is exemplified in the fictions of such authors as Dick Francis, Cynthia Harriet-Eagles, Ian Rankin, Peter Hill, Derek Raymond, Nicholas Blincoe, Victor Canning, Ted Lewis, Philip Kerr, John Milne, Clark Smith, William McIlvanney and so on. The economic consequences of a conservative posture are equally clear.
   The enormous and ever-increasing popularity of the genre, as registered by published titles, sales figures, bestseller lists, and library circulation numbers, could not have occurred unless detective fiction were successfully meeting a wide variety of social needs and expectations. Authors and publishers might rightly conclude that there would be no advantage in tampering with a proven success. The predictable formula of detective fiction is based on a world whose sex/gender valuations reinforce male hegemony. Taking male behaviour as the norm, the genre defines its parameters to exclude female characters, confidently rejecting them as inadequate women or inadequate detectives. A detective novel with a professional woman detective is, then, a contradiction in terms. The existence of one effectively eliminates the other.
   Recently, a number of woman writers have emerged to challenge this stereotype, such as Minette Walters, Stella Duffy, Patricia Cornwall, Martha Lawrence. Sharon McCrumb and Patricia Routledge. The widespread popularity of detective fiction whose readers cross economic, social educational and gender lines suggests that it makes an important political statement about how the culture works; when women are involved, that statement is traditional, stereotyped and restrictive. When detectives are amateurs, they can be ignored and their behaviour seen as a momentary intrusion into public life; the changes in social organization which would arise from women’s active participation in public life, disruption of economic activity and involvement in the political process are thus seen as short-lived and inconsequential. The difficulty which authors have in affecting the conventions is paralleled by the problems of their characters, caught between the inside and outside in adopting a traditionally male profession. The challenge to contemporary authors is to take on the genre, to fashion it, and to deconstruct the structures of the patriarchy.
   Further reading
    Bloom, C. (1990) Twentieth-Century Suspense, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
   JIM SINCLAIR

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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