Darkening the English Mystery

Publishers Weekly’s bi-annual feature on crime fiction has a UK-centric feel to it, as Jordan Foster explains:

“We have the rope of Agatha around our necks,” notes Scottish

crime writer Val McDermid. “She created an expectation [about British

mystery writers] that was great for when she was writing, but now we

want to write about the society we live in and the Agatha Christie

formula doesn’t work anymore.” To American audiences, the British

mystery once signified quaint villages, bloodless crimes and heroes

like the sweetly perceptive Miss Marple or the fastidious Hercule



But the noir traditions set down by Raymond

Chandler and Dashiell Hammett made their way across the Atlantic,

seeping into the consciousness of a new generation of U.K. crime

writers. Multiple award-winner Ruth Rendell, best known for her

Inspector Wexford series, began incorporating this darker, edgier

American tone in her nonseries work. Rendell and fellow award-winner

P.D. James, whose first novel featuring poet and police inspector Adam

Dalgliesh appeared in 1962, are often credited with helping to sharpen

British mysteries with their focus on the psychological motives of the

criminals and those who pursue them. Writing as Barbara Vine, Rendell

tackled twisted obsession in A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986), shifting memories of a long-ago crime in A Fatal Inversion (1987) and kidnappings gone awry in Gallowglass

(1990). Minette Walters, often called the “queen of psychological

suspense,” followed in Rendell’s footsteps with her 1992 debut, The Ice House, where the discovery of a corpse ignites a murder investigation that spans a decade with three reclusive women at its center.


It wasn’t until Ian Rankin’s troubled, alcoholic Edinburgh Insp. John Rebus arrived on the scene in 1987’s Knots and Crosses

that the U.K. found its first answer to the American copper. Rankin,

the U.K.’s top-selling crime writer, received the Mystery Writers of

America’s Edgar Award in 1994 and the Crime Writers Association Gold

Dagger in 1987. Otto Penzler—owner and founder of Manhattan’s

Mysterious Bookshop as well as publisher of Otto Penzler Books, a

Harcourt imprint—calls Rankin one of the first U.K. writers “to show

what you could do with a police procedural.”

Read on for the rest, which goes into more current examples of the cross-Atlantic invasion.