Since Edgar Allen Poe's 1841 nail-biter "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" fathered the modern mystery novel, classic British mystery yarns have held an exalted place in the bookish crime-lover's oeuvre.
What's the difference between a "classic" British mystery and any other blood-stained tome? Whether they feature a dithery amateur or professional detective, a titled Scotland Yard Inspector or a (seemingly) bumbling Scottish constable, all have a few things in common:
1. They take place in close quarters: a country house, a family, a small village, an office, a school.
2. The sleuth's character and personal life is as much a part of the story as the murder or the suspects.
3. The meat of the story lies in the journey the sleuth makes through the various clues, deceptions, and red herrings to the identity of the perpetrator.
Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle helped whet the reading public's hunger for mysteries in the late 1800s, but it wasn't until the mid-1920s and beyond that authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham morphed unexpected death into a juggernaut of retail success.
With their proper tea-time poisonings, coy romance, and wittily snarky detective inspectors, they turned out books even the pickiest literary hoity-toity couldn't put down. With the exception of Twinings English Breakfast tea, the Beatles, and ridiculously attractive male actors between the ages of 35 and 50, I'd go so far as to say that their mysteries are the best things to have ever issued forth from the sceptered isle.
Those early British mystery authors knew what they were about. They gave the reader difficult puzzles with just a bit -- but not too much -- blood and violence, and topped it off with the Charismatic Detective.
These detectives were never what you expected them to be. They were elderly ladies (Miss Marple) or foppish lords (Lord Peter Wimsey) or philosophy-spouting priests (Father Brown) or otherwise silly aristocrats (Albert Campion). They were unpredictable, quirky, and eccentric. They were the ultimate Law Enforcement underdogs, constantly making the uniform-clad Detective Sergeants look as capable as a tranquilized aardvark.
The prose detailing the detective's hijinks was lighthearted (except for the G.K. Chesterton Father Brown books, which are just downright weird). The authors seemed to give the impression that, despite your arsenic-laden grandmother's corpse lying in the next room, there was absolutely no reason not to be witty and charming and to engage in a bit of a flirtation with the gardener, even -- or, perhaps, especially -- if you had been the one administering the arsenic.
These books, for all the dead bodies lying about, were fun.
Then, along about the mid-1960s, the entire British mystery genre was infected with a dire disease, a scourge that it is clearly still not able to shake itself free from. This infection is apparent in nearly every modern practitioner of the genre, and has just about managed to eradicate the lighthearted British murder romps of yore forever. This scourge is the Sensitive Inspector Syndrome.
Pick up any British mystery novel, written in, oh, let's say the last five years. Any one of them will do. Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Martha Grimes, Deborah Crombie, Anne Perry, Dorothy Simpson, Susannah Stacey, Ann Granger, Susan Hill, Ruth Rendell. Without even knowing what the book is about, I can tell you, with 98% accuracy, what the Inspector in that tome is going to be like.
He will be broody and given to mulling disconsolately on his mistakes. He will be disappointed in love, even as he is so attractive to most women that he needs to beat them off with a stick in order to get to the crime scenes. If he does happen to be married, he will have children and will spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their welfare and personal lives. All his female co-workers will secretly adore him.
He will prefer merlot to Guinness, though he isn't below sharing an ale at the pub with his sidekick, who is, invariably, more light-hearted and interesting than he is. He will have dark secrets in his past that he tries, moodily, to conceal. He will spout classical literature quotations and obscure lines from poetry throughout the book (and the people who hear him do this will inevitably know precisely what he is talking about and often complete the quote for him).
He will adore some sort of unusual and torturous form of music, whether it's Wagner or the kind of jazz only people wearing berets tend to know about. He will be a dab hand at some sort of art, maybe poetry writing, maybe painting, maybe photography, hell, maybe all three. Children will love him; so will dogs, cats, birds, creatures of all kinds.
When he isn't pining after some unattainable woman, he's sitting around the house reading Paradise Lost or Dostoevsky. He is the Sensitive Inspector. And he has completely overrun the classic British mystery genre.
The worst thing about the Sensitive Inspector Syndrome is that it doesn't stop with just the Inspector -- it infects the book's plot and entire mood. Gone are the days of light-hearted romps through a drawing room filled with bantering suspects. Modern British mysteries are heavy and dark. They've got as much frolic in them as a dead body anchored to the floor of the English Channel. The conversations and inner thoughts of the characters (particularly those of the Inspector) are ponderously philosophical and emotionally laden.
And the plots! Whatever happened to slipping a bit of poison into granddad's soup so that you could get the inheritance in time to keep your business from going bust? Or arranging your husband's convenient death so that you can do a runner with your lover? A modern British mystery plot is no plot at all now if it doesn't include at LEAST one ultra-politically correct aspect. Take your pick: domestic violence, child abuse, rape, slavery (preferably involving illegal immigrants), bullying, racism, religious fanaticism, chauvinism. Fill in the blank.
It's tempting to lay the blame for this scourge squarely at the feet of P.D.James who, in 1962 unleashed her poetry-writing, sensitive-widower-detective Adam Dalgliesh on an unsuspecting world. However, she probably shares responsibility evenly with Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, who came gallivanting onto the mystery scene in 1975. Inspector Dalgliesh and Inspector Morse were fresh and original characters for their time, but they seem to have become the sole template for all classic British mystery novel inspectors since.
Now, don't get me wrong, I've nothing personal against the Sensitive Inspector. They can often be quite endearing (Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley is a sweetheart). And some of the writers (Kate Atkinson in particular) are just damn good writers. But really, I'm starting to fear that aliens have come in the night and snatched all British mystery writers, replacing them with Stepford clones. Where is the humor? The wit? The creativity? The individuality?
Oh, for a modern British mystery series with all the charm of an Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer or Dorothy Sayers novel, combined with a politically incorrect, unattractive, uncouth, insensitive, snarky, anti-child, anti-animal, totally unbroody Inspector! Do any modern British mysteries even come close?
Actually, there are a couple that do. Cast an eye on some, here.