Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No sleuths please, we're British.

By Jay Stringer

We all know the tradition on the PI in fiction.
Even the mention of it evokes certain images. Mean streets and trench coats, strange camera angles and seedy Motels. Maybe it evokes New York hotels with introspective alcoholics, crazy Colombians and Irish gangsters. One of the most lingering images for me is of a beach trailer and a gold car, and in the last few years it’s begun to conjure up poetry and whiskey in a rain soaked Galway.

Okay, maybe none of those things. There are a number of writers doing interesting things with the PI at the moment, and some of them are on this very website. But what I’m getting at is that all of the images that spring to mind when you mention the phrase “Private Eye” seem inextricably linked with America. And, thanks to writers like Bruen and Hughes, Ireland. I’ll take that a step further, and say that the images that spring to mind are “anything but British.”

British crime fiction gave the world Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. And the grail myth, the themes that Chandler was so obsessed with, took form over here. Yet, when Chandler wrote his famous line that Hammett took crime “out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,” he was complaining about the disconnect between the cozy English mystery and the realities of crime.

So what happened? It’s not as if we’re short on mean streets. From the places the tourists visit, like London and Glasgow, to the modern reality of cities like Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool. There’s plenty of material there. In fact, if you look at the issues that modern Britain is facing -unemployment, recession, racism, immigration, knife crime- you’d think it would be the perfect setting for some classic PI fiction. And it’s only through the work of some great Irish writers that the genre now seems so natural over there.

So is there something else at play? Is there something unique to Britain that also makes it difficult to write a Marlowe, a Scudder or even a Rockford? Well that’s enough of me. I sat down to talk with a couple of people who know what they’re doing, and who know the subject inside and out.

Ray Banks has written four novels that focus on the some-time PI, Callum Innes. Innes is a very British character, full of both love and contempt for himself, and his stories found a middle ground between the social issues of modern Manchester and the themes of classic hardboiled fiction. The fourth and final Cal Innes books was released this year. It’s called Beast Of Burden, and can be found here. The first book, Saturday's Child, is here and here. I'd also recommend you head over to Ray's website where there are links to the short stories that first started Cal off, I'm partial to The Monkey Man.

Our very own Russel D McLean writes about death and deceit in the great cold north. Or Dundee, to be precise. His character, J McNee manages to be cut from both the classic PI mold and a very Scottish cloth. (Don’t mention heather or kilts, though, whatever you do.) His first novel, The Good Son, dealt with issues I wrote about last week; grief and guilt. And he finds a way to make the PI work. His second McNee book, The Lost Sister, is released this week.
I’m officially putting all of these books on the dosomedamage syllabus. There will be a test. But right now, I hear you, lets get on with the show…..

JS: What are your thoughts on how a PI fits into British crime fiction? Do you think he serves a different function than the American character?

RB: Honestly? I don't think the PI fits within a British tradition any more than a lone gunslinger does. They're both quintessentially American character types, and don’t work naturally in a British setting. I’ve always thought that character was supposed to spring naturally from its environment, and a British background doesn’t naturally provide the same circumstances in which a PI would thrive. The US, after all, is a country founded on the principles of questioning establishment. Conversely, Britain – and England in particular – has a long history of establishment rule, whether that be government or monarchy. As such I think there’s still an underlying belief in that rule, which is why our protagonists may well be disdainful of the establishment, but they still work within its confines. Even our most popular PI substitute, the investigative reporter, ostensibly belongs to a larger organization.

So yes, absolutely, for me a PI character true to the archetype would have to serve a different role in the UK, and the only way I could think of making it plausible for myself was to take the Bruen route and make Innes a completely marginalized character, the natural extrapolation of the grass. That’s not to say it can’t work with the right author – I’m fascinated with what Russel's doing with the PI at the moment, for example, and Declan Hughes is doing fantastic things with the traditional PI in an Irish setting – but it wasn’t right for me.

RDM: I don't know that I one hundred percent agree with Ray here. You can have a lone gunslinger or PI type that exists in UK fiction, but the focus would be very different. I don't think there's the same glamour you could do and that's why the UK PI - on the few occasions he has been attempted - is often a working schlub, a true outsider.
You can "do" the traditional eye approach, but you have to ensure that their reactions are appropriate and acknowledge that the situations in which they find themselves will be very different to those of the American eye. I think the eye as a loner can work in the UK - and, in fact I think this gives them a unique point of view - but like Ray says they faces the horror of a very establishment-oriented society and that basically means that they cannot be "the hero" in the same way as they can in the US. In fact, it often means that even when they try, events are swiftly taken out of their hands and no matter how much they want to, they lose all control.

JS: So the common idea there is you're really looking for the character that belongs on the outside of the society being looked at, the rebel and the observer type. It's interesting that both your characters, Innes and McNee, are Scottish and that seems to work.

RB:I'm not sure that he has to be a rebel. I think he just has to represent the margins, not actively revolt against the established order. But the observer thing is very important, certainly, and is a natural result of being on the margins of society in the first place. I think there's a slight difference in mine and Russel's characters in that I specifically set out to have Innes as a Scot in England, with all the societal transience that would imply. I might be wrong about this, but Russel's character seems to be marginalised less in a geographical sense, but more psychologically. In that respect, I'd argue that his is a more traditional PI. He might disagree, though.

RDM: Ray hits that on the head about McNee being marginalised in an emotional sense. I wasn't thinking consciously about that, of course. I just love characters who have difficulty connecting. But it’s the way it worked out, the only way it could be, I think. As to the question itself, I think that the Scottish character works as one "outside of society" because rebellion and distrust are part of our history and makeup.

I don't know that a fictional PI has to be a rebel, although I think he has to have some moral code that exists outside of the mainstream of the society he works in. He needs a strong internal sense of justice, a desire to try and get to the heart of a case. This tends to only push him further outside of mainstream society because he will not sit quietly by and let his principles be fucked about with by anyone, even those allegedly in "authority". Even Cal Innes, fucked up as he is, has a basic sense of right and wrong that is unique to him, and that he tries (often unsuccessfully) to impose on the world about him.

JS: Focusing on the nationality for a second, even Rebus seemed more convincing as a very American 'maverick cop' than an English character may have done. So can we say that the Scottish voice is the one that works best when questioning the authority in Britain?

Yeah, I think the Scottish attitude is certainly a questioning one, especially when that authority is based in England.

RDM: We're cynical bastards. Not just about the English. We don't even really trust ourselves when all's said and done. I think it’s got something to do with the weather. And our fucking appalling diet.

JS: And a self-destructive streak that can be the only explanation for the Proclaimers! But it is interesting; we've identified elements of the PI that seem to fit with Scottish identity. But aside from that there is something inherent in British culture that romanticizes failure. We do love to see someone who tries and fails, the 'plucky loser' type. There's something very Chandler-esque about that, don't you think?

RDM: Don't mock the Proclaimers - us Fifers are very proud of them! But yes, I think the PI archetype could very easily fit the Scots psyche, and that "plucky loser" you mention there - we were the nation whose 1998 world cup song was "Don't Come Home Too Soon" which probably says everything about our inbuilt pessimism. But yes, I think perhaps it could be applied - to a lesser degree - to the rest of the UK, too.

RB: We are very proud of the Proclaimers. I even name checked 'em in Donkey Punch. Good lads, miracles of modern science. But I don't think we necessarily romanticize failure in the UK, rather I think we demand failure. It's why all our visionaries bugger off to the States. America waits for you to succeed; Britain waits for you to fail, Gawd bless 'er in all her insecure glory.

JS:I wonder if there's not a uniquely British take on the PI that could be used to examine our own society. I'm thinking that the British PI could be seen to be about class. The ‘working Schlub’ as Russel put it.. So he's just another working stiff being controlled by the system, and the system always wins.

Yeah, but by that rationale, so is every single cop protagonist in the genre. Most British crime fiction - the stuff I tend to like, anyway - is about class, because a majority of crime novels have their roots in the social novel, and you can’t write a social novel set in the UK without looking at the class system, even in passing. But yeah, I think British crime fiction would tend towards the system always winning, which would make for a bleak ending.

RDM: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all good crime fiction is social fiction. It cannot be anything but. And once we get past our obsession with treating authority figures with reverence, British crime fiction is beautifully placed to explore notions of class and social standing. In fact, big recommend here: read Tony Black's Gutted, which winds up being truly about how little class and upbringing means to morality and true social grace.
I'm not so sure I agree with the description that that the PI is "just another working stiff" in fiction because a working stiff is still a cog in the system. The very nature of the PI's work places them outside the system. Which is probably why, in UK crime, he will usually end up seeming either powerless or be defeated which, as Ray says, makes for a bleak outcome.

JS: I definitely agree on social fiction. I think more and more I look for social fiction with a crime element, rather than crime with a social element, if that makes sense? I think it's why I grew into Pelecanos whereas I didn't take to him a few years ago.

RDM: There's only one book of Pelecanos' that didn't quite work for me. But, yes, I love where he's been taking his work - The Long Way Home- was a killer of a novel and The idea of crime fiction as social commentary is a huge hit for me, and honestly, I think Brit crime needs to do it more by moving away from our fascination with authority figures as protagonists. That's why when writers like Ray and Tony Black came along, I was dancing with joy - these lads were taking crime fiction back into the seedy territory that Brit crime of recent decades seems to have overlooked, or only glanced at on occasion.

RB: There was a resurgence in the '90s that gave us some cracking authors like Bruen and Waites. It also gave us a whole load of shite, it has to be said, but there was a moment when it looked as if Brit crime could have followed its American influences and become something more. I mean, check out the Jakubowski Fresh Blood anthologies - there's a real energy in there that I don't see now, not even from those originally featured. Perhaps there simply wasn't the readership for that kind of fiction. And if there wasn't an audience in the middle of a boom period, I shudder to think what the situation is now.

JS: Sort of giving crime back to those who do it for a reason? I’m hoping Chandler would forgive me for that theft. While I’m there though, Chandler has always felt to me more of a moralist than Hammett. If we’re looking at moving British crime away from authority figures and towards that ‘seedy territory,’ would we be looking for a British PI to be more Sam Spade than Phillip Marlowe?

RDM: Yes, Chandler was far more of a moralist - in a traditional sense - than Hammett. I would say that a UK PI would probably be closer to Spade - harder edged, less romantic - than Marlowe. And I say this as a guy who loves Chandler's work.

RB: I was thinking more Ned Beaumont, the poor bastard. Are we then saying that the British PI story is noir by nature?

JS: I think so, yes. And I’d say your Cal Innes quartet went a long way to legitimizing that.

RB: Bollocks, Stringer. Flattering bollocks, but bollocks nonetheless.

JS: I'm serious. After four books on the subject, have you scratched the PI itch?

RB: I've scratched the Innes itch, certainly. Probably the PI one, too. I think I did everything I wanted to do with it. Whether I was successful or not is another matter entirely. But no, I don't see myself coming back to it. Which is a pity, of course - I know everyone's gagging for a Barry DeSilva series.

JS: I still hold out for a Messed up DS Donkin police procedural. Some of the things we've been discussing can be found in your Cal books. Aside from his own self-destructive problems, he's also messed around constantly by the system. He's marked by his time in prison, and the police -through Donkin- seem to have it in for him. Even in the second book, when he leaves Britain for a while, he struggles because he can't quite figure out the rules of his new environment. Was that all part of the plan?

RB: Kind of. The plan, such as it was, was to take elements of the traditional PI story and mess around with them, try and reconcile them to a realist UK setting. So you have character types and events that are quite traditional, which then go a little skew-whiff because of their setting. If I'm going to be poncey, then it was a conscious deconstruction of the PI archetype. If I'm going to be truthful, then it was me bored with seeing the same old Chandler-lite over and over.

JS: Russel, I noticed with THE GOOD SON that you've clearly put a lot of thought into the logic and the realities of being a PI in Britain. When I was doing some research of my own, I was surprised by how many private detectives there are over here. There's a disconnect between the kind of fictional PI's we’ve been discussing, and the realisation that people are actually out there doing the job. Was it important to you to put in the research to make the character work?

RDM: There is a disconnect, and there is always will be. From the little I know, the real PI's take on pretty dull work (from a fictional perspective) and are actually pretty workaday guys. But fiction is always going to be about a kind of hyper-reality, where everything is amped up, especially when it comes to the big emotions and ideas.

But I have tried to ensure that McNee acknowledges the reality of his job, and that it at least feels possible that he could be an eye in the real world. Hence why I've done little things like had him join the Association of British Investigators (although if he keeps down the path he's heading, they might just be taking away his membership) and had him acknowledge the upcoming legislation in regard to licensing his work and so forth. My research wasn't hugely in depth, but I knew I wanted him to feel slightly connected to the real world in that sense.

JS: So McNee's back with THE LOST SISTER. What's he up against this time round?

RDM: This time, McNee's on the case of a missing teenage girl. Her godfather is local hard-man, David Burns, and it soon becomes clear that the girl's mother is hiding even darker secrets. What starts for McNee as a favour for a friend soon becomes a nightmare as he races to find the girl before its too late...


Russel’s new McNee book is released, new and shiny unto the world, this very week. You could order it here, but to get the full experience why not come along to the book launch? J McNee is unlikely to be there, but Russel himself will be playing host.

7 PM, Thursday 1st October
Drouthy Neebors
142 Perth Road
United Kingdom

If you want to come along, drop Russel a line at crimescenescotlandATyahoo.co.uk, marking the subject "LOST SISTER LAUNCH". Or mention it in the comments here and I’m sure we can sort it out.

I hope this is just a starting point. We scratched surface, and it would be fun to keep a conversation going in the comments. Feel free to join in and run with it. And not just about British fiction; what do you like or dislike about the PI stuff? Lets hear about the genre in different countries, different voices. The topic of social crime fiction is something we touched on, and i think its fair to say each of us is interested in that angle. I could have gone off on a tangent right there. If anything, I'd say we showed there is no straight forward answer.

I think that a genre, an idea, or a character is only as good as the people writing it. And these guys are two of the best.


Paul D Brazill said...

Top post. I think a British PI should have more in common with a store detective or a part time security guard than Sam Spade!Got to mention Tony Black's Paying For It which I read recently and loved.

Eric said...

Moneky Man. Beast of Burden. Damnit how come no Stones question?

Alan Griffiths said...

Good piece. I’m a fan of PI fiction and will throw a couple of British names into the mix – Mark Timlin’s Nick Sharman (new book due early 2010) and John Milne’s Jimmy Jenner – both ex-coppers turned PI. I have my copy of Milne’s Alive & Kicking here – in my opinion the best of the series. For some strange reason I have the receipt tucked into the cover - £7.99 from Murder One, Charing Cross Road, purchased 09/09/1999. Oh the memories!

Jay Stringer said...

Paul - Store Detective, i like that! It does give me the image of a moody PI who's a former sore detective at Tesco rather than a cop at NYPD...

Eric- Hey got a question, ask away

Alan- Cheers for the comment. I've never read Timlin, but his character was the basis of the Clive Owen show, right? I'll try not to hold that against it as i give one of the books a go ;)

Ray Banks said...

No Stones question because only one of those titles came from a Stones song? "Monkey Man" was a nod to The Specials. Ha!

Jay Stringer said...

Another quality product of the midlands, that band.

Matthew Loukes said...

Great interview. I've been trying something along these lines with my own fiction featuring a London investigator who does wear a suit and a hat but is not remotely American. I believe it can be done but others will be the judge, I guess. The thing for me was that the US tradition is as much about atmosphere as detail and what I tried to do was generate something with an English atmosphere within the "rules" of a US tradtiion.


Estrella Damn by Matthew Loukes
AND forthcoming novel GOOSE FLESH.

Unknown said...

Hey Guys,
What a class cocktail of crime connoisseurs!
Fascinating stuff this.
So glad I found you (thanks to Al Griffiths) and looking forward to hearing what else you've gotta say.
Respect n regards,