Can Americans still enjoy an English mystery?
This is a question I have been thinking about lately. Why, you may ask?
As many readers do, I go in cycles. I like to keep up with as much of what's going on now as I can (an impossible task, unfortunately) but I'll get into certain grooves, where (for example) I'll realize that I haven't read a good hardboiled in a while--which will set me off on a bunch of hardboiled books I've been wanting to read.
I recently had this experience with the British mystery. I realized I hadn't read a good non-best-seller British mystery in a while (e.g., not P.D. James, not Ruth Rendell) and I felt it was time to get back to those quietly sinister English villages and their people. Along the way, I found some really terrific books and writers. One of these was Stuart MacBride, a Scot who writes procedurals following Detective Logan McRae of Aberdeen; the others were of the more traditional English bent, examining village life, politics, and the like.
Let me recommend MacBride quite highly, because (a) he's a terrific writer, (b) I haven't seem him get much press on these shores, and (c) I think McRae is the most likable (albeit imperfect--i.e., human) cop I've read in quite a while. But I digress from the rhetorical question above.
As I usually do, when I finished reading two books by well-established (and formerly bestselling) English writers, I went to look up reviews, both professional and amateur. And when I say well-established, I mean people who are part of the Great Tradition, who've been writing for a long time and whose contributions are acknowledged not only by reviewers but also in terms of sales. I read fairly recent hardcovers by both these people, which caused me to look at my shelves and dig out dusty old paperbacks from the 1970s and 1980s by those same writers.
But when I started to dig, I encountered something disturbing. Both books/authors had not received good reviews in the U.S. press. What? I asked myself, rereading the reviews, both of which contained a suspect phrase: "U.S. readers." Reviewers of both books pointed out that the books were not likely to appeal to American audiences, due to the "emotional distance" of the lead characters. Certainly the characters in the novels did exhibit the emotional reserve so long associated with the English, but is this enough reason to pan a book--because you prefer a swooping drama queen as a protagonist, rather than an introspective person who doesn't wear her or his heart on the sleeve?
And then I dug further and was even more disheartened. I happen to know the editors who sponsor these books on American soil; and they confided in me that the sales were horrible. Editors (and, dare I say, authors) ALWAYS inflate sales numbers, but the numbers they quoted shocked me. And almost all of them came from the library channel, which means that almost no readers in the U.S. bought these books.
So, what does one make of this?
On the one hand, I suppose that U.S. mystery has finally emerged from the shadows of our British influence. For many years, I think, American writers labored under a sort of "anxiety of influence," looking to the classic English practitioners and feeling very much cowed by them. Now that our shores have produced a slew of great (or even just competent) crime novelists, maybe we don't need to look abroad so much.
I suppose it's also possible that these two books just were not particularly good; and I think I'd agree that they were not among their authors' best works. But we all know of many, many situations where people keep reading books by authors they like, even as the author's output has been going steadily downhill in terms of quality.
Or is it that tastes have changed? Yes, I think that's it. And as much as I hate to admit it, the savvy reviewers quoted above seem to have put their fingers on it. I don't think we're much for subtlety in this country any more. When something bad happens to us, we go on Oprah, write a book, start a nonprofit foundation, make as much noise as we possibly can to get "publicity" for our cause. This is quite the opposite of at least my perception of the English national character, in a culture where people suck up a lot and don't say much, and certainly don't complain bitterly to anyone who will listen--perhaps because no one in the British Isles will listen to such rantings. (A really lovely book about this very phenomenon is Alexander McCall Smith's La's Orchestra Saves the World.)
Have we become a nation so obsessed with "authentic emotion" that we assume that anyone not crying, carrying on, screaming, or holing himself/herself up in a mental institution is not "real"? Because the protags of these two books had indeed suffered tragedy and were indeed going on with their lives. What, exactly, would American readers have them do? Quit their jobs and sit home crying into their teacups? Break up their marriages or engage in other emotional histrionics?
These are rhetorical questions, of course. It may be unfair to paint a portrait of the "American reader," but in this industry (as indeed in all entertainment industries), we have to know who our consumers are and what they want. And we seem to be at a place and time where the market is not clamoring for subtlety.
We also get the chicken-and-egg phenomenon here. Did the books not do well because those less-than-stellar reviews didn't set them up properly? Perhaps, but I think not. In our office we follow most of the well-followed blogs and listservs, and the names of these two writers are almost never mentioned. Is it because their readership is "older" and less likely to blog themselves silly? Is it because the authors themselves haven't established an online presence with engineered "product placements"? These are all tricky questions, and I'd love any insights that readers of Mysterious Matters are willing to share.
A QUICK UPDATE: Maxine (Petrona) pointed out, quite rightly, that I was perhaps inappropriately conflating the English with the Scottish (and other British peoples), so I've adjusted the wording to this post. I also would like to note that I came across today "the other side of the coin." I was doodling around on the Internet and found some links that led me to Amazon.co.uk, and readers' reviews of the American phenomenon, EAT PRAY LOVE. What I found were many UK reviewers who had little patience with, and equally little ability to identify with, Elizabeth Gilbert's emotional self-indulgence. There were many in the U.S. who felt this way also, I hasten to add; but those UK reviews were quite eye-opening to me, especially in light of the question I ask as the title of this blog entry.