What does it mean for the classic English procedural mystery that two of the best practitioners of the genre are American? Elizabeth George is from Huntington Beach, California and Deborah Crombie is from Texas. This makes me imagine them as longing desperately for some mist, some humidity, some lack of definition, some ambiguity — aha! England! I haven’t been to Texas but the searing flat light and surf culture of Huntington Beach are the anti-England. London is the perfect antidote.
Crombie does her research and she has a good ear — good enough to fool me, anyway. (They call it “drink-driving” in the UK: who knew?) And in contrast to the P.D. James I just finished, Where Memories Lie satisfied my appetite for character study as well providing a soundly plotted mystery. Here we get a tale involving the wartime past of Gemma’s friend Erika Rosenthal. We also get Gemma’s mother’s illness and resulting family squabbles. All very satisfying.
But I do start to worry about Gemma’s family and friends. The last book involved her parter Duncan Kincaid’s sister. Two back, her friend and former landlady Hazel got dragged into a murder plot. Of course this is one of the implications of a long-running mystery series. We as readers are looking for a story that is, to a certain extent, naturalistic. We want clear, literate, un-showy prose, believable characters, practically credible mysteries. Yet the genre is also remarkably artificial. Writing effective murder mysteries must be like designing tennis dresses: your parameters are very clearly defined and if you stray beyond them, you have failed. Your item (dress, book) loses its functionality. Or becomes unrecognizable.
It’s very much to Crombie’s credit that she has cranked out 12 of these books and that they continue to improve, to get more imaginative, more thoughtful, more complex. And it must be very daunting to finish book 12 and then cast your eye around your fictional landscape, looking for the next place to plant a dead body. I think the whisper of discontent I’m feeling here is caused by another unspoken convention of the genre: your detectives can — indeed, must — have these spectacularly eventful careers, one cleared case after another. (A convention, by the way, challenged by British newcomer Susan Hill.) But maybe the ancillary characters should be left alone, to provide a respite for the protagonist? Or … no, I think this is it. By involving Gemma’s and Duncan’s friends and families in the plots, Crombie points a little bit too emphatically to the artifice she works within. I know the great Sayers did this first, but her books never aspired to anything beyond artifice. Gemma James washes dishes and worries about her children and gets nervous giving a dinner party. This situates her much closer to real life than was ever true for Harriet Vane. So Crombie’s utilization of the friends-and-family as central to the mystery plots is faintly jarring, it just pushes a little too hard against the verisimilitude in which her books are situated.