The continuing stooooooory of how the Grand Vizier puts his feet up and lets other people talk some sense for a change. This week: Adrian McKinty (right) on the English detective.
The English Detective, Reconsidered
“At this year’s Oscars, Tilda Swinton declared that the Best Actor winners were examples of a triumphant Celtic spirit. Swinton, who was born in London and went to the same school as Princess Diana, thinks of herself as Scottish. The other big Oscar winner, Daniel Day Lewis, also born and raised in London, considers himself Irish. Irish indeed is the default nationality for uncomfortable Englishmen everywhere. Some sneak themselves in so successfully we forget that they’re actually from over the sheugh, while others fail miserably. Jeremy Irons is never going to convince anyone of his essential Mickness but Shane McGowan, that wonderful living (still, I think) stereotype was born and went to school in Tunbridge Wells.
“Now, I don’t mind sharing my Irishness with anyone. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to call yourself Irish but you and your family have been living in, say Boston, for the last hundred and forty years, well then that’s okay. We all do it: sometimes I cheer for the Kenyan marathoners because only a few thousand generations ago my very own ancestors were traipsing round the Great Rift Valley hunting antelope. No, what makes me sad about all of this is the rejection of Englishness.
“I think it began in the seventies, perhaps through a combination of football hooliganism, economic recession, colonial guilt and Kevin Keegan’s haircut: a perfect storm which produced a generation who considered Englishness an embarrassing, guilt-ridden appendage. For five centuries before 1978 it was good to be Anglo-Saxon, but then almost overnight it wasn’t. On a recent podcast even The Greatest Living Englishman, Stephen Fry, admitted that he really wanted to be Oscar Wilde.
“Literary fiction hasn’t produced new role models. The best English writers have always come from humble origins but these days brainy escapers tend to write screenplays or code for video games. Reading has become an almost cult behaviour with the consequence that the literary universe has gotten more clubbish, more exclusive and more out of touch than ever.
“Movies haven’t helped either. I have never seen a Hugh Grant film in my life (I’m saving that experience for an eternity in hell) but I’ll bet Grant’s stuttering, foppish, sarcastic, allegedly witty characters do the English no favours. There’s a thin line a being a wit and a complete cunt, as that wannabe Irishman John Lydon once said.
“So where does an Englishman (Swinton aside, women don’t usually have this problem) turn if he’s looking for an archetype? Music? Fuggedaboutit. The Gallagher brothers are no-talent has-beens, Tom Yorke is a doom-saying mystic and Duffy’s a girl. And Welsh. All the most famous Englishmen these days are, God save us, chefs.
“No, I suggest that the confused Englishman reject all of this and embrace an older role model, that of the sophisticated, smart, unruffled, classic English detective.
“Sherlock Holmes (right) sprang from the mind of a Lowland Scot but essentially he’s as English as soft-boiled eggs, warm rain, rudeness in restaurants, kindness to animals, cruelty to children, etc. On TV he’s usually a chilly savant but in the books he’s a moody dope fiend, prone to fisticuffs, occasionally witty and of course hyper-intelligent. The downside is Holmes’ snobbishness and his fawning attitude towards royalty, but you can forgive him his milieu. If more Brits behaved like Holmes they’d still miss penalties in crucial football games but at least they wouldn’t blub about it.
“If Sherlock Holmes isn’t your cup of tea, there are many others. We’ll skip over Lord Peter Wimsey (see snobbishness above) and go straight to Philip Marlowe. Courteous, smart and funny; a seducer of violet-eyed heiresses, a resister of femmes fatale. And cool. Sherlock Holmes is a lot of things but he’s not hip. Marlowe is, in spades. If cool were America, Holmes would be a hick town in Kansas and Marlowe would be the East Village. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Wasn’t Philip Marlowe born in Santa Rosa, California? Didn’t that American actor Humphrey Bogart play him in the movies? How can he be English? He just is, that’s all.
“Like Chandler himself, Marlowe was born Stateside but obviously, like Chandler, he went to school in London and spent his formative years in England, becoming - again, like Chandler - a naturalized Brit. Marlowe likes poetry, chess, the aesthetic, the Old World, ancient books over modern, the nineteenth century over the twentieth, metaphor over simile, violet over blue. His phoney accent doesn’t fool me, he’s a Brit through and through. His name is English, his clothes are British, the weather owes more to London than Santa Monica and his stance has a certain trans-Atlantic panache. Both he and James Bond are late thirties but Marlowe’s world weary cynicism is more appropriate than Bond’s boyish enthusiasm as a response to the anomie and existential crises of our nightmare epoch. Marlowe’s your man if you went to blend your own rye whiskey and look through rainy windows at the poor deluded fools dreaming their lives away while the world goes to hell about them.
“If neither of those guys work for you, you could look at Inspector Wexford and Adam Dalgliesh but for me the apotheosis of the type has to be Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford Constabulary. Morse has the virtues and vices of the classically educated man. He is continually outraged by the psychopathology of every day life. He hates deadlines, cell-phones, meetings, workshops, press conferences, television, gossip mags, celebrities, chilled beer … As Brian Wilson once said, he just wasn’t made for these times. Who is? With insanity everywhere, Morse starts drinking when the pubs open and swallows his last dram before bed; and unlike the Hugh Grants of this world, Morse’s sarcasm isn’t there to amuse and titillate. Morse’s sarcasm is a slate-black irony directed at the God who isn’t there, the chaos that robs us of any chance of love and the meaninglessness of it all. As Nabokov pointed out, “the cradle rocks over the abyss” and for Morse the abyss is always with us. For a trillion years we’ll be dead until the universe itself dies in a whimpering heat death, our petty lives not even a glimmer of a spark in all that long grim durée. Morse knows that the only thing we can do is enjoy the achingly brief time we have. Following Epicurus, Morse says drink good beer, listen – really listen – to the best music, drive your car and relish it (easy if you’ve got a Mark 2 Jag), and if you can, try to salve the pain of the grief-stricken.
“Yeah, I like Morse just as I like the English, but I’d like them better if Englishmen rejected the lines given them by Richard Curtis and rediscovered their old clichés: the stiff upper lip, coolness in a crisis, dry wit, and the broody imperiousness of Holmes, Marlowe (right) and Morse. The classic English detectives, like real Celts everywhere (and unlike poor foot-in-mouth Tilda Swinton) know when to talk and when to embrace the silence.” – Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty’s THE BLOOMSDAY DEAD is published by Serpent’s Tail
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.