“When Bob’s Your Uncle” (by G.M. Malliet)

G.M. Malliet is an American, but she favors England, where she lived for several years, as a setting for her fiction. Her debut novel, which appeared in 2008 and introduced series character DCI Arthur St. Just, won an Agatha Award and was nominated for the Anthony, the Macavity, and a Left Coast Crime award. A second Malliet series, starring a former MI5 agent turned vicar, was launched by Macmillan in 2011, and her standalone dark suspense thriller Weycombe is scheduled for release in October of this year. Also an author of short stories, G.M. Malliet has been described (Cleveland.com) as possibly “the best mystery author writing in English at the moment (along with Tana French).” Her work first appeared in EQMM in 2014, and a second story, with a brilliantly realized British setting, is featured in our current issue, March/April 2017. A third Malliet story, this time set in the U.S., will be  coming up in EQMM soon!—Janet Hutchings

While many call American-born Edgar Allen Poe the father of the detective story, and credit him in particular with inventing the locked-room mystery, it is no coincidence that the country that took this idea and ran with it is so isolated, so protected for long centuries from invasion except by sea. Even today the classic mystery has to do with the confinement of victims and suspects to a remote manor house, in the type of “we’re stuck here and the lights just went out” plot perfected by Agatha Christie in And Then There Were None. I would argue a small island, England in particular, is the ideal setting for mayhem and murder. Maybe that’s why I went there, as a fledgling mystery novelist, and long every day to go back.

*****

As an American who happens to write books set in Great Britain, the question I am asked most often is, “Why?” Meaning, wouldn’t it have been easier for you to use a North American setting and characters? The answer is yes, it most certainly would. I suppose my choice is even more unusual because I didn’t visit the UK until I was in my twenties. That is when my love of all things British took hold, authors of the Golden Age, particularly Dame Agatha, having ignited the spark long before. Martha Grimes, a fellow American who likes doing things the hard way, also was an inspiration, as later was Elizabeth George.

Had I set my books in the US, I could altogether have avoided email from UK readers politely asking me when I’m going to learn how to spell “colour” or why I wrote “fall” when surely I meant “autumn.” My books are originally printed in the US but sold to Little, Brown in the UK “as is;” it appears no one can be bothered to translate my books into English because they think I’m already writing in English, or at least close enough to make myself understood. Since I never reread my own books in any language, this lack of translation came as a surprise when alert readers in the UK began pointing it out.

Nowadays, I take care to write “mobile phone” when I mean “cell phone” and, yes, “autumn” for “fall,” but I have to leave the rest for others to sort out. It took me years to learn how to spell in Great British for my thesis and years to unlearn it afterward; what I’m doing now is at best a shaky bridge between the two worlds.

I have noticed that books by British authors generally have the spelling “corrected” for US readers: “s” for “c” in licence and “z” for “s” in criticise—“zed” being a whole other matter. British crime stories are extremely popular with American audiences, simply because nobody does their peculiar brand of polite havoc better. As Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, “Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject.” And a greater fund of invention, I would add. But she was talking about a particular type of crime novel. The puzzle mystery that would be almost impossible to carry out in real life is what excites the devotees of the true British mystery like me—not a random drive-by shooting or holdup. And that isolated setting is practically a requirement—an island, a ship, an airplane, a spooky mansion in a snowstorm—simply to eliminate the hackneyed passing stranger as a suspect. I have come to think the fame of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be credited in part to its fascinating protagonists and in part to its burnishing of Golden Age tropes.

*****

Occasionally I hear from readers who think I am British. That I am able to fool readers is not exactly a source of satisfaction, much less a goal, but I do take it as praise that I don’t get things too terribly wrong.

I lived in the UK in Cambridge and Oxford for five years. Oxford, in particular, is vivid in my memory. I shared a little crooked house on Ship Street in the heart of the city with two other grad students, one from London and one from Wales, and those gifted women were a delightful education in and of themselves. In theory, I was reading for advanced degrees, but in reality I was spending hours each day in coffee shops eavesdropping, fascinated by the way these people talked. I wanted to talk like that. I wanted to write like that, too, for the British are masters at distilling both the sublime and the ridiculous into a few masterfully constructed sentences. Even in casual conversation, the average British man or woman (whether upper or lower class, a whole other topic) can toss off lines, formed in perfectly calibrated and nuanced paragraphs, that can take me weeks to produce at the keyboard. And they manage to do this in a way that is so often amusing. Their particular gift seems to be for the subversive observation. Or the completely loopy but brilliant commentary that makes sense only if you’re willing to check your sanity at the door (cf. Eddie Izzard and all the Monty Python players).

How much of this verbal agility is a reaction to the UK’s island status only an expert could say. The English are not, after all, that far distant from France in kilometers, but in outlook, style, and temperament they are completely different—just ask either side. Nor is England at any great distance from the rest of Europe but it remains isolated, with the Brexit movement demonstrating the wish of many to stay that way—ta very much.

At the same time, the English language has become universal. There are political reasons for that, of course; I regret very much that the Cornish language of my ancestors, to give one example, has virtually disappeared.

I have tried in recent years to write a mystery novel set in the US. So far, no luck. I’ve found few settings here that interest me, and for the long haul of the novel, especially, the writer has to be engaged. Britishisms kept creeping in to my standalone novel until finally I gave up and changed the setting to England. For the traditional puzzle story that I love, only that small island will do.

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2 Responses to “When Bob’s Your Uncle” (by G.M. Malliet)

  1. rkoreto says:

    Thanks for your great insights! I’m also an American writing stories that take place in England, and keep having to check on words and phrases that are exclusively American. Thanks goodness for my OED.

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