You can draw a line from the glistening cobblestones of Vienna in Carol Reed’s The Third Man through the neon-reflecting puddles of Blade Runner. But you can draw a line backwards, as well; the noir vision of the city as rain-dappled menace has (by way of numerous mediocre Jack the Ripper movies, I’m sure) colored my vision of Victorian and Edwardian London, the stomping grounds of Springheel Jack and Crippen, as well as more literary monsters. The detective novel sees quintessentially American; the shamus getting fed nonsense by his (or, in many more recent novels, her) client and going on to find out the truth anyway, who goes down mean streets but is not himself mean, is just a classic American archetype. Crime books and movies crop up anywhere: Los Angeles, New York, Sonatine‘s Okinawa, London, Moscow, A Coffin for Dimitrios‘ pan-European tour. Greed and an urge to violence are universal. The mystery novel doesn’t hold my interest nearly so well as these forms. Perhaps it’s because I’m not good with the sorts of puzzles mystery novels provide, but it may be because I’ve so firmly associated mysteries with England.
The great amateur and eccentric sleuth seems a quintessentially British creation. Sherlock Holmes is unimaginable without London, and his imitators, his female counterparts, and the innumerable popular fiction characters from the Victorian and pre-war years are not much different. Agatha Christie‘s Miss Marple is unimaginable without the British countryside; Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Whimsy and Harriet Vane books, the best and most exemplary classic mystery novels in mind, are part and parcel of a vanished London of gentlemen’s gentlemen, hand-tailored waistcoats, and Edwardian privilege. It doesn’t seem to translate across the Atlantic.
The London of my imagination — and I’m not alone — has its own special, creepy vibe, and not just thanks to the fog. The Mod twin gangsters, the Krays, represent a break from the London of my imagining; the East End of the Krays is one of Vespas and Saville Row suits, not of Dickensian gangs of children, secret underground meeting places, thieves’ cant (I could learn it from Captain Grose‘s admirable volume). The London I imagine is not the modern metropolis, a thriving multicultural center of world finance and of the arts; it’s the London of the Metropolitan Police Crime Museum and weird Victorian ghost stories. I’d like to visit London someday, but I’ll stick to the one with the V & A and without the scarlet billows, I think.