I realised very soon after uploading my last post that I made a fairly large generalisation about characters in novels that any discerning reader (let alone my old undergraduate English tutor) would baulk at.
I said that characters are usually extraordinary in some way, anomalies, not representative of real persons from the character’s national, religious or professional group. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon isn’t your average Harvard professor; Fleming’s Dr No isn’t your everyday Chinese man.
But I realise my views have been somewhat skewed by my recent reading material – mostly popular 1950s crime and detective novels filled with larger than life, if not stereotyped, characters. (Le Carré’s nuanced characters and complex plots were still several years off.)
There are of course many novelists, “popular” and more “literary” (whatever those terms mean), who aim to portray ordinary (rather than extra-ordinary) characters – from James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones.
That fact acknowledged, I feel I can safely return to my crime novels, populated as they are with characters far from the ordinary.
For even if, as I concluded last time, readers realise that such characters aren’t representative of their nation or other group, those characters exist within a setting that we perhaps accept as a closer reflection of reality.
Most of us dismiss Dan Brown’s plots and characters as fantastical, but you can be sure he researched the details of the Louvre, the Vatican and his novels’ other settings extensively.
For a novel to remain earthbound amidst outlandish plot twists and freakishly good or evil characters, the places they inhabit must be believable. And the surest way to make something believable is by basing it closely on reality.
The same argument applies to other media too. We hope that the events and characters in the Netflix series House of Cards are fantasy, but the settings – the White House, the Capitol, the back streets of Washington DC and so on – are sure to be meticulously reproduced. The 2011 Muppets film is pure escapism, but the LA setting is real.
Despite the extra-ordinary nature of the Germans (whether evil Nazi or anomalous good German) that feature in many post-war British crime novels, the places they inhabit are distinctly ordinary.
Many of these novels were written by men and women who were in Germany in the late 1940s as part of the British occupation. They saw the ruinous conditions first-hand – cities turned to rubble, a thriving black market, a moral and political vacuum.
The literary-minded among them saw the potential of these places – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. The post-war years spawned heaps of them.
The idea of Germany, especially Berlin, as the setting for this genre of novel was incredibly successful. So much so that writers such as Manning Coles were still churning them out well into the 1950s, by which time the rubble was mostly cleared, currency reform had quashed the black market, and German politicians were (mostly) proving themselves admirable leaders.
For the average reader of popular novels, however, the image of Germany remained associated with ruin, backwardness and a criminal underworld. This would only begin to be replaced in the 1960s by the Berlin Wall and its peripheral elements – watchtowers, barbed wire and armed guards. Not exactly a more positive image.
It was perhaps Germany’s bad luck that a British obsession with crime and spy fiction coincided with two post-war decades of upheaval and cold conflict in Germany. A writer needed to look no further than Britain’s former enemy nation for the perfect setting. And I’m sure many British readers were glad to see that former nation now struggling with a new set of demons.
Sadly, it meant that the real story of post-war Germany – re-building and re-educating – was lost in an obsession with the criminal potential of rubble and walls.