I’m walking over a California field so dry, the grass crackles under my feet. But as I trudge along, I’m dreaming that I’m striding through a thick British mist to reach a warm pub. Inside the horse brasses are gleaming on the walls. The beer is warm, but tastier than anemic American stuff. After chatting with the locals, I’ll stroll through twisted village streets to my thatched cottage. The dream is so real, I actually toy with the thought of moving to the British Isles. I’d so enjoy living where girls don’t talk in baby voices and television interviewees don’t intersperse “y’knows” between every thought. I’d buy a manor house, just a small one, at the edge of town and ask everybody to tea.
Then I remember what happened when my mother’s friend bought a small castle somewhere in England. As a middle class American housewife, she fit in nowhere. The aristocracy sniffed at her lack of bloodline. The shopkeepers were uncomfortable making small talk up at the castle. After a few years she sold up and came home. In Downton Abbey the chauffeur who marries into the titled clan is welcomed into the bosom of the family, but I doubt that happens in real life. Anyhow, I hear pubs are closing as Brits turn from ale to wine. As for British food, they say it’s improved, but I remember too well processed peas and bland custard poured over every dessert or “pudding.” Maybe moving is not such a good idea.
I can always get my British “fix” by reading English mysteries. Like most of America, I was raised on Agatha Christie and wallowed in Miss Marple’s clever deductions, Hercule Poirot’s little gray cells and her broad canvas of English life. But who is our Agatha today? PD James, of course, but her output is slim now. Dick Francis is dead and anyway, the English mysteries I like best, the ones dealing with cricket and village life and eccentric characters are mostly being written by Americans. One of my favorites, Deborah Crombie’s series about Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his policewoman partner Gemma who becomes his life partner, is written by a woman who lives in Texas! Elizabeth George has made a fortune writing about her aristocratic hero, Lord Lynley who works in harness with Barbara, his oh-so-common sidekick. George sometimes deals with the seamier side of British life, but Lynley’s days usually end in some posh spot with him chatting up another member of the nobility.
Maybe that’s what I’m really after — an idealized view of Britain as seen through American eyes. There’s Martha Grimes whose books bear inventive and amusing pub names. Charles Todd, an American team of mother and son whose fictional hero fought in World War I, Deborah Crombie and of course Elizabeth George. All keeping alive the world Agatha Christie conjured up. Britain may have changed, but this reader loves the books that allow me to pretend it hasn’t.