The second of the two parts of Mind the Gap aired on BBC 2 this week. This thought-provoking programme was a documentary presented by Evan Davis analysing both the success of London and the challenges faced by the rest of Britain given the apparently relentless increase in the north-south divide, in terms of prosperity and much else. Crime fiction wasn't mentioned once, needless to say, but some of the issues discussed have genuine relevance (at least in my opinion) to contemporary crime fiction.
Economics is a subject which fascinates me, although I have long suspected that the main difference between different schools of economists may be not that some are right and some are wrong, but simply the often very distinct ways in which they are all ultimately proved wrong. Evan Davis is a very articulate, intelligent and likeable presenter indeed, and he argued not only that London's prosperity will continue to grow because it is a hub of excellence and a magnet for talented people who want to cluster together, but also that the only chance the rest of the country has of catching up is to create a super-city of its own. He proposed Manchester as this super-city, something that won't have pleased many Liverpudlians I know, for a start.
I agreed with some of Davis' arguments - for instance, a good example of a hub that he didn't mention is Hay-on-Wye, which has reinvented itself brilliantly as a book town and home of a major literary festival. But I did wonder if, in some respects, his arguments were a bit old-fashioned. Technology - Skype, the internet, and all the rest of it - surely makes geographical proximity between like-minded people less of a "must" than it once was. And there are various powerful human factors that complicate the discussion. I sense that younger people are more concerned about the "work-life balance" than was the case, say, thirty years ago, and I'm not sure that living and working in super-cities provides the best kind of balance for a lot of people. And what about the nightmare of commuting - something I used to hate when I was working full-time at some distance from my office, and which is becoming more stressful with every year that passes? Davis didn't say anything about the countryside, and I don't believe you can look at cities in isolation from the country as a whole.
Whatever one's views, however, we are all affected by economic realities, and therefore crime novels are inevitably affected by them too. And this is a subject which has lurked in the background of my fiction right from the outset. All the Lonely People presented a picture of Liverpool at quite a low point in its history, and later Harry Devlin books tackled the changes and improvements (and there have been many, which Mind the Gap didn't address, focusing instead on the boarded-up terraced houses) in the city in later years. The Lake District Mysteries have a sub-text about changes and challenges in rural society that are again driven by economic factors. Very few reviewers have commented on these aspects of the books, so perhaps they are not of widespread interest, but I prefer to think that it is because I don't address them in a didactic way. Like the economists, I don't have any easy solutions to offer to the economic challenges faced by places that I love, such as Liverpool and the Lakes. But I do think that those challenges provide a natural and relevant backdrop to the mysteries of character and motive that are my main concern as a crime writer..
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