The Case of the Misplaced Britishisms

I’m a big fan of the British author Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries. They’re old-fashioned, in the Agatha Christie vein, but also very clever and also frequently with the self-conscious meta aspect I’m partial to. Like in The Word Is Murder, there’s a character named “Anthony Horowitz” who’s a mystery writer. And a key part of Magpie Murders is a (fictional) mystery novel, the entirety of which is included in the text.

The same thing happens in his most recent book to be released in the U.S., Moonflower Murders. The novel-within-the-novel is called Atticus Pünd Takes the Case, Pünd being the detective main character. Horowitz does a delicate dance with this this text: it has to be good enough to hold our interest, but it’s also meant to be bit hokey — and certainly not as good as his own book that surrounds it.

One particular flaw in the embedded text has to do with a character named Charles Pargeter, who we’re told “had the look of a Harvard professor” and “spoke with an American accent.” He does have a home in Knightsbridge as well as New York. Yet I don’t think that can explain the number of Britishisms Pargeter uses. He says:

“The combination was sent to me by post.” (Americans would say “in the mail.”)

“We were actually at college together.” (Americans do indeed say “college” instead of “university,” but would phrase it as either “in college” or “went to college.”)

“He also got Harris out of bed and asked him if he’d heard anything, but there was no joy there.”

“That horse has bolted, as the saying goes.” (The American version of that British saying is “the horse has left the barn.”)

We’re not told the nationality of Pargeter’s wife, Elaine, but she talks British, too:

“They went upstairs and they also looked round the side of the house, where the window had been broken…. The next morning we had a whole crowd of people from Scotland Yard: forensics, photographers, the lot!”

“Looked round” and “the lot” are Britishisms.

As I say, Atticus Pünd Takes the Case is intentionally not great, but I don’t think the Parmenters’ misplaced language is intentional on Horowitz’s part. I can’t tell you why. In fact, I may have already said too much.

18 thoughts on “The Case of the Misplaced Britishisms

  1. You are absolutely right that those examples sound jarring coming from the mouth of a purported American. But I’ll defend ol’ Anthony (he really should change that to Antony if he’s serious about being British, though) by saying that a lot of Americans who live in Britain a long time begin to say certain things in British rather than in American. I call it “the full Madonna,” because, for those years she lived in Britain, whatever that celebrity said seemed to be half British (consciously, in her case, I’d guess). Others might do the same thing less consciously because of linguistic erosion of their prior dialect on one side of the road they’re on, and linguistic landslide of the dialect they hear all day on the other side.

    1. I always thought Anthony (which I always think of as the Celtic spelling) is more common in the UK than Antony, the Latin spelling (which I actually prefer).

  2. Given the movie, The Postman, starring Kevin Costner, don’t Americans also sometimes use the word post, instead of mail?

      1. I don’t think we ever say mailman in the UK. But the word mail is used, although probably not as often as post.

      2. I’d say “post” has a connotation in American of being immediate and user-oriented– like posting a notice or a roster on a bulletin board or posting a comment on a website– whereas “mail” is process-oriented and institutional in that it involves the postal service. As Ben says, mail is mail, though and never post. Anything in the mailbox is mail, and the verb for sending something via the postal system is always mail. I posted a positive comment on your blog, then mailed you the bill for puffing it up.

      3. As many have noted, in America the US Postal Service delivers the mail, whereas in Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post.

      4. It’s always junk mail that comes through the letterbox in the UK, not junk post.

  3. Conversely, I’m reminded of a book a friend of mine told me about. It was written by an American and there was a scene in a British police station where a British policeman says, “Well, I’ll be a horse’s ass. I didn’t realise he was a spelunker.” We’d save “caver”, not “spelunker” and I don’t think we’d even say “horse’s arse”. The British equivalent is probably “Well, I’ll be blowed” or maybe “Bugger me”.

    1. Rather like those regular calls from “Officer…… at HMRC” to inform me of an error in “filing my taxes” and threatening to send the “city police” to take me to “the courthouse” to “meet with my attorney” unless I immediately pay a substantial sum of money.

  4. I’m not sure if I’m going too far here, but even the phrase “the window had been broken” comes across as more BrE Than AmE. I think most Americans would say “the window was broken” – unless, perhaps, they had reported moments before noticing that it wasn’t and wanted to emphasize the change in condition.

    1. You’re probably right. I think I might have said or written “had been broken,” but I’m over 70. And I’d likely have used it to convey my thinking “somebody broke the window” (so I might have written “somebody had broken the window”) rather than just that the window was in a broken state.

  5. Anthony Horowitz is a great storyteller, but I don’t think he has an ear for language. I didn’t think he was British when I read The Magpie Murders – he used ‘cemetery’ instead of graveyard or churchyard for a church burial ground (a cemetery is a municipal burial place). He also used ‘Harvest Fete’ instead of Harvest Festival, and I noticed several anachronisms in his characters’ 1950s speech. I’m surprised an editor didn’t pick these things up.

    1. That an editor didn’t pick them up need not be surprising. In the first place, the book might not have been edited at all. Second, the editor would have to be finely attuned to British English and possibly of a certain age to notice such incongruities. If the book was only proofread, that could explain a lot.

      1. There was a book up for the Hugo award for science fiction a few years ago that was by an American author but set in London during the Blitz. Somebody from the UK should really have gone through the book and checked its attempts at being British. You would not have been able to catch a Jubilee line train in 1941, nor used 5p coin to make a phone call.

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