Category Archives: Karin Fossum

Baby, We Were Born to Run*

RisktakingIt’s common among young people (and sometimes, not-so-young people) to believe in the ‘it can’t happen to me’ myth. That myth of indestructibility is arguably part of the reason for which many young people take the kinds of risks that they probably wouldn’t take if they were older. You see this myth playing out in a lot of crime fiction, and it can be both compelling and poignant. After all, young people are not indestructible. I’m only going to be mentioning a few examples here, but I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie includes several characters in her stories who seem to believe in their own indestructibility. I’ll just mention one. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Anthony Marston, a young man who’s received an invitation to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. He accepts the invitation and travels to the island, where he finds that a group of other people have received and accepted invitations. After dinner on that first night, each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. In Marston’s case, he’s accused of having killed two small children in a reckless driving incident. Later that evening, he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Then there’s another. Now it’s clear that someone lured these people to the island and seems bent on killing them one by one. The survivors will have to find out who that person is if they hope to stay alive. More than once in this novel, Marston’s youth, apparent strength and seeming invincibility are mentioned, and that gives his death all the more impact. I know, I know fans of The Man in the Brown Suit’s Anne Bedingfield…

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. His parents Ralph and Elaine have placed him at the Laguna Perdida School, a boarding school for ‘troubled students.’ One day Tom disappears from the school. Dr. Sponti, who is head of Laguna Perdida, hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy before his parents discover that he’s missing. But it’s already too late. During their meeting, Ralph Hillman bursts into the office saying that Tom has been kidnapped. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with Tom’s parents to try to get him back. Almost immediately something seems ‘off.’ For one thing, the Hilmmans aren’t nearly as forthcoming about Tom as you’d expect from parents who were distraught about a missing child. For another, there’s some evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers willingly. If so, he may be part of a plot to extort money from them. Archer’s trying to track down leads when one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now it’s clearer than ever that this is not an ‘textbook’ kind of kidnapping. Throughout this novel, we see ways in which Tom (and some of the other young people at the school) have behaved in that ‘indestructible’ way. Many of them take risks that they probably wouldn’t if they really contemplated the danger involved.

We see a bit of that perception of invulnerability in Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food too. Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is concerned when two of her employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge begin behaving very oddly. In fact, they behave so strangely that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen think they may be on a new kind of drug. It turns out that the girls bought weight loss tea at a club one night and were poisoned by it. Now Chapman wants to find out who poisoned the tea and why. At one point, she also makes another discovery. Kylie and Goss are always worried about gaining any weight at all, so instead of reading the instructions and taking the tea as directed, they took a much larger and stronger does than was recommended, so they’d lose weight faster. Their choice to buy this tea from someone they barely knew, and to take it in the way they did, is a reflection of how young people often don’t think through the consequences of what could happen to them. After all, ‘it won’t happen to me.’

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer investigates the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and likes nothing better than a little adventuring. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, who goes along with Andreas’ plans more out of a desire for the friendship than any enjoyment he gets out of their adventures. One day the two meet as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. When his mother Runi first goes to the police about it, Sejer isn’t too worried. Lots of young men take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. But as more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into the matter. To do this, they trace Andreas’ movements on the day he disappeared. Although Zipp isn’t at all forthcoming, especially at first, he eventually tells Sejer what happened that day. But even he doesn’t know what happened to Andreas. As it turns out, Andreas was convinced that everything would be all right – nothing bad would happen to him. But the truth turns out to be quite different…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, there’s an interesting sub-plot about an upcoming event. Mma. Sylvia Potokwane plans a benefit in aid of the orphanage she directs. One of the attractions is to be a parachute jump, and she wants Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs a local garage, to do the jump. Secretly he’s afraid to jump, especially from such heights, but of course he won’t admit that to Mma. Potokwane. Besides, she is strong-willed and persuasive. So he reluctantly agrees. As the day draws closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But his wife Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an idea that works out well for everyone involved. She suggests that Charlie, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistants, might be glad for the chance to do the jump. That way he can do some good and impress the local girls. And that’s exactly what happens. Charlie is a little nervous, but he feels indestructible enough (and is interested in enough in being admired by the young ladies) that he’s eager to do it. It’s an interesting look at the way young people as opposed to more mature adults view risk-taking.

Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, who’s growing up in a small Welsh town during the 1950s. Gwenni’s a bit of a dreamer, and doesn’t always fit in. But life goes on for her, her sister and her parents until the day that a one of the locals Ifan Evans disappears. Later, he’s found murdered. Gwenni wants to find out why he was killed and by whom, so she starts her own kind of investigation. She’s not completely heedless as she goes about it, but she doesn’t really appreciate the risks she’s taking nor the danger she could bring on herself.

And that’s the thing about a lot of young people. They have that sort of myth of indestructibility that sometimes leads them to take all sorts of risks. In that sense, they’re both brave and extremely vulnerable. Which characters like that have stood out for you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Mari Strachan, Ross Macdonald

Where All the Locals Go to Keep Each Other Company*

DinersA lot of people take road trips, and if you’re going to take any kind of a long drive, that means stopping now and again for fuel, food, and so on. Those roadside places can seem like oases, especially if it’s late or the weather is bad. And they’re really effective contexts for murder stories if you think about it. There’s a disparate group of people, any of whom could be at that particular place for any number of reasons. And then there are the people who own and work at such places. They too have their stories. And it’s only natural that sleuths would go to those places too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Blue Cross, a French police detective named Valentin is pursuing a thief named Flambeau who’s managed to elude police. Valentin has traced his quarry to England, but he doesn’t know where Flambeau might be holed up. Valentin stops at a restaurant almost at random and places his order. When he notices that the salt-cellar is full of sugar and the sugar-basin full of salt, he asks the waiter about it. The waiter’s answer gives Valentin an interesting clue as to what’s happened to Flambeau. He doesn’t understand the significance of the clue at the time, but later, we find out that it has important meaning. So does the soup that was thrown at the wall at the same restaurant…

Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, for instance, takes place at the Quick Stop Diner. A man named Gannon goes there with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and now he needs a car to make his getaway. He waits at the diner until just the right kind of patron comes in. His target is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well enough financially to have a fast, late-model car. While Carstairs uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon hides in the back seat of Carstairs’ car. But Gannon soon learns that he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has other plans for his car that change everything for Gannon…

In Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is taking some time away from her job to deal with the traumatic incidents of The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). While she’s there, she and a colleague happen to stop at the Last Chance Diner, very nondescript sort of roadside place made from a converted car workshop. For a time, Martinsson actually works there as she begins to put the pieces of her life together again. She gets involved in a murder case when a priest Mildred Nilsson is murdered. Martinsson has the thankless task of working with the Church of Sweden to arrange for the house Nilsson had been living in with her husband to be transferred back to church hands.  Police detectives Ana-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder, and they begin with Nilsson’s family and then her congregants. That’s where the Last Stop Diner comes in very handy. It turns out that several of the locals eat there, and their interactions play an important role in the novel.

Much of Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride) takes place in the Norwegian village of Elvestad, where Gunder Jormann has lived most of his life. He’s no longer a young man, but he’s still presentable and hard-working – the steady type. So he is hoping to find a wife, and makes the surprising announcement to his sister Marie that he’s going to look for a bride in India. Despite her misgivings, Jormann goes to Mumbai where he meets Poona Bai, who works at a café there. He’s taken with her and it’s not long before she agrees to marry him. Jormann returns to Elvestad to prepare for his bride’s arrival, while Poona stays behind to tie up the proverbial loose ends of her life in India. On the day of her arrival, Jormann’s sister is in a terrible car accident, so he can’t go to the airport to meet Poona. He delegates that duty to a friend, but the two miss each other. Poona never arrives at Jormann’s home, and when her body is later found in a field near Elvestad, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. Elvestad has a small café/restaurant that serves as a roadside stop as well. The locals tend to congregate there, and without spoiling the novel, I can say that it plays an important role in the novel. So does the gossip that readers pick up there…

There’s also Walter Mosley’s Little Green, which takes place in 1967. In that novel, Los Angeles PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is recovering from a personal loss and a terrible car accident. He’s getting back on his feet again when his friend (if you can all him that) Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander asks him to find a young Black man nicknamed Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts with some of the area’s hippie places. He finds out that a young White woman named Coco might know something about the young man’s disappearance, so he tracks her down. In one scene in the novel, he and Coco go to Pete and Petra’s Diner where they place their order. Rawlins asks her to tell him a little about herself. When she asks why, Rawlins says,

 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’

 

To Rawlins, who’s seen more than his share of bigotry, this is a major change in society. But as he soon learns, not everyone has moved on with the times. A white man named Lucas goes up to their table and makes several racist comments. Rawlins is not one to meekly submit to abuse, so he’s more than willing to fight, especially when the man is disrespectful to Coco. The trip to the diner doesn’t solve the mystery. But it’s a fascinating look at the changing times of the late 1960’s.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole. In that novel, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is discovered at a roadside stop on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway. At first it looks like suicide, but his car was ransacked, and there’s other evidence too that suggests that this was murder. The evidence shows that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey, and Sea Haven police detectives John Ceepak and Danny Boyle investigate the case. In this instance, they only have one day to find out who killed the victim, because Shareef’s boss Sergeant Dale Dixon is determined to carry out justice in his own way if the police don’t solve the case quickly.

And that’s the thing about those roadside stops and diners. They attract all kinds of people. Seedy or clean, remote or just outside of town, they are fascinating places on a lot of levels. And they do make excellent contexts for crime stories. Oh, wait, there’s a sign up ahead. Want to stop for a bit?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s House of Blue Light.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Chris Grabenstein, Donald Honig, G.K. Chesterton, Karin Fossum, Walter Mosley

But Times Have Changed and Things are Not the Same, Baby*

TimesHaveChangedToday’s savvy crime fiction fans want stories that reflect real life. I don’t just mean characters who behave in believable ways, although that’s important of course. I’m really referring here to other kinds of credibility. Here’s just one example. Suppose for instance that a character travels. It would be very difficult to do that, especially internationally, without that travel being documented. And if a character is a suspect in a crime, the police will at some point have access to those records. So a plot in which the police couldn’t find that information wouldn’t be credible. To take just one more example, consider the process of obtaining and showing identification. Of course it’s possible, if one has the right connections, to get forged documents. False documents are also given to certain top-secret government operatives and to people who participate in witness protection programs. And there’s the whole issue of identity theft, especially online identity. But for most of us, it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to go through our daily lives pretending to be someone else.

In some ways, this adds to the challenge of modern crime writing. In Sherlock Holmes’ A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He’s concerned because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising ‘photo of them. If it comes to light, the marriage plans will be scuttled. Holmes finds out where Irene Adler is and although she ends up, if you will, with all of the proverbial cards, the king is able to go ahead with the wedding. This story arguably couldn’t really happen today. For one thing, the king is only worried about getting that one ‘photo. With today’s online digital photography and online social media, the king would have no hope of keeping that ‘photo secret.

The major premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is that a group of people is visiting Indian Island off the Devon coast, stranded by a storm. They’ve each been invited under a different pretext but as they soon find out, they were brought there deliberately. And when, one by one, they begin to die, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among them. As it’s written, it’s a very suspenseful story in part because there seems no escape from the danger; the people on the island really are cut off. Today’s crime writer would have some challenges writing a story with that scenario. After all, almost everyone has mobile ‘phones. It’s harder to be completely stranded than it was. It’s certainly possible, but today’s author would have to work to make it plausible.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna concerns the murder of Roseanna Mcgraw, a young woman from the US state of Nebraska. She is murdered during a cruise of Swedish cities, and one of the first challenges the police face is identifying her. It takes quite some time to connect the dead woman with the woman who was reported missing in Nebraska and then more time to establish the victim’s itinerary. After several months, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team get their answers and are able to focus on the right suspect. Today’s crime writer would have to account for a few things in order to sustain a story like this. For example, today, there’s instant communication among police forces, even internationally. What’s more, computer databases give police easy access to the kind of information that Martin Beck and his team need. And then of course there’s the reality of email, texting and the like. A crime writer would have to explain a disappearance like Roseanna’s in more depth.

It might seem then that today’s crime writers have a much harder task in terms of making stories realistic than did crime writers of the past. But I’m not sure it’s that easy. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. In Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge, Oslo homicide detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the death of seven-year-old Jonas August Løwe. When a couple out for a Sunday walk discover Jonas’ body, they call the police and an investigation is started immediately. Modern technology means that the police are notified quickly, the body is identified very soon thereafter, and Sejer and Skarre can begin the process of finding out who killed the boy. What it also means is that Fossum can focus on the investigation and on the characters involved rather than take a lot of time to explain how the boy is identified and so on.

Today’s realities can also add to a story’s interest. For example, in one plot thread of Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered. In part because of a previous incident of possible domestic violence, her husband Connor is the obvious suspect. But he seems to have disappeared. What’s more (and this is adds to the story’s suspense), when the police look into his background, it turns out that they can’t find anything. There are no records that he ever existed. Given today’s documentation, that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s just what makes the case more interesting and for Marconi and the team, more challenging. In the end though, we find out the truth about both mysteries. In this case, Howell takes advantage of the realities of today’s world to add to the storyline.

There’s also Anthony Bidulka’s When the Saints Come Marching In, which introduces us to CDRA (Canadian Disaster Relief Agency) agent Adam Saint. Saint is a part of a top-secret agency that provides assistance anywhere in the world when wars or other disasters affect Canadians or Canadian interests. Saint travels to Magadan, in the Russian Federation, when his boss is killed during the investigation of a plane crash. There’s more to it of course than that, but Saint drops the investigation and returns home to Saskatchewan when a personal emergency ends his career with the CDRA. As you can imagine, though, the story doesn’t end there. This novel and others like it depend on modern realities. Saint travels on very little notice, something that couldn’t happen without today’s realities. He has access to the very latest in modern technology too. And there are other aspects of the plot that wouldn’t be credible at all without modern realities.

Developments such as DNA testing, modern identification documents and procedures, and global communication mean that some kinds of stories that we used to take for granted wouldn’t be credible today. So in some ways, today’s writers have more considerations than ever if they’re to sustain credibility. At the same time though, new realities have made possible all sorts of new kinds of storylines.

What about you? Are you bothered by lapses in credibility (e.g. ‘You know she had a mobile; why didn’t she call for help?’). If you’re a writer, how do you address the issue?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

A Fortress Steep and Mighty*

SecurityOne of the most important needs we have is the need for security. We need to feel that we can depend on our lives to stay more or less stable. In fact, if scholars such as Abraham Maslow are right, the only needs that are more urgent are our physical needs such as air, water, food, and physical safety. The need for security plays a major role in many of our decisions. If you’ve ever known someone who kept a dull and dreary job because it was more secure than risking a career change, you know what I mean.

The need for security also plays an important role in crime fiction. It acts as a motivator, it adds to character development and it can add a layer of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples from the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always had the security of knowing they’d have no financial worries. Family patriarch Gordon Cloade has seen to their needs and has promised they’d never have to be concerned about money. Then everyone’s sense of security is shaken when Cloade marries Rosaleen Underhay. What’s worse, he dies tragically in a bomb blast without changing his will. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, leaving the rest of the Cloades with nothing. The possibility of security returns in the form of a mysterious stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. He hints that Rosaleen may actually have been married to someone else at the time of her marriage to Cloade. If that’s true, then she can’t inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. Throughout this novel, we see how each of the Cloades deals with the feeling that their precious security may no longer be a given.

Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar is the story of the Hillman family, who’ve built a secure, safe upper-middle-class life. When their seventeen-year-old son Tom begins to have some difficulties, they send him to Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled teens. One day he disappears from the school. Fearing that the school will be held liable, headmaster Dr. Sponti hires PI Lew Archer to find the boy. During their meeting, Tom’s father Ralph Hillman comes into the office with the news that Tom’s been abducted and that there’s been a ransom demand. Archer returns with Hillman to the family home where he agrees to find out who’s kidnapped Tom. In the process, he finds that things are not at all what they seem on the surface. This is not a case of kidnapping a rich boy for the money. Then, there’s a murder. As Archer gets closer to the truth, he finds that the Hillmans depend greatly on the sense of security they get from their reputation and their social standing. When that’s threatened, it’s a threat to their very identity.

Karin Fossum’s  Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride)  includes another treatment of the need for security. Gunder Jormann has lived all his life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone, and life is slow-paced, even a bit dull, but secure. Jormann himself isn’t exactly the quickest thinker, but he is steady and dependable, a lot like the town.  Then he makes the surprising announcement that he’s going to find a bride. What’s more, he’s going to Mumbai to do so. His sister Marie isn’t at all sure he should do this. It certainly doesn’t sound like a safe, smart thing to do. But Jormann goes ahead with his plan and travels to Mumbai, where he meets Poona Bai. They strike up a relationship and Poona agrees to marry him. He travels back to Norway to make the house ready for her, while she stays behind to finish up her life in India. On the day of Poona’s arrival in Norway though, Marie is involved in a car accident and Jormann has to stay with her. So he asks an acquaintance to meet Poona at the airport. They miss each other though, and Poona never arrives at Jormann’s house. The next day her body is discovered in a nearby field. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the killing. In this case, security isn’t specifically the reason for Poona’s death. But it does play an important role in the way everyone responds to her and to her murder.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces us to fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, but functions at a high enough level that he can go to school and learn academic material. Because of his autism, Christopher has a high need for security. Everything has to be in a certain order, there are certain routines he has to follow, and so on. His comfort and ability to function depend quite a lot on his sense that things are stable. One day Christopher discovers that the neighbour’s dog has been killed. At first, he’s accused of being responsible. So to prove his innocence, he decides to become a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and discover who the guilty person is. In the process of finding out the truth, Christopher finds out a lot about himself. A lot of his assumptions come into question and all of it calls into question the stability he’s always assumed.

We also see the role that the need for security plays in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s planned the perfect dream house in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s looking for the security of a quiet, secluded life in her new home. Then, poor financial decision-making results in a serious blow that means she has to sell her perfect house and settle for the smaller house next door. Her security is further threatened when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy ‘her’ house and move in. She doesn’t want anyone living nearby and even refers to them as ‘the invaders.’ Soon afterwards, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them and Thea’s sense of security is even further threatened when Kim takes an interest in her. Little by little though, she and Kim form a kind of awkward friendship and she senses real promise in the girl. That’s why she feels particularly upset when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When she learns that the police aren’t going to do much, Thea decides to take her own action. This story is told in the form of journal entries Thea makes as a part of a writing class she’s taking. The journal prompts force Thea to confront her own past and it’s interesting to see how her security is threatened by that too.

And then there’s Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. The setting for this novel is an exclusive gated community outside Buenos Aires called The Cascade Heights Country Club. The community represents security to its wealthy residents. There’s a six-foot-high perimeter fence, a group of security guards, etc., all designed to keep the scary ‘larger world’ out. But no-one is really as secure as we’d like to think. And when national economic troubles find their way into Cascade Heights, everyone begins to feel the crumbling of that sense of security. Then one night there’s a tragedy at the home of one of the residents. That tragedy shakes the foundations of life for several of the people who live in Cascade Heights, and we really see how dependent people are on their sense of security, whether or not that security is illusory.

It seems we all have the need to feel secure. When that sense of security is threatened, the experience can shake us to the core. And that can make for a rich layer in a crime novel. I’ve given just a very few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. Yes, I know I’ve used this one more than once. It’s a great song. You’re welcome.  ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Karin Fossum, Mark Haddon, Ross Macdonald, Virginia Duigan

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer