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Category Archives: Procedural

FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS. Inspector French’s Greatest Case (1925).

The title of this book oversells it contents badly. Calling it “Inspector French’s Pretty Good Case” would be closer to the mark. That modest appraisal would also be closer to the spirit of the title character himself. French, a stolid embodiment of English middle-class propriety, talks straight and has no time for puffery. Clear facts and the clear-eyed analysis thereof are all that concern him. Unlike the title, moreover, the style used to narrate this first Inspector French adventure thoroughly matches the temper of its protagonist. Crofts writes in an easy-going, unassuming manner; his prose, occasionally ponderous but always on point, is marked less by scintillating wit than by steady intelligence. The novel as a whole, meanwhile, offers moments of quiet grandeur that make its lack of greatness entirely forgivable.

GreatestCaseThe tale gets off to a wholly conventional start. A bobby on his rounds in Hatton Garden, a district in London known for its concentration of diamond merchants, answers a summons to the office of Duke & Peabody. There he finds the slain body of Charles Gething, the head clerk of that firm. Near the spot where someone bludgeoned the poor soul with a poker, a safe stands open; a cache of valuable stones and £100 in notes have gone missing from it. The bobby calls in Scotland Yard, and French takes responsibility for the matter. Thus begins a long and winding inquiry that, in Crofts’s telling, reads as if it sprung in equal measure from the leaves of a policeman’s casebook and the pages of a Baedeker guide. To Switzerland and Spain, to Amsterdam and various ports on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and to multiple destinations both in London and across England, French travels in pursuit of one investigative lead after another. Again and again, those leads show promise and then come to nothing. “It was a confoundingly exasperating case” for French, Crofts reports midway through the book. “Being on it was like trying to cross a stream on stepping-stones which invariably gave way when he came to place his weight on them.”

In time, French does find his footing. Doggedness, rather than deduction, characterizes the process by which he discovers the scheme that led to murder and robbery in Hatton Garden. Indeed, that scheme—replete with disguised identities, tricked-up alibis, and lots of maneuvering via taxi, train, or boat—proves to be cleverer than the sleuthing work that exposes it. The case ends with a sharp twist that surprises French no less than it does the reader. Instead of divining that part of the solution from clues known to him, he merely stumbles upon it. In any event, proceduralism wins the day: French closes the case by marching patiently through a well-mapped field of evidence, and without resorting to bold leaps of intuition.

Although the affair lacks the puzzle-solving pyrotechnics found in other Golden Age novels, and although parts of it are slow and plodding, it’s hardly the work of a “humdrum” writer (as the critic Julian Symons famously labeled Crofts). In a lull before the storm that will come when French apprehends his quarry aboard a ship in transit, Crofts paints his hero against a background rife with drama:

French stood in front of his porthole gazing out over the heaving waters. Daylight had completely gone, but there was a clear sky and a brilliant full moon. The sea looked like a ghostly plain of jet with, leading away across it, a huge road of light, its edges sparkling with myriad flashes of silver.

Sprinkled throughout this not-so-great case are fine passages like that one—brief descriptions that confer a mood of enchantment on seemingly ordinary events. These passages exemplify a key insight offered by G.K. Chesterton in his defense of the detective genre: “[I]t is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2020 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural

 

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON. Jar City (2000).

“He thought about mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters and children that were born and no-one wanted and children who died in that little community, Iceland, where everyone seemed related or connected in some way.” The agent of these musings on the vagaries of paternity and maternity, and on the intricacies of the Icelandic “family,” is Erlendur Sveinsson, detective inspector on the Reykjavik police force.

Following the now-standard format for gritty procedurals, Erlendur functions less as a traditional protagonist than as a prism through which his creator can refract multiple rays of investigative, personal, and social drama. (An introductory note explains that Icelanders generally go by their first name; they don’t have surnames in the usual sense of that term.) Indradason surrounds the inspector with a cast of supporting players who function as a work family—Sigurdur Oli, an up-and-coming fellow with a degree in criminology; Elinborg, a female junior officer; Marion Briem, a crusty senior officer; and so on. On the home front, meanwhile, Erlendur faces challenges that are typical of put-upon fictional cops everywhere: He has a troubled daughter, Eva Lind, and his stumbling efforts to maintain a connection with her form a major subplot in the novel. JarCity.jpg

Erlendur is also keenly aware of his membership in a distinctive national family. Iceland has a population no bigger than that of a mid-size American city, and its people can trace their ancestry back many centuries. Consequently, the country has been able to create a database that combines information on the health and family histories of virtually all of its citizens. Affiliated with this vast genealogical undertaking is a laboratory that retains specimens of biological material from a vast assortment of Icelanders; the book’s title is a mordant reference to that facility. The scientific value of these projects derives largely from the country’s genetic homogeneity. Even so, Indradason manages to suggest that there are an infinite number of stories to be found in Jar City.

There is, for instance, the story of Holberg, a 69-year-old truck driver whose penchant for sexual vice appears to have been the only notable element of an otherwise drab existence. Acting on a neighbor’s tip, Erlundur and his team enter a seedy basement apartment in the Nordurmyri neighborhood of Reykjavik and discover that someone has bludgeoned Holberg to death. What follows is an engrossing tour through the seemingly ordinary lives of people whose fates had intersected with that of the murdered man. Attention turns before long to a set of women who were, or may have been, raped by Holberg—and to people who have familial connections with these victims. (That’s where the revelations of Jar City come into play.) Within this group, presumably, Erlendur will locate a culprit whose yearning for vengeance found an outlet in the savage murder of a sad, dirty old man.

Although Indradason suffuses the tale with an ample portion of Nordic dourness, he avoids the plodding exposition that mars some works of Scandinavian noir. Indeed, the most compelling element of this novel—the third in the Erlendur series—is the author’s careful management of suspense. From chapter to chapter, Indradason switches between one investigative lead and another, and he further varies the mix with chapters about Erlendur and Eva Lind. By braiding his narrative strands in this way, he creates a sequence of cliffhangers that are small in scale but cumulatively large in impact.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2018 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

ARCHER MAYOR. The Ragman’s Memory (1996).

From a bird’s nest discovered by a young girl comes the clue—a clump of purple-dyed hair—that leads Lt. Joe Gunther to uncover more mysterious deaths and potential high crimes than the small, quaint (but not as quaint as it looks) town of Brattleboro, Vermont, would seem able to contain. RagmansMemory.jpg There’s the luckless runaway teen who may have dabbled in satanism, and the homeless man who succumbs inexplicably to a case of rabies, and the local activist who disappears in the dead of night, and the hateful old woman who gets strangled in her nursing-home bed. And there is the sole witness to that woman’s death, a shell-shocked veteran (the “ragman” of the title) whose most reliable memories harken back to the Battle of the Bulge. Throw in a crooked convention-center development deal, and the result is a regular bird’s nest of a plot: It’s densely matted, composed of motley materials, and all too predictable in shape.

The Ragman’s Memory is a standard-issue police procedural, told in the even-keeled voice of Gunther. Mayor, writing in that voice, turns out pleasingly solid prose, and he excels at evoking the social nuances of Brattleboro as it uneasily negotiates the gap between its working-class past and its hippy-cum-yuppy present. Early on, the novel features a thrillingly taut example of the forensic investigator’s art, with Gunther divining from that clump of purple hair the identity of a one Shawna Davis. She’s the unfortunate teenager—a born victim whose murder Gunther pledges to avenge. As the case moves forward, though, Mayor’s tale becomes slack under the weight of too many partially developed subplots. The Vermont setting invites a return visit, and so does the characterization of Gunther and his crew. But the story as a whole takes the reader about a hundred pages beyond the point where both credulity and patience wear thin.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2017 in American, Novel, Procedural

 

L.R. WRIGHT. Prized Possessions (1993).

Where does one draw the line between the mystery novel and the work of serious fiction? In some instances, that line blurs to the point of nonexistence. Those who write about crime often work to attain—and often do attain—the depths of psychological insight and the lofty reaches of social observation that great novelists have traditionally claimed as their exclusive literary domain. Mainstream writers, meanwhile, often descend into the precincts of genre fiction, if only because a work presented as “A Mystery” will sometimes garner more readers than one marketed as “A Novel.” PrizedPossession.jpg

Somewhere between those publishing trends falls this tale. Issued as a “crime” novel, it has a good deal in common with a straight novel that came out in roughly the same era: Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter. Like that work, it traces the process by which a handful of characters converge—slowly, tortuously, inexorably—upon acts of horrific violence. At no point is there any doubt as to “who” or even as to “what.” In the fictive world that Wright has built, only the question of “how” appears to matter. How will the perpetrators find their victims (or vice versa)? How will the murderous impulses foreshadowed in the novel’s earliest scenes finally be unleashed? Nothing beyond the presence of a professional detective, one Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, signals that we are reading a genre piece rather than a “literary” product.

Alberg, in fact, performs no detection. He merely goes about his business, most of it personal, while just over the horizon of his life in staid, orderly Vancouver, two stories of conflict between the sexes unfold—stories of desire thwarted and transposed into hate. In one, a drugstore clerk of subnormal intelligence, believing that a haughty college girl has snubbed him, sets forth to demand an apology from her. Not really knowing why, he takes a gun along with him. In the other, a woman has invested every resource at her disposal into being the perfect wife, only to discover that she has failed. When she goes in search of the husband who has left her, she too carries a gun. The two dramas proceed separately, in parallel fashion, for most of the novel. Then they intersect with one another, and with Alberg, in a concluding sequence that is none the less explosive for being perfectly predictable.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

MAJ SJÖWALL and PER WAHLÖÖ. The Laughing Policeman (1968).

One thing that Inspector Martin Beck and the policemen who serve with him on the Stockholm homicide squad rarely do is laugh. The emotions that they express, or that Sjöwall and Wahlöö express for them, generally align with the kind of gloom and dyspepsia that have come to define the Scandinavian soul (for non-Scandinavians, at any rate). The disappointments of married and family life, the unfulfilled promise of the welfare state, the dank and dreary skies that hover perpetually over the Swedish capital—these are the topics that typically preoccupy Beck and his comrades, who therefore come across as a dour and serious lot. The title of this novel, the fourth of the ten books that make up the Beck saga, thus contains a strong element of irony. And right away that irony takes on a dark hue, for The Laughing Policeman essentially begins with a dead policeman. Late on an evening in 1967, when the Stockholm police are focusing most of their energies on an anti–Vietnam War protest being held at the U.S. Embassy, an assailant guns down nine people on the 47 Bus as it nears its terminus in the city’s Vasastan neighborhood. Among the dead is an off-duty cop named Ake Stenstrom. Was his killing a mere byproduct of a senseless mass murder? Or was he the intended target of an assassin?

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In the now-classic manner of the modern procedural, the investigation of that crime proceeds by fits and starts, with different investigators pursuing different leads with varying degrees of success and (more often) failure. Over time, usable clues—a hidden sheaf of sexually charged photos, a scrap of memory shared by a surviving bus passenger—do accumulate. Then comes a moment, understated but nonetheless climactic, when readers learn the source of the book’s title. Many weeks have passed since the murder spree, and it’s Christmastime. As a present from his daughter, Beck receives a recording of an old song called “The Laughing Policeman.” It’s actually a gag gift of sorts, but it triggers the stroke of insight that Beck needs to arrange an apparently ragtag set of clues in their proper order.

The resolution of the case carries no great surprise, yet it packs a real punch. In large part, that’s because it arises organically from its milieu. Stockholm is a city of islands, populated by residents who skillfully make islands of themselves, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö excel at depicting particular Stockholmers as they inhabit particular locations within that metropolis. The result is a somber, documentary effect that resembles the feel of mid-century noir film and fiction. Still, the noir scene that these authors evoke is a far cry from the prototypical American version. Life in Sweden might breed despair, but social breakdown is a problem that has limited salience in that well-ordered clime. The authors concede as much when they refer—in a glancing albeit telling way—to the day earlier in 1967 when motorists throughout the country miraculously switched from left-hand to right-hand driving.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

PHILIP MASON. Call the Next Witness (1946).

Pyari Singh, proud daughter of a noble Thakur family, earns the sobriquet “Flame of the Forest” from her new husband, Gopal Singh, who admires both her headstrong character and her tawny beauty—that is, until he doesn’t. Shenanigans, financial as well as extra-marital, cause young love to turn sour. A fight between the couple ends with a shotgun blast that kills Pyari, and Gopal becomes the prime suspect in what may or may not be her murder. But while Pyari dies, India truly lives in this police procedural set on the North Indian plain during the twilight of colonial rule. The police consist of native Hindu and Muslim forces under British supervision, and their procedure combines a respect for the ideals of British justice with an allowance for the realities that prevail in a rural, caste-ridden society. The results of this effort to balance law and life are imperfect, to say the least.

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With true naturalistic flair (there is no nonsense here about “the mysterious East”), Mason conveys just how different subcontinental mores are from those of dear old England. Taking his title from a line in Alice in Wonderland, he spins a nuanced, ethnographically deft study of what it means to be a witness in a land where seeing is rarely the same as believing. Nor, in India, is seeing ever just seeing. For an old Brahman nurse-maid, for a member of the gypsy-like Nat tribe who depends on a landowner’s sufferance, for a roadside peddler who longs to escape a shrewish wife, and for several others, what one “witnesses” unfolds within a dense pattern of religious assumptions and social expectations. “Truth” is whatever one’s destiny will bear, and no more. In early scenes, the clash of sensibility between British rulers and those ostensibly ruled by them plays out as comedy—as when members of a panchayat, or village court of elders, fabricate an entire docket of cases in order to satisfy a mandate from the Raj. In a late twist, however, amusement turns to revulsion: District Magistrate Christopher Tregard, upon witnessing the imposition of “justice” in the case of Gopal Singh, closes his eyes and dreams of England; there, he tells himself, the forces of state and society have a better-than-glancing relationship. Published on the eve of Indian Independence, this novel of strange manners made familiar sounds an implicit call for the separation of two great but anomalous peoples.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2013 in British, Novel, Procedural

 

GEORGES SIMENON. Maigret and the Yellow Dog (1931).

“What I’m telling you may not be pretty. But I’ve been watching you. You look like a man who can understand.” That line of dialogue, spoken to the benignly gruff Inspector Maigret and uttered by a suspect under interrogation, suggests the essence of Maigret’s power. It’s Maigret’s job to smoke out the ugly truths that hide in the folds on ordinary French life, and he does so not just by possessing a deep awareness of the ways of humankind, but by projecting that quality among those who cross his investigative path. YellowDog.jpgHere, his mere presence in the seaside village of Concarneau exerts an almost physical influence on the atmosphere of the town: Wayward clues, and the confessed secrets of wayward souls, attach to him as inexorably as metal filings attach to a magnet.

The criminal incident that draws Maigret from Paris to Concarneau is a curious one: A local wine merchant, tipsy after a night of card-playing and conviviality at the Admiral Hotel, stumbles through the town’s near-empty streets. Buffeted by a storm-loosed wind, he stops in a doorway to light a match, and immediately shots ring out. Did someone really intend to kill this apparently inconsequential fellow? Who, in any event, would have known that he’d be passing by that doorway at that late hour? Other crimes, or indications of crime, follow. Stray clues multiply. The yellow dog of the title, for instance, looms for Maigret as a sure sign that something odd is afoot. The dog also functions as a symbol—as a figure of vague menace that flits in and out of view. A symbol of what? Of fear, more or less. Raw, animal fear is a pivotal theme of this novel.

As ever in the casebook of Maigret, the search for clues and the hunt for criminals matter less than a receptivity to less tangible forms of human truth. Simenon, as if to highlight his disdain for traditional modes of detection, provides Maigret with a comic foil—a sidekick named Inspector Leroy, who favors the latest scientific sleuthing methods. Leroy dashes about, making plaster casts of footprints and conducting chemical analyses of liquor bottles, and in general comes across as a feckless skimmer of the surface of things. Maigret, meanwhile, practices a kind of anti-method that lets him plumb the depth of things while seeming to do very little. He presides over the unwinding of a plot that (like the plot in many Sherlock Holmes tales) traces its origins to a past injustice and finds its impetus in a bid for revenge. Less a mystery story than a moral fable, Yellow Dog delivers the age-old message that sin begets sin, and that a man’s worst sins will come back to bite him.

Simenon deftly roots his fable in the here-and-now of a Depression-ravaged provincial town. He limns the foreclosed horizon that residents of a tourist locale see in front of them during the dreary off-season months of the year, and he poignantly evokes the patterns of economic hardship and personal exploitation that circumscribe their behavior. (To wit: More than one character off-handedly notes that of course a waitress or a servant girl will share a bed with a well-off man, in the hope of getting a franc or two for her trouble.) In brief, there’s no shortage of objects for the powerful intuitive sympathy that is Maigret’s trademark.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural

 

HENNING MANKELL. Faceless Killers (1991).

The police-prodedural genre—in which a cop-hero marches through long days of investigative drudgery, all the while contending with the personal fallout from a professional life marked by too much work and too little reward—well suits the wintry outlook that the Swedish people are known for (not least by themselves). This novel, set in the Baltic-chilled region along the southern coast of Sweden, exploits that close kinship between narrative style and national temper. FacelessKillers.jpgIt’s the first of what has become a long and popular series of books that feature Inspector Kurt Wallander as their put-upon protagonist. Here, along with calling upon Wallander to make sense of the shockingly violent murder of an old farmer couple, Mankell immerses him in a flow of worries that includes a wife bent on divorce, an estranged daughter, and a selfish, senile father. A further layer of angst, derived from the view that immigration and the nativist response to it are disfiguring Swedish society, covers these grim proceedings like a sheet of thin, brittle ice. A love of opera and a submerged crackle of erotic longing humanize Wallander, and also pump some life into his saga, but they don’t fundamentally alter Mankell’s depiction of crime-fighting as a thoroughly unromantic affair, random is its course and devoid of dramatically satisfying contours. The murder gets solved, realistically but without surprise or panache. For Wallander and his troubled country, meanwhile, life just goes on: Sadly and stubbornly, it goes on.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2011 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

CHARLES TODD. A Test of Wills (1996).

The overt trappings of setting, character, and social observation in this tale are cut from the snug, well-worn cloth of the cozy-mystery tradition. With a sure hand, Todd knits together a world peopled by a pompous vicar, a crotchety doctor, a shiftless town radical, and other types who could easily have wandered over from a work of light rustic comedy. The authorial pair, however (“Todd” is a mother-and-son team), introduce a troubled protagonist and a level of complex plotting that take the book into decidedly uncozy territory. The result is a début novel that delivers the slow, seductive pleasures of a classic British procedural, and then adds to them an unusually dark resonance.

The year is 1919, and Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard has emerged from the Great War not only with a bad case of shell shock, but also with an imaginary companion who goes by the name of Hamish. But Hamish, an acerbic Scotsman, isn’t very companionable; he taunts the man whose mind he inhabits with guilt-inducing commentary about the many horrors that Rutledge witnessed on the Western Front. TestWills.jpg Here, on his first big murder case since returning to the police force, Rutledge must ward off Hamish’s jibes and keep his mental turmoil well hidden, all while matching wits with the gentle folk of Upper Streetham, an idyllic-seeming village out in Warwickshire. He’s gone there to investigate the fatal shooting of Colonel Richard Harris. Swirling about the village’s pretty drawing rooms and ambling country lanes are secrets of love and war that connect the main characters in myriad ways, and any of those connections might have led to murder. The chief suspect in the Harris murder is Captain Mark Wilton, a flying ace who was overheard arguing with the victim on the eve of the crime. Did that argument have anything to do with Wilton’s engagement to Lettice Wood, a bewitching young woman who was Harris’s ward? And what of Miss Wood herself? Could she have raised a shotgun to her shoulders and blown away her guardian’s head on a fine June morning? Others in the cast include Laurence Royston, the colonel’s estate agent, whose upright demeanor hides a shameful deed in his past; Catherine Tarrant, a painter celebrated in London but shunned in her own community; and Mrs. Davenant, a cousin of Wilton’s and an elusively beautiful widow who may have loved Harris unrequitedly.

Keeping track of the motives and movements of those suspects is a heady task for Rutledge. (Nor is it an easy task for the reader, especially when it comes to tracking which character was in which place at which time. The book should come with a map of the area near the crime scene.) The villagers harbor their own suspicions of “the man from London,” as they call Rutledge—suspicions that run stronger than their wish to find out who killed Harris. The gravest challenge that Rutledge faces, meanwhile, is the one posed by the faceless Hamish. Under assault from the latter’s constant baiting, Rutledge worries that his youthful mastery of the sleuthing arts might have been a casualty of war. Yet, in the end, it’s precisely his willingness to wrestle with Hamish and other inner demons that enables him to understand and identify a culprit.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in British, Historical, Novel, Procedural, Puzzle

 

ED McBAIN. Sadie When She Died (1972).

Steve Carella, star detective of the 87th Precinct, has a hunch. The knife that disembowelled and killed Sarah Fletcher bears the fingerprints of a hapless junkie-cum-burglar named Ralph Corwin. What’s more, Corwin has confessed to the killing. SadieDied.jpg Yet Carella believes that guilt for the murder lies elsewhere, and his suspicion focuses on Gerald Fletcher, Sarah’s husband, who tells police at the crime scene, “[M]y wife was a no-good bitch, and I’m delighted someone killed her.” As Carella plays his hunch, a peculiar cat-and-mouse game unfolds, and the detective isn’t always be sure whether he or Fletcher is the “cat.” A highlight of that battle of wits comes when Fletcher gives Carella a Danteworthy tour of the sexual netherworld that flourished in Isola (otherwise known as New York City) during the swinging early 1970s. From this dark game, Carella emerges as the winner, more or less—but even he isn’t prepared for the double twist of the narrative knife that concludes this slender, sharp-edged tale.

[ADDENDUM: I came to the 87th Precinct series late in my reading life. For too long, I shunned the entire police-procedural genre, assuming that because the word “procedural” sounds so boring, the fiction written under that rubric must also be boring. Publishers and writers, moreover—including McBain, whom many observers credit with launching the modern American police-procedural form, back in the mid-1950s—have tended to market the genre as one devoted to realistic depictions of workaday crime solving. But who wants a detective story to be “realistic”? In the real world, most murders are committed by an obvious culprit, or else they go unsolved. And the circumstances behind them, far from evoking either intellectual stimulation or emotional investment, are usually as predictable as they are tawdry. Fortunately, McBain didn’t take his realism too far. Within the procedural framework, he created all manner of mystery and suspense stories, including a taut psychological thriller like Sadie, an occasional old-school whodunit, and even a ghost story.]

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2011 in American, Noir, Novel, Procedural