Category Archives: 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.


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?


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.


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.


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