Category Archives: Procedural

GEORGES SIMENON. Maigret at the Gai-Moulin (1931).

A dense, clever plot—ridiculous in parts but ultimately quite satisfying—somehow manages to unfurl its many strands in this very compact yarn about some bizarre goings-on within and around a nightclub in Liège, Belgium. GaiMoulinPI.jpgTraveling far from his base on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in Paris, Inspector Maigret makes a late, dramatic appearance (detective ex machina!) in this case, which deals with the murder of a Greek playboy named Graphopoulos. A mysteriously migrating corpse, a pair of feckless juvenile delinquents, a woman of easy virtue whose heart may or may not be of pure gold, and an elusive “big-shouldered man” each move in and out of view, providing intimations of possibility rather than clues in the proper sense of that term. Which is exactly how Maigret likes it: Just as he does in most of his outings, he arrives at the truth of this matter not through deduction, but through his own special brand of Gallic divination.

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Posted by on January 17, 2011 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural


RUDOLPH FISHER. The Conjure Man Dies (1932).

Chroniclers and critics of detective fiction have been strangely neglectful of this landmark novel by a principal figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The tale—a tour-de-force that richly combines a classic mystery puzzle with a sympathetic and subtle evocation of black New York at the start of the 1930s—concerns the murder, or rather the apparent murder, of N’Gana Frimbo, a self-exiled African king who had remade himself as a seer and caster of spells for clients who came to his office on West 130th Street, near Lenox Avenue. ConjureManHC.jpgThat intersection lies geographically near the center of Harlem, and similarly the investigation into the mysterious assault upon Frimbo serves as a narrative crossroads through which a full array of Harlem types manage to pass.

Police detective Perry Dart and Dr. John Archer share sleuthing chores here, and each man brings his own variety of intelligence to the ever-changing problem at hand. Archer, in particular, handles forensic data (bone and teeth fragments, blood tests, fingerprints) with a sophistication that comes across as surprising in a book written three-quarters of a century ago. It’s not too surprising, however: Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Fisher was a physican first and a fiction writer second, and a clinical interest in the scientific method plainly informs his approach to crafting a detective novel. All the same, it’s as a storyteller that Fisher truly excels. Marred only by a huddled and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, this “Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem” offers a wide range of literary pleasures, including fine prose, comic relief presented in the high-low style of Shakespeare, and—cleverly wedged into its crime-story plot—a suggestive fable about the meaning of blackness.


Posted by on December 24, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural, Puzzle


LAURIE R. KING. To Play the Fool (1995).

This isn’t a bad book, but it’s a disappointing one. It makes promises—some implicit in the detective genre, some unique to this effort—and fails to keep them. A detective tale, by tradition, holds forth the promise of a meaningful murder and the promise of a resolution that will derive from applied intelligence (from detection, in other words). The author of such a tale presents a corpse, posits a killer, and in effect pledges to make significant the quest to learn what brought those two people into fatal conflict. Yet here we learn nothing until the very end about either the victim (not even his identity) or the murderer. PlayFool.jpg What we do discover about them comes not through detection, but by authorial revelation. Their lives, and their violence-engendering passions, take place entirely offstage and serve only as a pretext for the main act.

The main act has a star: Brother Erasmus, a homeless man and a “Holy Fool” who refuses to speak except by quoting from the Bible, from Shakespeare, or from some other ancient source. Erasmus knew the dead man and seems to know something about his killing. But how to interpret the cryptic utterances of this would-be modern jester? And why does he insist on communicating in that way? In setting up those questions, King suggests that her protagonists, Kate Martinelli and Alonzo Hawkin of the San Francisco police, will glean the answers through a close reading of the material that Erasmus quotes. King also implies that those answers will be powerful and revelatory, that they will expose a profoundly cunning method behind the fool’s apparent madness. Yet when they come—again, by revelation rather than through detection—the answers amount to little more than a shaggy-dog tale. (“Who’s the real fool here?” one might well ask.) Fascinating in their own right, they seem negligible as the payoff of a book-length sleuthing adventure.

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Posted by on November 9, 2010 in American, Novel, Procedural


HELEN REILLY. The Line-Up (1934).

Timothy Arden, an oil-rich patriarch who made his fortune in Tulsa before decamping to Manhattan to spend it, dies by apparently natural means. But odd circumstances, including a $10,000 check ostensibly made out by Arden to his personal secretary, lead Inspector Christopher McKee to suspect foul play.Line-UpNewPB.jpg An autopsy bears out that hunch: It was chloroform poisoning that caused the tycoon’s dark, ungenerous heart to fail. Suspicion falls on the secretary, George Benson, whose bland front conceals a criminal past. Then Benson, too, succumbs to poisoning. McKee’s working theory is that a hidden hand drove the secretary to kill, before killing him in turn. But whose hand was it?

The “line-up” of the title refers to the standard perp-identification routine, practiced by police everywhere (a highlight of this book is Reilly‘s doting descriptions of NYPD procedure), yet it might as well describe the long train of potential murderers who file their way indistinguishably through McKee’s investigation. There are characters aplenty here, but very little characterization. Even McKee lacks the clear contours that enable other fictional detectives to catch and hold readerly interest. A smartly conceived puzzle does lie in wait for him, however, and he does unravel it, after a lot of harum-scarum action of the “Had I But Known” sort. What Reilly does best, meanwhile, is to evoke time and place. Setting her tale during the week that spans Christmas, 1933, she directs McKee across snow-covered Gotham streets—from a luxury apartment hotel near Washington Square to an Upper East Side sanitarium for the worried wealthy, and to seedier parts beyond.

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Posted by on August 30, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Procedural


MAGDALEN NABB. Death of an Englishman (1981).

Marshal Guarnaccia, the roly-poly Sicilian who stars in Nabb’s durable procedural series, makes a rather furtive début in this tale of death and life in a Florence apartment block. He’s on hand at the outset, when a sad little cleaning man named Cipolla shows police the slain body of A. Langley-Smythe, an expatriate Brit who had lived by uncertain means in a mangy ground-floor flat. DeathEnglishmanBig.jpgGuarnaccia also exerts a strong presence in the finale, when he exposes and deposes the killer in a sequence that suggests a priest hearing a confession more than it does a detective cracking a case. (It’s a moment worthy of Inspector Maigret. Indeed, the author never concealed her weighty debt to Simenon.) During the longish stretch in between, however, the marshal allows several other policemen—his superior, “the Captain”; the neophyte Carabiniere Bacci; and a pair of visiting English inspectors—to conduct an official murder investigation while he suffers a bout of the flu. Partly as a consequence, this adventure reads less like a full-dress novel than like a short story, albeit one supplemented by evocative scenes from a Florentine travelogue.

In effect, the old city—the tang and the grit of it—shares top billing with Guarnaccia. “[K]eep your eyes firmly fixed on the ordinary details of life,” he says to Bacci. Just so does Nabb glean the bits of local color that constitute the main attraction of this brief, piquant novel.

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Posted by on July 16, 2010 in British, International, Novel, Procedural


PAUL MANN. Season of the Monsoon (1992).

In a land that teems with death almost as thoroughly as it does with life, a slain and mutilated male prostitute usually wouldn’t garner much attention. When such a corpse turns up near the center of India’s Bollywood movie colony, however, people do take notice. As an untouchable kuli dredges the body from a lake in northern Bombay, several Film City nabobs are on hand—and so is Inspector George Sansi of the Maharashtra police force.SeasonMonsoonBig.jpeg A brown-skinned, blue-eyed wonder, with a mixed-race pedigree that makes him an ideal outsider’s insider, Sansi comes across as a figure of pure authorial fancy. He has an Indian feminist mother, a well-to-do English father, a law degree from Oxford University, a scar to prove his valor in the fight against drug-running terrorists, and now, perhaps, a hip American journalist girlfriend. It’s a marvelous set of assets, and it’s almost enough to make him fully equal to the chaotic forces that shape and warp his homeland.

Almost, but not quite.

While Mann idealizes his hero, he doesn’t stint on realism when it comes to depicting the Indian scene in all its heart-breaking, awe-inspiring disarray. His pen captures plenty of apt detail: dung fires being lit at dawn, thereby awakening a city where each life hinges precariously on the lives of many others; a gangster’s lair that resembles a glitzy, Vegas-style bachelor pad, notwithstanding its location deep inside one of the dreariest slums on Earth; the fine bone china on which Sansi and his corrupt superiors dine while conferring at the Willingdon Club, a relic of the British Raj. Less compelling are details related to the crime that Sansi is investigating, or the details of his hunt for a perpetrator. The killer’s identity, in fact, becomes clear well before the novel’s finale. The certainties of karma, rather than the mysteries of murder, take center-stage at that point, and Mann—partly by dropping peculiar hints of reincarnation—adds an Eastern inflection to the standard Western tale of how a serial killer meets his end.

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Posted by on May 10, 2010 in International, Novel, Procedural


R. ROBERT JANES. Mayhem (1992).

Occupied France, 1942. In the shadow of the wholesale murder known as war, killing continues at a retail level. Clues found near the bludgeoned body of a young man in a forest outside Paris lead a pair of detectives to a salon of plus haute couture, to a smoky boîte graced by an entrancing chanteuse, to a grand estate that boasts a garden maze and a tower, to a severe and remote monastery, and to sundry other places where the French strive—with style but without success—to go on as if the Nazi boot were not at their throat. The latter challenge is especially acute for Jean-Louis St.-Cyr of the Sûreté Nationale, who must investigate this murder with a Gestapo operative named Hermann Kohler at this side.

MayhemBig.jpg Janes handles the relationship between St.-Cyr and Kohler with subtlety and flair. In his telling, the two men forge an improbable yet convincing bond as they confront the “mayhem” inflicted by both the German SS and the French Résistance, and by other parties, too. The bond solidifies as St.-Cyr and Kohler explore various forms of “mirage” that swirl about the case: the mirage cast by several of the women whom they encounter; the mirage cast by French society, high and low. (Mirage was the title of the book’s first UK edition.) Janes does less well by his readers, however. He treats elliptically too much of what he should make clear—What really happened to the husband of the chanteuse, for instance?—and he adds complications where he should remove them. The fog of war provides an ideal context for a tale of mystery, but the fog of narrative confusion should lift at some point.

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Posted by on May 5, 2010 in Historical, International, Novel, Procedural


ED McBAIN. Lady Killer (1958).

Early one morning, an anonymous letter arrives at the 87th Precinct station. The message: “I will kill The Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?” Thus begins a 12-hour race to discover not “Who done it?” but “Who will do it?” and, indeed, “Who will be done in?” This tale, an early entry in McBain‘s long-running series about Detective Steve Carella and his squadroom cohorts, follows the neat, tight arc of a TV cop drama. LadyKillerHuge.jpg A clever but simple plot of short-story caliber provides a sturdy narrative line on which McBain hangs several urban vignettes, most of them spun around the pursuit of false leads as to the identity of the eponymous “Lady.” Among those interviewed by precinct cops are a prostitute who caters to a certain outré taste, a nightclub singer who caters to erotic tastes of a more refined sort, and a bookseller who caters improbably to serious literary tastes in one of the more down-and-out sections of Isola, McBain’s fictional metropolis.

Some of these set pieces are more charming or comically apt than others, but all feature the kind of sharp, cut-and-thrust dialogue that one might see in a well-honed Law & Order script. In the fine finish to this brief novel, the men of the 87th crack the letter’s code in true ensemble fashion (Carella’s status as first-among-equals is less prominent here than usual), and suspense runs high: Will this be one of those rare murder mysteries in which no murder actually takes place?


Posted by on April 22, 2010 in American, Novel, Procedural


CHARLES TODD. Wings of Fire (1998).

Three descendents of the illustrious Trevelyan clan lay dead—new additions to a family crypt in the churchyard of a tight-knit, tucked-away fishing village called Borcombe. Vague doubts about their apparently non-homicidal deaths swirl like wisps of sea mist along the nearby coast of Cornwall. Scotland Yard, asked to investigate the matter, sends down Inspector Ian Rutledge. It’s just a year or so after the 1918 Armistice, and Rutledge is embarking on his second big case since he returned to police service after a not-quite-complete recovery from shell shock. As he applies his tender mind to the case, the grim family secrets that haunt Trevelyan Hall prove hard to separate from his own gruesome memories of the Western Front.

TestWills.jpgEach of the recently deceased figures had a connection to the Great War, either through combat or—in case of Olivia Marlowe, a poet who published pseudonymously as O.A. Manning—through an uncanny ability to evoke the horror of battle. Rutledge, an avid reader of Manning, wonders how a woman and an invalid like Olivia could have understood so keenly the evils that he witnessed on the fields of France. Todd’s plot revolves around solving that conundrum. Skillfully using lines of verse from a collection by Manning titled “Lucifer,” the author sets Rutledge on a hunt for literary clues that culminates in his discovery of a devil in the flesh, right there in bucolic Borcombe.

Todd (the pen name of an American mother-and-son team) excels at taking the milieu of Golden Age British detective fiction and investing it with dark psychological shadings and clear-eyed social realism—qualities rarely found in actual mystery stories of the 1920s. This entry in the Rutledge series falters, though, in offering a resolution that is irresolute. A half-dozen mysterious deaths hang from the Trevelyan family tree, but Todd doesn’t fully clarify which of them were murders. A muddled final exposition also fails to illuminate several key details, swathing them instead in a haze of poetic allusion and Cornish superstition.

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Posted by on April 16, 2010 in British, Historical, Novel, Procedural


GEORGES SIMENON. The Crime at Lock 14 (1931).

Inspector Jules Maigret doesn’t deduce the solution to a crime, nor does he merely discover it. He midwifes it into being. His famously intuitive method, which combines brute patience with an almost occult sympathy for quirks of the human heart, here finds an apt venue in which to flourish along a canal that winds from Paris out to the River Marne. Lock14Big.jpgUnder the shroud of a neverending fog, in a horse stable near a tow path, a pair of barge laborers stumble upon the dead body of a woman. It’s an odd place for such a corpse; dressed in the latest fashion, the body plainly belonged to a woman of leisure. Soon enough, Maigret establishes that she had come through the canal on a yacht owned by her husband, an English toff with an arrogant curl to his stiff upper lip. Someone strangled her, and the husband looms as a prime suspect. But Maigret, before he can apprehend a culprit, must get to know the entire mise en scène of the crime—the half-land, half-“sea” world of the canal and its numbered locks, where a vagabond way of life allows for many chance encounters, and where a slow-rolling passion can undergo a sudden, violent jolt.

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Posted by on April 1, 2010 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural