Category Archives: 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


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