Police procedurals – judging on the evidence

December 8th, 2011 § 0 comments

The police procedural, the sub-genre of the crime novel that focuses on the police investigation of crime, has never been high on my agenda. However, on the evidence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s excellent Martin Beck books (discussed here), I was compelled to investigate.

Let’s recap the evidence:

I have now read, in short succession, books by three authors whose names I found a Top Ten list of police procedurals. The H.R. Keating, Reginald Hill and James McClure books were all from the early 1970s. Then I also happened upon a mid-1980s book by A.C. Baantjer, who is apparently the most popular Dutch author in this (or any) genre.

I have written about James McClure’s The Steam Pig elsewhere, so will say no more than he is very good by just about any measure, but this book has not dated well and I expect the same will hold true for the other stories in the series.

Reginald Hill’s heroes are Pascoe and Dalziel, a team I have briefly encountered on television before and who have worked their way through 24 books. The one I read, An Advancement of Learning, was the second in the series and plotted as smartly as one would expect. Like most readers, I read to the end to find out who did what and why.

Unlike most, I suspect, I did not find the experience particularly engrossing. The characters never came alive for me and I found the frightfully British setting… Well, if it had really been frightful, at least it would have elicited an emotion. The book has something of that genteel, Agathie Christie mood which I imagine Miss Marple and her peers may like.

Perhaps Reginald Hill honed his craft as he went along, but I’m content to remain ignorant on that score.

A.C. Baantjer’s book Murder by Instalments is the 22nd in a series that ran to 60 books. No wonder then that it’s written in a perfunctory style. It seems that whenever two bits of dialogue need to be separated, inspector DeKok (“with a kay-oh-kay”) rubs his nose. This, incidentally, is a mannerism he shares with Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck, but Beck at least only does it a handful of times per book. In DeKok’s case, his constant quirks never really add up to a character this reader could connect with.

I have a thing for Amsterdam, especially after reading Janwillem van de Wetering’s superior crime novels of the 1970s. But in Baantjer’s book, I didn’t get that same sense of place. This may have something to do with the particular translation though, where the local flavour of actual street names, for instance, is translated. Changing a name such as Keizersgracht to Emperor’s Canal doesn’t do atmosphere any favours.

Though I got hold of all these books at about the same time, the H.R. Keating one had to wait for last. When I saw it was set in India and had a foreword by Alexander McCall-Smith, I correctly assumed the book to be of the quaint and cute variety. Both these factors put me off. The enjoyment of books is a matter of taste, and this is certainly not my preference. I enjoyed the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, but one was enough.

However, once I started reading the H.R. Keating book – one of 26 in the series – I couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer craftsmanship this author displays. Within two or three pages, he established Inspector Ghote as a likeable, human character and dumped him in an awkward and fascinating situation. Very impressive.

Pity the author left the poor cop floundering there for another 150 pages or so. The plot just turned around in place, lacking forward motion or the texture to make up for the lack of form. The denouement, when it came after so much water treading, didn’t convince, even in a genre where believability isn’t usually at a premium. Inspector Ghote came to a firm realisation as to who the culprit was based on evidence as thin as a silk sari. He was then saved by a massive stroke of luck that provided the necessary evidence just as he confronted the suspect.

These disappointments with four highly successful genre authors just drove home the point that it’s authors and books I tend to like, not whole genres.

I read Philip K. Dick and thought I liked science fiction, but actually… no. I like a number of sci-fi authors and books – Cordwainer Smith, William Gibson and J.G. Ballard come to mind – but not the bulk of the genre, not even many of the authors considered best. I read Sjöwall and Wahlöö as well as K.C. Constantine (who does a particularly off-beat take on the police procedural that is all about the police and nothing about the procedure) and thought I might like the genre. I don’t.

What I like about the authors and books I like is far more individual than that. I must confess: I have a weakness for what you might call “the unusual suspects”.

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