Source: Review Copy
N. B. Sorry this is such a long post, but it is the sort of post where you can dip into the sections which interest you the most.
Having a mind which often works and thinks thematically I was interested to dive into this collection of essays on that essential figure of crime fiction, the police detective. The police detectives chosen are by and large modern creations with a strong leaning towards Scandinavian and Noir crime writers with 5 essays being devoted to Scandinavian crime writers, 3 to the UK, 4 to the rest of Europe and one article on an American police detective. A key point Barry Forshaw, who edits the collection and brings out in his introduction is the idea of detective novels providing social comment and I wonder whether this affected the choice of fictional detectives. A key question I want to ask you dear readers is which fictional police detectives would you have included, if you were doing a similar project? Would they also be modern ones, or would a few more Golden Age or Victorian policemen make the list?
Forshaw also suggests that in the UK, crime fiction brings a sense of justice and certainty, whilst this is not the same in US crime where cities are apparently ‘untameable’. This comment did feel a bit old to me, coming across as a re-hash of the Golden Age/ Hard boiled, UK/ USA literary divide. I’m not so sure UK crime fiction can be so neatly pigeon holed. However, I would be interested to hear what people reading this think on the matter.
The articles in this collection are very short, which has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it makes the book easy to dip into, more detectives are covered and many of them do work as good introductions for new readers to characters. However, on the other hand, for readers with more prior knowledge a number of the essays may feel more descriptive opposed to analytical and due to the brevity of the essays, in some cases there is a lack of a clear introduction, middle and end. In addition the endings of the pieces can seem rather abrupt.
Lisa Fluet on P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh
This is the first article mentioned in Forshaw’s introduction and he picks out of the piece
the importance of social and historical context in the novels by James, mentioning Thatcherism for instance. However I didn’t feel this was the thrust of the essay which seemed to using the metaphysical poet, Donne, which Dalgliesh quotes, as its lynchpin. But to be honest this essay did rather lack structure and mused on tangential topics such as how James is different from her Golden Age counterparts. Though at points it did seem as though the essay was in fact accidently doing the opposite and suggesting similarities.
Katarina Gregers Dotter on Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck
I felt this was a stronger piece in the collection which centralised on how Martin Beck was a ‘product’ of and ‘contributor’, a ‘critic’ and ‘protector’ of the society he lived in. The political views of the writers and how they are expressed in the series is also surveyed, emphasising how greater sympathy is often extended to the criminals than the victims, with society having a role in the causing of the crimes. How Beck acts at work and home is also contrasted in the piece, which was interesting and I found the idea of how the job of being a detective makes members of Beck’s team sick intriguing. The only downside of this essay is that it contains plot spoilers, so may not make it new reader appropriate.
Barbara Pezzotti on Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano
Camilleri is an author I have been meaning to try for a while (Any recommendations?) Pezzotti’s essay is very good at looking at social, historical and political elements of the series such as how the novels are an anti-Northern League rhetoric and are keen to debunk clichés about Southern Italy and Sicily in particular. A key stereotype is that the Mafia are untouchable in these parts and that the inhabitants are under a code of silence when it comes to the police. Camilleri’s novels are persistent in their breaking down of this idea and therefore deviates away from earlier work of Italian crime writer Leonardo Sciascia (a writer I have read). Camilleri’s books also follow in the trend of looking at the policeman’s personal life and I found it enticing that Montalbano is a comic character with a sense of theatricality and play-acting.
Jon Wilkins on George Simenon’s Jules Maigret
The Maigret series has been one I have tried many times but never got on with. However, I found this article really interesting as it looked more at the supposed WW2 activities of both Maigret and his creator. As Wilkins says 6 Maigret novels were written during the war yet it is never mentioned once, making Ngaio Marsh looking positively topical in Death and the Dancing Footman (1942). The essay explains how Simenon was possibly doing illegal and collaborative activities with the Germans during the war and that he fled to America in 1945 to avoid being put on trial. Wilkins also examines the evidence for Simeon holding racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. Overall Wilkins suggests that his actions were less fuelled by ardent beliefs and more by wanting to look after number 1. An interesting theory Wilkins moots is that Maigret’s police activities if they were embedded into the context of WW2 France then it would have become morally difficult for Maigret as the police at the time were often made to do things such as rounding up Jewish inhabitants. The flipside of the coin is that it would have made a masterpiece of a Maigret novel if he had had to face a moral dilemma like that.
Darren Brocks on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch
This is the only article focusing on an American fictional policeman. Due to this being a
series firmly entrenched in the Noir genre, I probably got less out of this than a fan of the genre would do. Brocks starts his essay in an unusual way where he addresses Harry Bosch directly, but I’m not sure it really worked for me. Some of the ideas highlighted are probably not that surprising such as the components of the anti-hero, the double cross and the femme fatale, but I did enjoy the parts which looked at the role of darkness and death being ever present in the novels.
Jacky Collins on Sarah Lund in The Killing and Saga Noren in The Bridge
Gender stereotyping and sexism in the police force is discussed in Collins’ article on these two TV shows, honing in on the main female detectives. Overall what the essay seems to be saying is that a gender commentary still exists within the police but that it has changed and/or evolved. So for instance Sarah Lund may be questioned by her colleagues but it is not due to her gender. Yet gender identities is still a dialogue within the series as Lund arguably sacrifices her personal life of being a successful daughter and mother in exchange for her professional career. Dysfunctionality within both policewomen is also analysed and the idea that their inability to function socially actually makes them better detectives. Not sure the arguments presented entirely convinced me but it definitely gave me food for thought, as I think when you’re in a police team as opposed to being a maverick amateur detective, a degree of communicative competence is essential.
Erin E. MacDonald on Ian Rankin’s John Rebus
The moral ambiguity surrounding the character of Rebus and the issue of class are things
which are talked about a lot in this piece, though unlike Forshaw’s introduction suggests, I don’t think the focus is necessarily on masculinity. I found in particular the discussion on the novels being a vehicle for looking at Scotland’s past, present and future, along with the contradictory nature of Edinburgh the most interesting parts of the piece.
David Platten on Fred Vargas’ CI Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg
Being the combination of the supernatural and crime fiction this is a series not within my reading comfort zone, so I don’t think I got as much out of this piece. However, I think the article did give completely new readers such as myself a solid introduction to the characters involved, particularly the central detective.
Barry Forshaw on Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse
The piece begins with a succinct but utile description of Dexter and Morse, honing in on
the value literature and art has to Morse and how it aids his work. Moreover, the idea the novels also lampoon academic foibles is also espoused. For me the most interesting part of the essay was when Forshaw discusses how the TV series influenced the books later in the series.
Peter Messent on Hakan Nesser’s Van Veeteren.
The key point which stood out for me in this article was how Van Veeteren was an intuitive detective, mainly because it made me think how more modern detectives are applauded or given permission to be intuitive in their approach to investigating crime, yet intuition in Golden Age detectives, especially amateur ones is used as a form of criticism against the genre, which I think is a little unfair.
Murray Pratt on Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole
I found this a good introduction the Nesbo’s work and they are an author I have been meaning to read, having been recommended to by others. Consequently I was surprised that many of the cases in the series occur outside of Norway, though Pratt suggests this is a strength of the series meaning that national and international identities can be examined and explored. The fact Harry is an outsider coming into these cases, reminded me of Christie’s Poirot as he too is an outsider to an extent in England and both of these detectives are therefore able to ask questions, insiders could not. Pratt includes Val Mcdermid’s criticism of the series which is that they don’t show people’s motivations accurately. Pratt counters this point suggesting that noir ‘rather than aiming for psychological accuracy… the characters wear the stock characteristics of the genre on their sleeves.’ This retort slightly annoyed me as first of all Raymond Chandler says noir writer, Hammett ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons,’ which implies that noir should be psychologically true. Moreover, Golden Age crime fiction frequently gets hammered for having limiting stock characters (which is inaccurate), so I don’t see how in one genre it’s an advantage and in the other it is a criticism.
Stewart King on Robert Wilson’s Javier Falcon
This was a new series and author for me and like Camilleri, this is a series which examines how Seville is represented and goes beyond the holiday destination image, revealing the darker side of tourism. I also enjoyed the concept of crime writing being a new form of travel writing.
Barry Forshaw on Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.
If you have watched any of Wallander series then this will be an interesting piece as it
compares the different TV series and again how the TV series influenced later books. However, I found the information touching on Mankell as a person very engaging as it showed how crime writing was actually only one aspect of his very full life, being involved in theatre production and active in social issues.
There is also a section in the book where some authors are interviewed by Forshaw. Not sure how well this section works though as they are only short excerpts, where a lot of space in some of them is wasted on describing the interview setting. Furthermore, especially in the P. D. James’ interview some of the questions and responses weren’t that relevant to crime fiction or that interesting. An interesting point raised in the Mankell interview though, is when he suggests that UK readers love Scandinavian crime fiction because it is about and discusses the society (ies) we live in. He also mentioned that he thinks UK readers underappreciate Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to crime fiction. I don’t think that is entirely true but it is an interesting notion. However I wasn’t impressed that he disparaged Christie’s characterisation skills though. My favourite was actually the one with Robert Wilson as it is pretty much a monologue which provides first-hand information on the series and the context it is situated in.
Steven Peacock writes the first thematic essay to the collection which examines the Maverick detective in TV adaptations. It is a piece which gives good coverage mentioning Holmes and works in the 1930s and from 1960s onwards and he successfully matches these earlier examples with more modern counterparts.
Alison Joseph looks at the detective as a priest or bringer of justice, who brings closure and order. A lot of familiar fictional detectives are named such as Father Brown, Maigret and Poe, which made the piece enjoyable to read. The concept that a crime story is one told backwards is also included, but I didn’t think this idea was particularly new. Moreover, I am not so convinced that the detective, especially in more modern detective series always brings closure and order.
Jamie Bernthal aims to examine the role of the police official in detective fiction in his piece, looking at Christie’s Inspector Slack, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lestrade and Colin
Dexter’s Lewis. Key to this sort of figure is the idea they are objects of humour/satire, are not that quick mentally and will take credit for others achievements. This criteria in my mind easily fits with the first two examples Bernthal looks at. However, I don’t think Lewis as easily fits this mould, especially in that he wouldn’t take credit for other people’s work. However, I think he may have been included to show how this character type has evolved over time, going from being comic to more serious. This was an interesting piece to read as I was familiar with the characters discussed, but I felt it was more descriptive than analytical, in that the majority of the reading space seems dedicated to describing books these specific characters were in for example.
Jean Gregorek closes the collection with a look at how TV crime dramas have shifted from being focused on class to regional issues and he examines shows such as Lewis, Hinterland, George Gently and Broadchurch. Such shows are said to provide social commentary on specific locations. However, a point which annoyed me was that Golden Age crime fiction is generally described as being set in a Tory, landed gentry landscape, with a predictable ordered state and a ‘quaint’ ‘imaginary regionalism,’ with anything modern like a film star always being suspect. Of course Christie takes the brunt of this criticism. I felt this was a broad generalisation, which is not that accurate and it’s not just me being a fan having a rant (I promise), but experts in this field such as Curtis Evans and Martin Edwards have both produced comprehensive works which show the exact opposite such as The Spectrum of English Murder (2015) by Evans and The Golden Age of Murder (2015) by Edwards. With such works available I think academics whose expertise is not in Golden Age detective fiction, but still wish to talk about it, have little excuse to continue repeating the old clichéd criticisms of Golden Age mysteries.
So we’ve made to the end (phew). I think my favourite pieces were on Simenon and Camilleri, as the latter revealed sides to the author I never knew about and the latter has further fuelled my plans to read some of the Montalbano series. Overall I think this collection would be most appropriate for readers who read or watch modern crime fiction and have a preference for noir and Scandinavian crime. The fact that these two genres are not my preferred ones did mean I had less interest in some articles and this is reflected in my rating. Moreover, I think the quality and construction of the articles was mixed, with some not being as effective as others.