Usually the police procedural is dated from Evan Hunter’s (writing as Ed McBain) 87th Precinct novels, set in Isola, and beginning with Cop Hater in 1956. That’s to say that Salvatore Albert Lombino used different pseudonyms for his work in different genres. Cop Hater grew from pulps, themselves capable of many subsets—one is tempted to invoke that descent line early and often about much popular fiction, especially as it throws off the grimy reputation of many early hard-boiled fictions. James M. Cain, for example, toned down the original slangy dialogue when his stories were released as books. The violence against women in this descent line is marked by the cover art: femmes fatales and femmes vulnerables. You can see plenty of the pulps’ misogyny and violence in the 87th precinct: in the first one the central detective, Steve Carella, is married to a wife who is blind, and called ‘Teddy’, as in ‘bear’. One has to hang on to one’s acceptance of period expectations, and remember that television was also part of the foundation of procedural fiction, as, indeed, did Hunter/McBain, whose homage to Dragnet began each of the novels in this series: “The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.” But transatlantic influence had already encouraged the flattery of imitation elsewhere, for example, in London.
In the previous year, on this side of the Atlantic, John Creasey had added Gideon of the Yard to his increasing output, using the pseudonym J J Marric, while he retained his own name for his long-running Inspector West series, which was more melodramatic and much less procedural. If these two authors cultivated generic structures that offered social commentary as well as the development of their characters, they co-existed with the earlier cosy genres which concentrated on detective investigators who were mainly accompanied by a note-taking sidekick, Julian Simons’s ‘humdrums’. Colin Dexter’s Morse and Lewis series reached back to those books, while adding mainly off-stage forensics and other scientific aids. The high production values and film-style two-hour transmissions gave colour to each episode, remaining, however, in Oxford, making its central premise (local murders) a fantasy of mayhem. Barry Maitland’s witty Brock and Kolla series, set in London, like Peter Lovesey’s Bath series, are similar, partly because they belong more to the vein in which the books’ characters have lives outside the Nick, private lives, with all that that implies. Like Morse, the main investigators are grumpy. None of these books are particularly aware of the social issues we now take for granted, and they turn their backs on the thriller.
Meanwhile, of course, in other countries, police procedurals inspired imitation and an impressive number of social and political goals, such as the Marxist team of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, all of whose books are now back in print, whose critique of the Swedish welfare state was meant to bring their readers to political consciousness. James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series, set in Natal during apartheid, where he grew up, are usually comic (with the multi-lingual and well-educated Bantu sergeant tactfully running the show behind his Afrikaner lieutenant), and with an accompanying degree of social observation which is said to have pleased, as well as influenced to the good, the prejudices of his avid fans, the very cops actually most criticized in the books.
The wackiest of these series is, I think, Fred Vargas’s eccentric Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, with his team of misfits organised by another over-educated sidekick (and alcoholic), Adrien Danglard. Vargas never hides her enthusiasm for the mix of melodrama and mystery of the Golden Age, but it’s also never quite clear just what she thinks she learned from them. Still, this is also the series with the best cat, which, in her most recent book (Quand sort la recluse, published this month), gets rather more attention than many of the humans.
Above all, the key to the morphology of the police procedural, just like most of the subgenres gathered under the crime fiction umbrella, is to remember mutatis mutandis: that which is to be changed is changed. So we all owe a great deal to the hard-drinking Jane Tennison, while Brenda Blethyn’s DCI Vera Stanhope is an altogether different contribution, shorn of much of the self-destruction characteristic of so much detective fiction. Anne Cleeves, who this year receives the CWA’s Diamond Dagger award, has herself given us not one but two new geographical areas to explore.
Celtic Noir has in recent years become a category of its own, leaping from William McIlvanney to Ian Rankin and, in the diaspora, Liam McIlvanney, who teaches in New Zealand. You would expect a degree of mobility among Irish and Scottish writers, and that is what you get. The earliest Australian PI series is Peter Corris’s PI, Cliff Hardy, who works in Sydney—given what’s happened to Sydney in recent years the books will have considerable historical value in describing the city and its former architecture. His books began in 1980 with sex and violence and continued in that vein. That same year the South African Peter Temple moved to Australia; his crime series features a hard-drinking, nay alcoholic, lawyer, who is also a keen fan of Aussie Rules Football and betting on horse racing. He just happens to get involved in investigations.
This sense of displaced persons, writers who have migrated, due to the disruptions of the twentieth century, ought to give us pause, at least long enough to consider Tana French, who holds Italian (lucky woman) and US passports and is the child of a peripatetic development economist father who worked for a series of organisations, including in Malawi. French chose to go to university in Dublin, at TCD, and has made Ireland her home—three thousand miles from the Vermont of her birth.
Like the 87th precinct in Isola, her ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series focuses on one, at most two, central figures in each novel, though every time her characters return to the squad room you meet the other detectives. It isn’t clear when that sobriquet appeared; if you look at pictures of the books’ original covers, you don’t see it. It appears to be a publicist’s strap line. In any case, and as French acknowledges, there is no Dublin Murder Squad. There isn’t always a lot of police procedure either. She is on her second woman detective, having left Cassie Maddox behind, at least for now. Antoinette Conway has had two outings, with Stephen Moran sporadically in evidence. They don’t get on well. Not at all. Except that they do. And they all fuss about their class positions. There is something else, but I won’t spoil the surprise, though I will point out that the grumpiness is everywhere in this series, sometimes from below, or against the high-flyers, especially when they’re women.
Her structures are clear and comprehensive, and have grown in strength as she has progressed. Some characters appear and disappear, others reappear. How that is managed is one of the keys to a successful police procedural series. I couldn’t say whether, in Broken Harbour, French’s forward planning had really started; certainly, as things progressed, she was continuously experimenting, with first or third-person narration, with characters who could be used once. By The Secret Place, Cosway and Moran seemed a settled pair, with each of them suffering from the kinds of cheering misinterpretations which keep us all going with self-serving stories of how we got where we are. By The Trespassers, she was willing to kill some darlings. What makes the book memorable is in part the ways it continues from its immediate predecessor, in part, though, there is a well-seen and well-described persecution of Cosway which is all too familiar to people from minorities and all women, the sniping prejudice, the aggressive unwelcome that includes discovering that someone has urinated in your locker, the refusal of your colleagues to treat you as a something more than an excrescence in their way. Irish men seem just as terrified by talented women as men anywhere else. Not the best of her books, perhaps, but a fine depiction of men with power who think they can get away with anything they like. The murder squad’s boss has a particularly humane appearance as things draw to their end. If only politicians could emulate a fictional character’s ability to take responsibility for what goes wrong in his squad. The Trespasser is doing very well on the prizes front, including the best crime fiction book of the year in the Irish Book Awards.
Broken Harbour (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012), 978-0340977637
The Secret Place (Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), ISBN-13: 978-1444755572
The Trespasser (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016) ISBN-13: 978-1444755626