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On the trail of the modern whodunit

Vivek Kaul
Filed on August 20, 2021

The crime fiction genre is buzzing, with the police procedurals having become more and more interesting and detailed over the years.


It was late 2007 or perhaps early 2008. A friend who would go on to make movies was telling me about a film script he was working on, based on a Swedish police procedural called The Laughing Policeman. If there are days which change the course of an individual’s life that was one such day for me. Up until then, I wasn’t much of a reader of books, especially when it came to detective fiction.

Of course, before I got into my teens, I had read my fair share of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, The Three Investigators, Hardy Boys and even a bit of Nancy Drew. In my teenage years, I read almost all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, and a lot of Agatha Christie, always Hercule Poirot and very rarely Miss Marple. But that was about it. My tryst with detective fiction had ended with that.

My friend got me interested in it all over again and opened a whole new world for me to the point of it becoming an obsession, where I now read at least one crime fiction book every week, sometimes even two.

So what exactly is a police procedural that my friend was talking about? A police procedural is a type of a crime fiction book where the storyline is set around how the police goes about investigating a murder or any other crime for that matter. Of course, like other detective fiction of yore, it does have a protagonist, who typically tends be an officer in the criminal investigation department.

But that is where the similarity ends. The lead characters of police procedurals are not as smart as Sherlock Holmes was. They can’t figure out everything in their heads sitting at one place, using their little grey cells, like Christie’s Poirot did.

They investigate. They look at the crime scene and all the other evidence that is available, including forensic, and then develop a theory to crack the case and figure out who the murderer is. At the heart of it, like the detective fiction of the golden era, a police procedural is also a whodunnit most of the times, but a very realistic one.

A part of making it realistic includes having an extensive series of characters, everyone from a crime scene manager to forensic experts to pathologists — who carry out autopsies of murder victims to other police colleagues of the main detective to the public prosecutor driving the investigation, all of who help the main detective in solving the crime.

Given that, there isn’t just one Holmes or Poirot or Philip Marlowe (the detective created by Raymond Chandler and immortalised by Humphrey Bogart on screen), chipping away at it. It’s inevitably a team effort.

Further, the focus isn’t just on the murder mystery. Like take the case of the ten book Martin Beck series of which The Laughing Policeman is a part of. The authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, other than building a fascinating number of characters from Martin Beck — the main character of the series — to Lennart Kollberg to Gunvald Larsson, also took a deep look at the social issues impacting the Swedish welfare state as it had evolved from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, the period during which the books were set. In that sense, the books can also be categorised as social criticism presented in a very interesting way, which would make people read.

The case of the Scandinavian Crime Fiction

It is widely believed that Sjöwall and Wahlöö were inspired by the 87th precinct novels of the American writer Ed McBain (pseudonym of Evan Hunter). McBain is said to be the father of the American police procedural. His books were set in the 87th precinct in the central district of Isola in a large fictional city modelled along the lines of New York. McBain wrote 55 books in this series starting in 1956 and ending in 2005, with his death. Interestingly, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made a movie titled High and Low which released in 1963 and was based on a 1959 McBain book King’s Ransom.

The 87th precinct books largely concentrated on how the police department carried out an actual investigation. McBain’s books were very high on the procedure part of the investigation and had some fascinating interrogation scenes. McBain also gave the lead detectives some back stories with their families being a part of the story.

To that extent, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, may have been inspired by McBain, but they turned their detective books into a way of looking at the society at large.

While Sjöwall and Wahlöö could be called the mother and the father of what is now known as Scandinavian Crime Fiction, the genre as such wasn’t discovered by the world at large well into the 1990s, up until Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series started being translated into English.

Wallander is a police detective in the city of Ystad near Malmo in Sweden. He is divorced, broody, fat (at least in the books) and overworked. Other than solving murders with even international implications in a few cases, the series takes a look at a whole host of social issues in Sweden, including the process of growing old.

Mankell writes about it beautifully through the character of Wallander’s father who lives all by himself and paints the same painting, over and over again. The Troubled Man, the last book in the series, has Wallander investigating a case and also dealing with an onset of dementia. On a separate note, before his death in 2015, Mankell wrote a brilliant non-fiction book Quicksand, which was part memoir and a part collection of essays.

In fact, Swedish police procedurals deal with many contentious political issues as well, including the country’s outward neutrality during the Second World War, along with the murder of their Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.

Leif GW Persson has written some of the best police procedurals set around Swedish politics. Though The Dying Detective which doesn’t have any politics, and revolves around retired detective Lars Martin Johansson, who is investigating a cold case from his deathbed, remains by favourite book of his. Persson also written the Evert Bäckström series, which is highly entertaining. This features Inspector Bäckström who is corrupt and outwardly dumb, but ends up solving every case he gets his hands upon.

Of course, most Swedish detectives like Beck and Wallander, are broody and moody. No one captures this spirit best than Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren. Veeteren is a very philosophical man and like Christie’s Poirot solves cases in his mind than on the field. In fact, as he says in The Mind’s Eye, the first Van Veeteren book published in English: “If there’s anything I’ve learned in this job, it’s that there are more connections in the world than there are particles in the universe…The hard bit is finding the right ones.”

When it comes to broody and moody, former Norwegian economist turned crime fiction writer Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books fit the bill perfectly. Also, no one comes back from the brink quite like Hole does, given that he is an alcoholic who at times loses all interest in living. In fact, Nesbo’s reinterpretation of the William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which he reimagined as a crime thriller, is a very compelling read as well.

The lie of the land

Interestingly, cities in which the modern police procedurals are set are a very important part of these stories. So is their weather. A great example of this is Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series, set in Edinburgh in Scotland. No history of modern Edinburgh can be written without a reference to Rankin’s books. The same is true about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. No history of modern Los Angeles can be written without a reference to Connelly’s books.

I make this comparison also because Rebus and Bosch, and perhaps Rebus a tad more than Bosch, are my two favourite detectives. Both of them love music, while Rebus loves rock music, Bosch loves jazz. Interestingly, Rankin is known to have named his books on rock songs: for instance, the title of Standing In Another Man’s Grave is inspired by a song called Standing In Another Man’s Rain, sung by Jackie Levin, a Scottish singer songwriter.

Both of Rebus and Bosch are divorced and have a slightly difficult relationship with their daughters. They are hard men who have worked in the army, have a distrust for authority (Rebus keeps getting suspended and so does Bosch), and are remarkably stubborn. Or as Bosch keeps saying: “Everybody matters or nobody matters.” Of course, both of them end up solving the cases they are handed, against all odds.

Rankin and Connely both tackle social issues in their books. Rankin’s last A Song for the Dark Times deals with the post-Brexit Great Britain.

When it comes to writing about a city, no one does a better job than James Elroy writing about Los Angeles, its police department and Hollywood of the 1940s and the 1950s. His books have everything. There are murders, drugs, robberies, shootouts gone wrong, prostitutes, corrupt detectives, slightly honest detectives, corrupt judges, politicians and so on.

Gore vs grey cells

Moving on, the police procedurals can get quite gory at times when it comes to describing murder victims, from multiple stab wounds to eyes being gauged out to the brain being split open and so on, something the golden era detective fiction writers clearly avoided. But that doesn’t hold back the modern-day writers.

The Camille Verhœven series written by the French writer Pierre Lemaitre is quite gory (though fantastically written), particularly Irene and Alex, the first two books in the series. So, are the books by Fred Vargas (pseudonym of the historian Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau), featuring Chief Inspector Adamsberg and his team, which fuse French history with crimes happening in present-day Paris.

But when it comes to gory nothing can beat the lyrical prose of the French writer Olivier Norek’s The Lost and the Dammed. Sample this from the first chapter of the book: “Found lifeless, half-naked and with no proof of identity in a squat in the Les Lilas neighbourhood of Seine-Saint-Denis, she must have been around twenty. For the autopsy, Dr Léa Marquant, the forensic pathologist at the Institut médico-légal, the Paris forensics institute, had slit from the base of her neck down to her pubis with a single stroke of her scalpel, as gently as a caress.” Nesbo’s books featuring detective Harry Hole can be exceptionally violent as well. Clearly, many such books aren’t for the faint-hearted.

But not all such books are gory. For those who would like to keep it simple, former Norwegian police officer Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting series is just the right read. Wisting gets the balance just right (there is some gory material in his books as well). Another great read is Italian writer Andrea Camilleri’sInspector Salvo Montalbano series. Written in a nice and a simple way, the series has next to no gore and a lot of humour. It also has its lead character eating elaborately prepared meals almost all the time, to the extent that they can make the reader feel hungry. In fact, in Italy, France and Spain, food is a very important part of crime books.

This is not to say that cosy mysteries written in Agatha Christie’s style have gone out of fashion. Over the last few years, some of the good books in the genre pioneered by Christie where a group is stuck at an outstation place not accessible for a while have been Lucy Foley’s The Guest List, Sarah Pearse’s The Sanatorium and Ruth Hare’s One By One.

Of late, there have also been some interesting mysteries with fictional writers being at the heart of it. These include Alexandra Andrews’ Who is Maud Dixon?, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot and Stephen King’s Billy Summers (in which case a hired killer on his last kill develops writing aspirations). Janet Hallett’s The Appeal is another amazing crime fiction book written in the form of emails and messages.

All in all, the crime fiction genre is buzzing, with the police procedurals having become more and more interesting and detailed over the years. What’s stopping you dear reader from picking up one?

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money, and is based in India.)





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