A Time for Crime

Detective fiction is perfect for this drowsy season – sherlock_holmes_by_ineer-d5krpt4

Books to thrill you – http://bit.ly/1rvWgGb

The rains are here and winter is round the corner. My garden looks like it’s doing well on its own (even the trees are somnolent) and my dog spends bulky time under the covers. The afternoons are perfect for curling up with a good yarn, a good detective yarn. Here’s a round-up of some favourite sleuths, disparate in looks, style and snazz but similarly sharp and thrilling.

 

First up is Sherlock Holmes. The most famous of all fictional detectives first appeared in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Holmes claimed to be the world’s first “consulting detective” and touted the high cause of logical reasoning and much of the delight lies in watching the ticking of his prodigious mind. His friend and biographer Dr John H Watson narrates all but four of his stories and is the foil to his moodiness, grumpiness, dopeyness and general lack of all social skill. Appearing in four novels and 56 short stories, Holmes remains a cult figure and somebody who is constantly re-interpreted and retold, most recently in the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ produced by Hartwood Films. My winter pick: his third novel The Hound of the Baskervilles with its howling echoes of Devon and its demon dog.

 

Doyle may have created the most famous of them all but (Dame) Agatha Christie was the best-selling novelist of all time and her detectives—Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple—are no slackers. Part of the Golden Age of detective fiction (during the 1920s and 1930s), her stories were racy whodunits which unraveled clues with enticing flurry. The only blot is a strain of anti-semitism that has been widely remarked on. Around the same time, Dorothy Sayers introduced her detective Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat who takes up detection as a hobby. Together with his manservant Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey appeared in eleven novels and a number of short stories. While appearing to be a perfect English gentleman, aloof and stiff, in later novels he woos and marries Harriet Vane, a crime novelist whom he saved from a murder trial. Many people believe Vane to be modeled on Sayers herself and the last few cases were solved by the couple working together. Clever and funny, the Wimsey stories reflect the social mores of gentried England in the period between the two wars and are littered with literary allusions.

 

In America, in the late 1930s, a new form of detective fiction was popularised by Dashiell Hammet: the hard-boiled novel. His cool, jaded but idealistic Sam Spade was markedly different from the golden age sleuths. What set these books apart was the copious amounts of violence and the ambiguous morality of the protagonists. Spade looked for his own form of justice, largely ignoring the law and punishing criminals in his own fashion. While Sam Spade appeared only in The Maltese Falcon, his character was the inspiration for Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe.

 

Another well-established form of the detective novel is the Police Procedural in which the protagonist is usually a police detective or sometimes in an ancillary police department like Forensics. The most remembered police procedural novels are the 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain. Set in the fictional 87th precinct of New York City, over 40 novels about Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have laid bare the mechanisms that police detectives follow while solving a crime in their district. Some stories, especially those featuring recurring criminal mastermind “the Deaf Man”, are a bit far-fetched but the majority are well-plotted and infused with a gritty realism that, even today, reveals the troubles that police face when dealing with criminals.

 

In England, police procedurals were less about the nitty-gritty of the police work and more about the character of the detective. Baroness Ruth Rendell’s Chief Inpector Wexford is an intelligent, sensitive family man who often finds it hard to come to terms with the increasing violence in his small town. Rendell’s novels are about the reason behind the crime and not merely about solving the case and while Wexford himself may not be able to always fathom the cause of crime, Rendell talks about the psychological reasons behind criminal behavior. In her other, darker, non-Wexford novels, she has often taken on the perspective of the criminal. Her 1977 novel, A Judgment in Stone, is lauded as sharp social examination of class difference but my rather nostalgic favourite remains her debut novel From Doon with Death (1964).

 

A new crop of detective novels with unusual crime settings have become popular in recent years. Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series of mysteries are set in Alaska and her descriptions of cold and snow are quite chilling, as are the descriptions of crime. Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels are famous for their descriptions of native American tribes, especially the Navajo Indians, and how the protagonists’ beliefs in the religions and rituals of the tribes affect their investigations. Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels are set in an English monastery in the early 12th century and acclaimed as historically accurate representations of the time. And there are lots I’ve left out like Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse or Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro series. Buckle on that sixth sense and arm yourself for winter with an armful of these.