Monday, March 8, 2010

(No.82) A sleuth for every taste

The following column is the first part of a review article I wrote for two Ontario daily newspapers: The Record in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and The Mercury in Guelph.
It was published in both newspapers on Feb. 27, 2010.

That luminary of British detective fiction, P.D. James, has written a non-fiction book (Talking About Detective Fiction) in which she draws a clear distinction between "detective" fiction on the one hand and "crime" and "mystery" fiction on the other.

I think many readers, myself included, tend to lump detective/crime/mystery novels into one large and enjoyable genre. When I find an author new to me and if I like his or her work, I look for other books by the same person, often a series of novels with the same lead character.

A particular favourite of mine over the years, and related only very distantly to James' detective novels, is the now-concluded series of 18 novels by the Scot, Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus.

Rankin's second post-Rebus novel is in the same premier league. The lead character of The Complaints (2009) is another Edinburgh detective, Inspector Malcolm Fox of the complaints and conduct department of the Lothian & Borders (Edinburgh) police.

Fox investigates other police officers and is loathed by his fellow police because of his role. Unlike Rebus, who was the sort of cop who attracted the attention of the complaints investigators, Fox is a reformed drinker. But like Rebus he has problems relating to women. He also has a similar sort of persistent, irritating and highly individualistic attitude to both authority and his job.

For those who enjoy both the Rankin and James 'schools' of detective crime fiction, there are numerous other novelists I can recommend, although not all with equal enthusiasm. Some lean more to providing entertainment and less to making one think. Some do both with great success.

Here are just a few of these authors. All have novels available in softcover editions:

Mark Billingham created a gritty London detective inspector named Tom Thorne several years ago. This series of novels feature plots and atmosphere distinctly darker than traditional police procedurals. Indeed they belong to a modern school of British crime fiction whose godfather I consider to be Ian Rankin.

Thorne is the sort of detective who is light years away from, say, Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey or P.D. James' Inspector Adam Dalgleish or even Colin Dexter's D.C.I. Morse. Give Billingham a try by reading his The Burning Girl (2004).

Very different from Billingham's novels are those of the new series from Susan Hill. She is a widely published English novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

In 2004 Hill created a character, Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, who is the core character (thus far) of four novels involving him with various crimes as well as with his extended family. Set in contemporary small city/rural England the novels put far greater emphasis on personal relationships than is often the case in crime fiction.

For reasons of overlapping character development and continuing plot points, the four novels should be read in the order they were written. The first is The Various Haunts of Men (2004) and the fourth and most recent is The Vows of Silence (2008).



Alastair Rickard