Monday, March 15, 2010

(No.83) conclusion: A sleuth for every taste

This is the conclusion of the review article begun in the previous column (No. 82) on

The article was written 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.


Frank Tallis is an English psychologist who has created one of the more interesting premises for a detective series. His novels are set in Vienna circa 1900. The lead character is not the police detective but the person on whom the detective calls for assistance, Dr. Max Liebermann. He is a medical doctor and a disciple of one of Vienna's most interesting residents, Dr. Sigmund Freud.

The Freud character, being Jewish (as is Liebermann), provides Tallis with a plot avenue to explore the nature and depth of anti-Semitism in pre-World War I Austria. Anyone who has visited Vienna will particularly enjoy the novel's references to the city. There are three novels in the series so far. Give A Death in Vienna (2005) a try.

Magdalen Nabb died in 2007 in Florence where she had lived since 1975 after moving from England to practise pottery. In 1981 she created a fictional Florentine police officer, Marshall Salvatore Guarnaccia. Her 14 novels featuring Guarnaccia are set in modern-day Florence and are mostly based on real crimes committed in that city.

The lead character is no hotshot detective in the Hollywood style but rather, if California is to be a comparison, someone closer in style to the American television Columbo.

Nabb's novels are well written and plotted and feature one of crime fiction's most interesting while personally unimpressive sleuths. Try Nabb's last Guarnaccia novel, Vita Nuova, published posthumously in 2008.

Another member of the 'new' school of British crime fiction writers is Graham Hurley. His novels are on a par with Billingham's when it comes to grit, set in the English naval port city of Portsmouth.

The two leading and continuing characters are an upright detective inspector and a somewhat bent, old-school detective constable. There are nine novels so far in this series. Try the latest one: No Lovelier Death (2009).

Perhaps inspired by Ian Rankin's success with his Rebus novels set in Edinburgh, Alex Gray created a detective inspector in the Glasgow police dept. to solve crimes in that Scottish city. The series, begun in 2007, is interesting for its depiction of Glasgow's atmosphere and urban landscape. The writing and plots are not up to Rankin's standard but are better than just acceptable. Try Pitch Black (2008).

T. Jefferson Parker is an American novelist who reminds me of Elmore Leonard, that old master of U.S. crime fiction. Parker has been writing crime novels for more than twenty years and his stories are usually set in southern California, Orange County and San Diego in particular. With the odd exception his police characters appear only in a single novel.

Parker is an excellent storyteller whose plots are usually very successful at sustaining reader interest at a high pitch. Some of his numerous titles can be found in print and in most bookstores. Any of them are worth a look; pick up Silent Joe (2001) or Little Saigon (1988).

Cetin Ikmen is a Turkish police detective and the fascinating creation of London-born writer Barbara Nadel. Through a dozen novels featuring Ikmen and his Istanbul police colleagues she has expertly conveyed a sense of modern Istanbul to her readers. Indeed, I think she is as successful at stimulating reader interest in that city as Magdalen Nabb was with Florence.

Ikmen is an older, perpetually tired detective and is as heavy a chain smoker as any LA 'noir' detective created by Raymond Chandler. Nadel's plots keep the reader more than casually interested. Try Pretty Dead Things (2007).

Finally, Ian Pears is a journalist and art historian who has written several novels set mainly in Italy featuring an English art dealer/historian named Jonathan Argyll and his partner/lover/wife Flavio di Stefano, a member of Rome's Art Theft Squad. If you are interested in art and the art world as well as crime plots then these seven novels combine the two in an elegant and interesting fashion. Try The Titian Committee (1991).

Alastair Rickard