Monday, January 3, 2011

(No.130) Do rocking-horses excrete? [more gritty British crime fiction]

In my previous column on (No.129) " Nasty times in America", I reviewed some recent crime/private detective novels by several American writers plus an Englishman living in the U.S. writing about Americans as well as an Israeli.

This column is about the latest novels by some of my favourite practitioners of this genre on the other side of the Atlantic. Those readers who, like me, look forward to each new novel by a writer whose work they enjoy will appreciate my ongoing interest in the work of these British novelists.

Since the days of aristocratic amateur detectives like Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and village busybodies like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, there has been a sea change in British 'crime' fiction, a style also very different from that of certain of today's contemporaries like P.D. James' Commander Adam Dalgleish. Much of the style and content to which I refer is very gritty indeed, a style I enjoy.

Among British crime novelists writing these days my favourite has long been Ian Rankin, the Scottish creator of Detective Inspector John Rebus, the Edinburgh policeman (see column No.82 "A sleuth for every taste"). In my iconography of 'crime' novelists Rankin, whose novels have been dubbed 'tartan noir', is followed closely by Graham Hurley [more about him later in this column]. Also up there among the leaders of gritty fiction is Mark Billingham whose creation, London's Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, is endlessly interesting, in part because he has trouble fitting in anywhere whether at work or in his personal relationships.

Bloodline (2009) is the 8th Thorne novel and a beautifully written and plotted combination of police procedural and suspense. A taste of Thorne's world and attitude provided by Billingham: " Any day when a case moved in the right direction was a good one, but they were few and far between, and the really good days, when an arrest -- the right arrest -- was made, gave hen's teeth and rocking-horse shit a run for their money. Even then, of course, the possibility of a great day lay with the courts."

The latest of Billingham's Thorne novels is From The Dead (2010). It involves one ten year old case which was assumed to have been solved and resolved with the conviction of a man (but was not) and a currrent case which sees the jury acquit a defendant Thorne is certain is guilty. The setting for the novel ends up involving both England and the Malaga area of Spain.

I will not spoil what is a very interesting story by going any further.

Another English police detective series, one about which I have not previously written, is by Stuart Pawson. It is not as dark in its tone as Billingham's but its central character is also a Detective Inspector. Also, like Thorne, D.I. Charlie Priest has been around for quite a few years and -- like Thorne -- does not want to advance to Detective Chief Inspector and thereby become (in the British policing rank structure) more of an administrator than a detective. However Priest is different in his locale: he works in the fictional Yorkshire town of Heckley.

The 13th of Pawson's novels featuring the likeable Charlie Priest is A Very Private Murder (2010). The book has a clever plot involving shopping mall graffiti which connects with the girlfriend of a member of the Royal Family and the murder of a prominent citizen who has an unsavoury past as well as a link with a long ago race horse scam.

If this plot sounds busy-- it is, but it works well. The D.I. Priest character carries personal and professional baggage from previous novels that make him even more absorbing as a character. This latest Pawson novel is better than ever.

Quintin Jardine is a successful creator of crime fiction with a couple of series in his portfolio. The one I prefer has featured over some years the adventures and progression of members of a team of Edinburgh policemen and women led by (at this point in the series) the new Chief Constable Bob Skinner. The 20th novel in the Skinner series is A Rush of Blood (2010) and it is a good one.

This story is the latest in which the central characters' personal and professional lives move chronologically and feature references to events in previous novels. There is a suicide involving a local shady character which is the puzzle that kicks off the story and energizes its plot and drives it to a surprising conclusion.

I have read a number of the Jardine novels featuring Bob Skinner and A Rush of Blood is one of the better ones. This is not intended to damn with faint praise. The book is enjoyable and easy reading but a warning to devotees of crime stories set in Edinburgh: do not expect writing on a par with that of Ian Rankin, that Scottish master of crime fiction in whose Rebus novels the leading character is also in the Border and Lothians Police. [The last Rebus novel, the 17th of the series was Exit Music (2007) in which Rebus finally hit CID retirement age.]

Beyond Reach (2010) is the 10th in Graham Hurley's series set in Portsmouth England. It features D.I. Joe Faraday and Paul Winter, an ex-cop (low ranking) who now works for a local crime lord.

There is a great deal to enhance and inform the reader's enjoyment of this latest novel in what previous novels of the series relate of the central characters' personal and professional lives; the novels move chronologically. In Beyond Reach Farraday's investigation of the murder of a local bully intersects with Winter's assignment from his boss to sort out problems involving his daughter.

Graham Hurley is an excellent teller of what are, on the whole, rather dark stories. Today's Portsmouth (called Pompey by the locals) is summarized this way by Hurley's Joe Farraday in Beyond Reach:
" ... the message in the Pompey stick of rock was a deep undercurrent of violence, the kind of violence that suddenly erupted in wild spasms of bloodletting; ungovernable, reckless and often fatal. The tariff, Farraday thought, was going up all the time...

" A generation ago differences would have been settled with fists. There was an intent to hurt ... but far fewer brawls ended in the mortuary. Nowadays, though, that restraint, that respect for some sort of unspoken code, had gone. When people fought, for whatever reason, they really meant it. Welcome to the world of the one-punch homicide."


Alastair Rickard