Monday, January 3, 2011

Crime Watch - Some Authors/Series- Genre Fiction

Crime has a (morbid) fascination for a lot us and we like to read about crimes and novels on crime and thrillers. Even some of the so called 'high brow' readers read it, but do not accept it (guilty pleasures is what it is called :)). There are a lot of sub-genres within this, of which I like the police procedural the best. How does it differ from the classical British mysteries or the slasher/serial killer genre?. 
Unlike the British closed room mysteries or serial killer thrillers, there is no super-intelligent main character who solves all the crimes in his mind, explains his solution to the perpetrator of the crime and the perpetrator accepts it almost with no objection. The detective work is done painstakingly, going for door to door searches, cross checking the witnesses and the solution lies in some of the voluminous data unearthed by them. Sometimes, it is almost by chance, that the solution is arrived upon. In some cases, it is also a bit late to save someone else who has been murdered in the meantime.  This happens also because, in these novels, the characters have to work on several cases at a time and they don't have the luxury of working on only one case at a time. 

The best novels in this genre are those which continue as a series. The main characters come in all the novels and the reader can see the evolution of the characters over a period of time. For e.g. in one of the series, the main character starts off with having a difficult relationship with this wife and over the course of the series, the relationship deteriorates, they get divorced and he starts seeing another woman. This may seem trivial, but these info on their personal lives give us an insight into the emotional baggage carried by police offers.The policemen/women are not super humans who have no faults of their own. They too have their own insecurities, ego, professional jealousies which is manifested in the novels. They are also socially insecure in the sense that they are not able to deal with the so called normal people. Several of them are divorced. They are also bothered by the unsolved cases, by the criminals who got away and even by the victims of the crimes whose cases they take up. Their work is their sanctuary. They even drink a lot to get away from the real world. For e.g. Rebus is a heavy drinker, but still, when he goes home and gets drunk, is haunted by the faces of the victims. 

The who/how part of the crime is not as important in these novels as the why and most importantly the ramifications of the crime. In several cases, the person who commits the crime is revealed very early itself. The authors are more concerned about why he did the crime and it's impact on the families of the victim. For instance, a young girl of 16-17 is killed. What impact it does have on the parents. In lots of cases, the family drifts apart, the father blaming (implicitly) the mother for not monitoring the girl enough, the mother in turn blaming the father for not being around enough. A normal family torn apart by some unforeseeable event. And what does push the person to commit the crimes. In several cases, he is not some crazed evil genius who kills for the pure joy of killing. He is someone, whom in a moment of madness commits a crime, destroys an entire family and without meaning too sets in a series of chain of motions and has to face the ramifications himself. I am not trying to give the impression that these novels tend to glorify or mitigate the criminal deeds, but they just try to look at it from other angles too. The why part of the crime also tend to look at society as a whole and try to understand why these crimes occur and at such brutality. A murder is a murder anywhere and anytime, but the brutality and almost casualness of them has been increasing over the years and at some point we fail to recognize the society which was present around 20 years ago with the one now. As Wallender says often 'How did Sweden come to this state'?. 

The characters of the series also age over real time, unlike most others in other genre, where time is static. This is not a criticism of those novels, but when characters age, their experiences change, the reader also gets a feeling of being a part of their lives. Ian Rankin has retired Rebus after nearly 30 years of service. I have listed the novelists/characters whom I like the most. What makes these series so good is the characters, if a character holds your attention you want to stick through him for the entire series, irrespective of the actual plots of the novels and most of the authors/characters mentioned below fall into that category.

Henning Mankell/Wallander - Mankell is one of the high priests of this genre. Set in Sweden, the series Kurt Wallander has the main character and leads a team which solves crimes. In the beginning of the series, Wallander is divorced, his daughter does not talk to him and he has a difficult relationship with his own father. Over the series, he mends fences with daughter and father and his daughter too joins the force. Kurt is a obstinate man, heavy drinker and a loner. (He is caught one time for drunken driving, but the policemen let him go). He is also not in any sort of long term stable relationship. (He was for sometime in a long distance relationship with one of the characters he met during the course of an investigation, but it did not work out). He also has a reasonably good relationship with this team members, but as he himself asks in one novel 'Do we really know anyone else fully'?.
A must read for anyone wanting to get into this genre.

Ian Rankin/Jack Rebus - Rankin along with Mankell, should be the topmost tier of this genre. The series is set in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jack Rebus is almost a social misfit, egoistic, antagonistic with even his superiors. In fact, he is being monitored by his superiors for any slip up so that he can be booted out. But his great track record in solving crimes, saves him. He tramples across all authorities, departments to get his job done. The job is his private shell where he can escape from his inner demons. He is by no means a perfect characters, in fact he could be someone the reader could actually hate.  Rebus has retired from the service. Siobhan is a female character who teamed up with Rebus in the later novels, started of a minor character and by the end became as important as Rebus. The series could continue with Siobhan taking over and Rebus giving her help. The relationship between the two also has evolved over the period with Rebus almost taking a mentor/protective role over him, which of course is disliked by Siobhan.

Arnaldur Indridason/Erlunder - Set in Iceland, this series is probably the bleakest  and gloomy of them all. The mood of the novels mirrors the landscape of the country. This is also the series where the detective part is probably the least and the novel focuses more on the characters and at the end the conclusion is arrived not due to any major brainwave, but simply as a logical progression. Erlunder too has a troubled family life, his daughter is a drug junkie. Erlunder too is haunted by the death of this brother when they were kids and has an almost morbid fascination in reading books about people who get lost in the artic. He also likes the old Icelandic sagas. Indridason also brings up the past, when in a novel he refers to Iceland's part in the second world war and the people who worked with the Nazis.  Highly recommended.

Val Mcdermid/Tony Hill-Carol Jordan - Set in Scotland again. Mcdermid writes the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series and also standalones other series. I have read only the Tony hill series. It has Tony Hill, a profiler who suffers from sexual dysfunction and Carol Jordan a detective. The two team up to solve macabre crimes, in fact this series has some of the most gory crimes committed.  The relationship between the two, which is still evolving is a major sub-text of the series. She writes stand alone novels also, which are also really good.

Fred Vargas/Adamsberg - Set in France. Adamsberg is almost an antithesis of the characters mentioned above in that he is almost whimsical person, whose head is in the clouds as they say. Depends more on intuition, but unlike Poirot, Holmes etc, these are not flashes of brillance. Adamsberg himself cannot explain why or how he gets these ideas, but ultimately he gets his man. These series can be seem almost as a play on this genre.

Colin Dexter/Morse - Set in Oxford, England. This series probably does not belong here technically, in that it is close to the classical British mystery too. But Morse is a pretty unique character in this genre. He is pedantic, egoistic, miserly (drinks a lot, but does not pay for it, it is his sub-ordinate Lewis, who pays most of the time) and un-imaginably rude with others who he this is not up to the mark intellectually (for e.g. he rips people who make simple spelling errors). It is also hinted that Morse suffered a failed love affair and which resulted in poor academic performance and in him being booted out of college. These hinted details, give us an insight into the troubled and hurt man inside the almost boorish outward detective. More than Adamsberg, Morse depends on intuition to get the killers. He disregards clues which are in front of him and goes galloping down the wrong path. Later he understands that he was wrong, but without any acceptance of that or remorse, goes along another path. His relationships with Max the pathologist and Lewis has it's prickly moments, but the heartfelt feelings he has for them and they for him are one of the major high points of this series for me.

Other novelists which I like are Jo Nesbo, Ake Edwardsen, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Stuart Mcbride, Sjöwall and Wahlöö (who created the martin beck series). Steig Larsson is one who has gained great fame posthumously with his Millennium trilogy. But personally, I liked only the first part of the trilogy. The next two seemed to be hastily put out and read more like scenes from a film than as a novel. The character 'Salander' however is a pretty unique one, in this genre. Micheal Connelly is the only American I have here, his stand alone novels 'The Poet' and 'The Narrows' are really good.


1. One can see that many of the novelists referred above are from Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Personally for me, the best crime fiction in recent years have been written from the Scandinavian countries. But this too has a pitfall, where there is a glut of novels  from there and as it's known when there is almost an assembly line production of such novels, the quality is bound to suffer. For instance, a lot of the novels have the same template of middle aged detective, divorced, somewhat socially incompatible etc. After a time, the template gets too repetitive and boring. The novelists mentioned above are among the forerunners of this genre.

2. While reading these novels, it would be better to read them chronologically. While there is not much overlap of the main story lines in the series, understanding the back stories of the main characters and their history would be easier if they are read in the order they were published. However this is not possible always since you would not be able to purchase books in the same order, it depends on the availability of them. I myself have read several out of order, did not face many issues, but yes better to read them in in order. 

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