December showcases the finest of British police procedural crime, with our guide – Murder Room author Deb Valentine – leading us on a whistlestop tour of the best the force has to offer us.
I blame the Golden Age of Crime, but there’s a perception that British crime fiction is ‘cosy’. To explode this myth let’s take a little road trip, a whirlwind tour of police procedurals. Pack your flask. You’re going to need it.
Starting in London with Graham Ison’s Working Girl, here’s a tale that doesn’t shy from the sordid. There’s grime aplenty in intricate and compelling mystery, as DCI Harry Brock and Sergeant Dave Poole pursue a prostitute’s murderer. Ison is uniquely qualified among authors, having forged a career in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. It shows. It’s reflected in the humour, in the politics and procedure. Sternly realistic: this team may do their best and the result remain a compromise.
Moving further down the road to an obscure suburb, DCS Colin Harpur tries to head off an imminent bank robbery. You’d Better Believe It by Bill James feels its way through the moral maze between a cop and his informants. Harpur is a thirty-something whizz kid relying on and (oddly) caring about his narks. But in doing a deal with the devil – as necessary as it is ethically dangerous – when things go pear-shaped he gets squeezed like size twelve thighs in size eight jeans. His ego, his fundamental decency and his blossoming cynicism are at war under the pressure of repeated failures – and it’s his very recognisable flaws that keep us rooting for him as he fears changing into something he does not want to be even if it means survival.
Teamwork is the order of the day as we head up North to Merseyside in Now You See Me, where Margaret Murphy’s DCI Rickman and Sergeant Foster engage in a romping game of cat and mouse with a hacker whose mouse is mightier than the local heavies – or the police. Next, swerving towards the Welsh Borders for Darkness Falls, we enter a psychologically intense atmosphere when lawyer Clara Pascal is kidnapped and tortured. In an indictment of the legal profession, barrister Pascal is forced into a victim’s shoes and must confront her ethical flaws as the police scramble all their resources, even the dodgy ones, to find her. Murphy is adept at making even the lowliest members of an investigation jump to life in a few well-judged strokes, constructing a cohesive whole. There are no star turns, everyone is important – just like real life. And like real life, there is teamwork and there are cock-ups, escalating the oh-God-no factor. Darkness Falls is a harrowing story but ultimately a thought-provoking one.
In Wales proper now for Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead and his DC Fiona Griffiths, whose conception of teamwork is hazy at best. Delightfully off the wall, she’s definitely ‘on the spectrum’ somewhere and struggling with social norms. Bingham’s rat-ta-tat delivery captures this brilliantly and Griffiths is someone I loved – and I mean loved – spending time with. I also appreciated the sense of place, the rootedness in Wales; I recognised every landmark, every attitude. I shivered for Griffiths each time she went off-piste in her hunt for the murderers of a prostitute and her six-year-old daughter, worried she’d get the sack (she probably should have). I feared for her at the climax, a type of nail-biting conflict rare with a female lead. So, of course, I went straight into Love Story, With Murders. And it is. A love story. Encompassing all kinds of love. With gruesome murders. And all the ingredients we crave in crime fiction. I can give no higher praise than I want every single book in the DC Griffiths series.
Up Leeds way, we travel an unsettling path through grief in Steve Mosby’s I Know Who Did It. Told from a kaleidoscope of (mainly police) viewpoints, Mosby is finely attuned to grief. Coping and consequences are articulated with lyrical authenticity. Each step through every viewpoint is essential to the mystery of this multi-stranded story, pulled together by the common thread of sorrow. This is a complex investigative tale – moving, often shocking and unremittingly creepy. A phrase describing one couple’s loss says grief: ‘left a centre of gravity still strong enough to hold them in its orbit’. And that’s what this book does. It holds you in its orbit, then reels you into a conclusion that is conversely devastating and uplifting.
Last stop, Edinburgh. You can’t keep a good man down, or Ian Rankin’s Rebus in retirement. He’s back in Even Dogs in the Wild with cohort Siobhan Clarke and former pain in his arse DI Malcolm Fox. Fox, once likened to ‘a soulless spunkless middle manager from the most boring company on the planet’, is sharpening up his wit and his police skills alongside a deepening relationship with Rebus. One of the many pleasures of this hugely enjoyable novel is the snappy repartee. I say ‘enjoyable’ without softening the dark aspects – organised crime, wide-ranging corruption, death and advancing age. Even the crime lords are getting old. With age comes a shift in perspective. Rankin has always been great at bookmarking a place in time and I imagine one day there will be a PhD in Scottish Cultural History vis-à-vis Rankin (or some such). This book is a fine addition to that catalogue. Equally important is his love of music; the title is taken from an Associates song – I suggest you listen to it. And holy smoke, there’s a bit with an actual dog! Hurrah!
Concluding our tour, the British police procedural may be many things – witty, perverse, team-based or star-turned.But cosy it ain’t.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website and follow her on Twitter.