The Magazine

Cops on the Case

Two police procedurals from contemporary Britain.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JON L. BREEN
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Gone to Ground

by John Harvey

Harcourt/Penzler, 400 pp., $25

The Headhunters

by Peter Lovesey

Soho, 304 pp., $24

The invention of the police procedural, in recent decades the dominant subgenre of detective fiction, is usually credited to Lawrence Treat, whose V as in Victim (1945) put a new emphasis on teamwork in crime detection and on the attitudes and special problems of the law enforcement professional. But it took a radio and television show, Dragnet, to popularize the form in media, and Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series to provide its most durable and definitive exemplar in print.

Police procedurals have always been about both the cops and the case, but writers differ on where the emphasis should be placed.

Many of the best procedurals have come from Great Britain, where John Harvey and Peter Lovesey are two of the top practitioners. Both are recipients of the Crime Writers Association's Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement, Lovesey in 2000 and Harvey in 2007. Though they have in common a teaching background, they reached this pinnacle by very different routes.

Lovesey, born in 1936, who began his writing career as a track and field historian, became one of crime fiction's pioneering historical specialists, introducing the Victorian police Sergeant Cribb and Constable Thackeray in Wobble to Death (1970) and continuing the series in seven more books, concluding with Waxwork (1978), and a brief but distinguished television series. He also wrote historical mysteries, including several about the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), but began a shift to present-day police novels with The Last Detective (1991), introducing the retro-minded Superintendent Peter Diamond.

Harvey, born in 1938, came to prominence much later in his career. He was a prolific writer of young-adult novels, movie novelizations, poetry, radio and television plays, and paperback crime and western fiction under at least 10 different names before introducing the Nottingham policeman Charlie Resnick in Lonely Hearts (1989), the first of an acclaimed series that was ostensibly ended after 10 novels. It has surprisingly resumed with Cold in Hand, not due for publication here until September.

Lovesey's The Headhunters and Harvey's Gone to Ground represent differing approaches to the cops vs. case dichotomy and to a couple of contemporary trends, both of which reflect the increased feminization of the field, in recognition of its mostly female readership.

Number one, the proportion of female fictional sleuths is greater than ever before. Some procedural writers, notably H.R.F. Keating, have phased out their male detectives in favor of policewomen. Others, including Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, and P.D. James, have retained their male leads but given them increasingly prominent female partners. Some readers might charge that placing so many policewomen on the crime-fighting front lines is simply unrealistic, but others can counter that detective fiction is a branch of fantasy anyway. Lovesey has taken the first course, more or less abandoning Peter Diamond in favor of the tough, diminutive, and likeable Inspector Hen Mallin, while Harvey writes of a virtually coequal detective team, Will Grayson and Helen Walker.

The second trend, closely related to the cops vs. case question, is more complicated and generally less salutary: the drift to soap opera. While some authors take the time-honored approach of sticking doggedly to the central crime problem or problems, others emphasize the personal lives of the investigators to the point of overshadowing the mystery. Lovesey and Harvey were already exemplifying these differing approaches: Certainly the character of Charlie Resnick has excited more interest than the cases he investigates, and just as surely the Peter Diamond books, despite the complex central character, are more notable for their classically intricate plots.

Both new books offer intriguing situations. The victim in Gone to Ground is Stephen Bryan, found beaten to death in his shower. A gay academic whose teaching assignment in Anglia Ruskin University's Department of Communication Studies included "courses in British Cinema, Class and Culture, and Sexuality, Gender and Identity," he was working on a book about film star Stella Leonard, whose death was mysterious and whose family has resisted cooperation in the project. The police gradually come to know what the reader has already guessed: Bryan's death has some connection to the 1950s film noir Shattered Glass, which starred Leonard. Excerpts from the script of the film begin and end the novel and turn up periodically throughout the narrative. Strong as the plot is, the relationship of the police team to each other, and to Grayson's wife Lorraine, who is unhappy about their move from the city to the boondocks, ultimately carries more interest than the mystery. The inevitable sexual tension of the male-female police team hasn't led to any violation of the marital vows, but the reader senses that it could, and wonders how the friendly but uneasy triangle will develop in future novels.

The Headhunters begins in a Chichester Starbucks where two girlfriends, level-headed Jo Stevens, employee of a garden center, and madcap Gemma Casey, who works for a printing firm, are facetiously plotting the murder of Gemma's boss. The discussion widens when Jo and "latest bloke" Rick meet Gemma and her date Jake, an uncommunicative nature conservator, at a bowling alley. When the casual fantasizing gets out of hand and actual murders take place, the action alternates between the involved civilian Jo and Hen Mallin's police team. Lovesey sticks to the case throughout, from that initial meeting to a surprising, but fairly clued, solution. The reader gets to know Mallin and her team very well without dwelling on inessential personal details.

These are both good books, expertly written and constructed, and certainly recommended. But ultimately Harvey's is about the cops, while Lovesey's is about the case. Without denying Harvey's excellence as a writer, I prefer Lovesey's old-school emphasis on the problem at hand, as well as his credible but elaborate and deceptive plot structure. It's fashionable to distinguish crime novels as either plot-driven or character-driven, with implied preference to the latter; but a novel in this genre should provide both plot and character seamlessly enough to relieve the reader of pondering chicken-or-egg provenance.

It's the approach to plot, after all, that makes the detective story a unique genre. While Harvey balances his elements well, too many of his contemporaries use background and domestic detail to obscure a shortage of the ingenuity that distinguishes the best detective fiction.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Eye of God.