The Magazine

Cops on the Case

Two police procedurals from contemporary Britain.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JON L. BREEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.