Fuck (Some of) Tha Police
When it comes to crime fiction, especially in the UK, the police procedural is king, and it’s no secret I’m not much of a fan. My issues with the sub-genre boil down to my distaste for cheap characterisation and sociological Manichaeism, and my fundamental belief that the circumstances of crime are more interesting that the investigation. But then, my opinion is clearly the minority, and it’s impossible for me to tar an entire sub-genre when there are so many outstanding exceptions. That’s right, I’m gonna turn that figurative frown upside down and hereby present, for your delectation and delight, ten authors whose police novels deserve your attention.
1) Charles Willeford. Of course I was going to mention Willeford. His Hoke Moseley ranks as one of the most ornery, bigoted, cheap and put-upon detectives in crime fiction. The books have little in the way of police procedure – Hoke isn’t even a cop by the third book, having suffered a rather spectacular nervous breakdown – but make up for it in sheer absurdism. I can only dream what the fifth book – provisionally titled Nobody Walks and with Hoke investigating dirty cops – would have been like. Start with Miami Blues and continue on through. They’re all good.
2) Joseph Wambaugh. Despite his recent resurgence with Hollywood Station, Wambaugh has never really garnered the kind of sustained kudos he deserves, perhaps because his cops are all too human and contradictory to appeal to a wide enough audience. Wambaugh also typically eschews the mystery aspect of his novels in favour of a more freewheeling, character- and anecdote-based narrative. While his early novels are still superb, the one where he both broke the mould and found his voice is The Choirboys.
3) Stuart MacBride. Perhaps an odd choice on the face of it, seeing as he’s ostensibly the purveyor of the same kind of big-brick mainstream police procedural novels mentioned in the opener. I’d argue that MacBride cuts deeper than that, though – while his novels are seriously in the procedural vein, his extended cast recall Wambaugh and Wingfield in the sharply-drawn and human characterisation, and his sense of humour, both bitterly ironic and deeply silly, sets him apart from the rest. That he has managed to achieve mainstream success makes him all the more subversive. Cold Granite is his first, but Flesh House or Blind Eyes are my personal favourites. No doubt they’ll completely fuck up any adaptations.
4) Bill James. Another subversive in the ranks of British crime fiction, James’ Harpur and Iles novels are archly written and devastatingly witty. His detectives are both wholly unpleasant people to be around, but filtered through James’ gimlet eyes, they become grimly comic and often succeed in making the criminals more sympathetic by comparison. He is, needless to say, extremely popular in France and virtually unknown in the UK, despite having published 28 novels in the Harpur and Iles series alone. I’ve yet to read them all, but I’d recommend Protection as the gateway, It was good enough for me.
5) James Ellroy. The Demon Dog himself. Is there anybody reading this who hasn’t read an Ellroy novel? If so, shame on you, and get thee to a bookstore this instant. Like Mingus’ nod to Charlie Parker, if Ellroy was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats. Many have attempted to ape Ellroy’s finger-snappin’, staccato prose, and they have all failed, mostly because Ellroy’s voice is wholly Ellroy, the kind of syncopated opera of corruption that can only come from a man as conflicted and publicly deranged as Ellroy himself. His cops share these contradictions, a mess of raging, horny, venal, backsliding, careerist murderers and thieves. Start with the easiest and yet possibly the grisliest of the LA Quartet, The Black Dahlia.
6) Georges Simenon. Like Ellroy, Simenon was something of a criminal manqué and of course his best novels are about the criminal experience, but there’s something to be said for the Maigret novels, mostly because they aren’t what you may think. Yes, they’re sometimes slight and sometimes Maigret’s intuition is a convenient replacement for logic, but Maigret was the quintessential empathetic detective, one more concerned with circumstances of crime than apprehending the criminal. The only real issue is where to start with a 75-novel series. They’re all good in their own way, but my intro was Maigret in Court, which shows a clear disdain for the judicial process and has Maigret actively investigating beyond his original arrest.
7) Ed McBain. One of the saddest things about Ed McBain’s death in 2005 was that it went so unremarked. This was probably because McBain’s bibliography doesn’t feature one outstanding novel. Instead he produced a whole slew of them, most notably the 87th Precinct series which happened to provide a blueprint for every large-cast American police procedural to follow on both paper and screen. The 87th Precinct novels, all 55 of them, are ostensibly pretty straightforward – there’s a crime to be solved and several ongoing plot threads – but what makes them special is the no-frills, cinematic writing and humanist approach. You could start with the first one, Cop Hater, but I have a soft spot for Sadie When She Died.
8 ) Ken Bruen. From McBain to Bruen’s tribute to the same, the Brant novels might appear to be the funnier, more obviously tabloid side of Bruen’s bibliography, but in their parody, they represent an almighty fuck-you to the po-faced sententiousness of a majority of police procedurals, especially on this side of the pond – the UK cover of Taming the Alien even featured a distorted view of one of UK crime fiction’s grand dames (or should that be Baroness?). Bruen’s ultra-hardboiled prose is the stuff of legend, and the frequent collisions between hardcase cop and headcase killer have rarely been as much fun. You can breeze through the first three in the series, but Blitz is the one where shit gets real.
9) Derek Raymond. The Factory novels are a milestone in what Raymond called “the black novel”. Again, there’s rarely any police procedure beyond the nameless sergeant’s dogged empathy, and any investigation is more of the intuitive, metaphysical variety than any real legwork. On the face of it, the Sergeant is the typical maverick – problems with his superiors, a suitably tragic backstory – but in Raymond’s hands, the detective is less a righter of wrongs (though he may talk that way) than he is an explorer of the darkest shadows. The finest of the novels is undoubtedly He Died With His Eyes Open, and it also happens to be the most accessible.
10) Chester Himes. Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones are not your usual cops – one is jittery and hideously scarred, and both carry hand cannons that would make Harry Callahan feel inadequate. Mind you, their beat isn’t exactly usual, either. Chester Himes’ Harlem is a crime burlesque, filled with conmen and killers, drug dealers and pimps, all painted as vividly as a tenement mural. Johnson and Jones are fond of their “extralegal” investigative methods, which included extreme violence and psychological torture, and these methods are fully in tune with the whirling, absurdist rage that defines Himes’ key novels. The detectives make their first, albeit cameo, appearance in A Rage in Harlem, but their first real case comes with The Real Cool Killers.
And so there you have it. No doubt I’ve missed many more and I’m sure I’ll be roundly reprimanded for my absent mind. I’m aware that my list is decidedly testosterone-heavy, too. Any suggestions of female writers are very welcome, so sound off in the comments if you know of any.