Discussible (and eminently readable!) police procedurals

May 27, 2007 at 12:49 pm (Book clubs, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)


I don’t always consider police procedurals to be the best choices for discussions, but there are several exceptions. (Actually there turn out to be quite a few exceptions!). Last year I re-read A CERTAIN JUSTICE by P.D. James, in the process gaining a fresh appreciation of that novel. Not only is it only beautifully written, but it’s ideal for discussion as well. My favorites in Ruth Rendell’s Wexford series are NO MORE DYING THEN and SIMISOLA. The latter concerns racial strife and economic unrest in Kingsmarkham, Rendell’s invented English city. DYING is a 30-year-old novel that still, in my view, has an immediate impact. It centers on Mike Burden, Wexford’s second-in-command. Burden, who has recently lost a wife he adored, is a very conservative, somewhat rigid person who is called in to investigate a missing child case. The life being lived by this child’s single mother embodies everything Burden disapproves of in the way of social pathologies, but when they are repeatedly thrown together in the course of the investigation, forces neither of them can control come into play and take over, precipitating a crisis in Burden’s professional life and in his personal life as well.

I also highly recommend Rendell’s non-Wexford books. An outstanding example of these is A JUDGEMENT IN STONE. This novel opens with one of the most famous sentences in contemporary crime fiction: “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” Having given the game away in the first sentence, Rendell proceeds to fill in the blanks by evoking such feelings of dread and intimations of catastrophe that there were times when I wanted to put the book away completely – even though I couldn’t bear to stop reading it! (There are two film versions of this novel: Judgment in Stone, made in 1986 and featuring Rita Tushingham, and a French film, La Ceremonie, made in 1995, with Jacqueline Bisset.)


Under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, Rendell writes psychological suspense stories that unfold at a more leisurely pace than do her other novels. There isn’t a book in this group that I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed, but I am in particular awe of THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER’S BOY because it contains the most devastating depiction of a disastrous, pain-filled marriage that I have encountered since reading Portrait of a Lady by The Master himself!

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Ruth Rendell and P.D. James


I am also a great fan of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. These books just keep getting better and better. Hill is possessed of the rapier-like wit so prized by readers of Colin Dexter’s Morse novels. ON BEULAH HEIGHT was especially notable for its magical use of a children’s story woven into the larger story; ultimately, missing and endangered children become a metaphor for the universal loss we all experience at some time in our lives. (“Man must endure his going hence, Even as his coming hither”). Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks novels also keep improving with each new entry into the series. In Banks, Robinson has created an enormously likeable hero with all too human failings. I’ve read every one in the series. For discussion, you might try IN A DRY SEASON, or PIECE OF MY HEART.

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Reginald Hill; Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson


I greatly enjoy the Barnaby and Troy procedurals written by Caroline Graham. Those of you have watched the Midsomer Murders DVD’s are already familiar with these characters. Graham makes cunning use of her traditional English village settings, allowing the moral rot beneath the congenial facade to emerge, gradually and inevitably, with hugely entertaining results. I’ve read several of these books; the one I like best is GHOST IN THE MACHINE, which does, I think, have discussion potential.


Two relative new names in this subgenre are Olive Etchells and Martin Edwards. Etchells sets her mysteries in evocative, atmospheric Cornwall; Edwards sets his in equally evocative and atmospheric Cumbria (better known in this country as the Lake District). I love both these series!

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Martin Edwards; Martha Grimes; Caroline Graham; No Corners for the Devil by Olive Etchells

Also, Martha Grimes appears to be back on top of her game with her two recent Richard Jury novels, THE OLD WINE SHADES and DUST. The latter, with its evocation of Henry James and Lamb House, would be a good one for a book group to tackle.

The most comprehensive list I’ve found of British police procedurals is on the indispensable Stop! You’re Killing Me (www.stopyourekillingme.com). Click on “Job Index” on the left hand side of the page; then, click on “Cops-UK.”

1 Comment

  1. Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell: a reading guide, of sorts « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] the fact that Rendell gives the game away in the first sentence of the novel (See Discussible -and eminently readable! – police procedurals), I nevertheless read on with a mounting sense of dread. I guess this goes to show that sometimes […]

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