Yorkshire Noir – The Inspector Banks Series

English-born Peter Robinson crossed the pond for a new life in Canada. However, his Inspector Alan Banks novels are set in the UK. The police procedural and forensic details turn on detective work in the Yorkshire Dales. And those details are spot on.

As the series opens, Banks has recently left London Metropolitan Police and the big city, seeking a quieter life in Yorkshire. He doesn’t find it. The Dales may be a long way from London (by English standards, not Canadian), but they are teeming with fictional murder and mayhem. Banks is a busy sleuth, a divorcee who loves women, but has no luck finding true love.

Robinson deploys multiple narrative points-of-view, featuring criminals plus various detectives, mainly Alan Banks, Annie Cabbot (a former Banks love interest) and Winsome Jackman. The novels are expertly plotted and delivered with a descriptive eye. The early books in the series are cozier in tone, while the later books are harder, an Eight out of Ten on the Noir Scale, with Ian Rankin being a Nine-point-Five.

Although Robinson is known for his police procedural details, if you dig deeper, the main element in his writing is human psychology (cop and criminal). As an aside, I’d say that psychology is the main element in most crime writing, if not all. The difference between the crime subgenres is mainly due to the way that characters are portrayed – both cops and criminals – as well as the bloodiness of the killings. A cozy is soft and humane, and, at the other end of the subgenre spectrum, a black crime novel is at times almost inhuman.

Robinson doesn’t shy away from descriptive prose. His plots are firmly set in place and time. A deep sense of grounding makes his fiction appear to be fact, which is what all crime novels need.

When I want a winning combination of police procedural details, detective personality, and descriptive prose, I turn to Peter Robinson. As alluded to above, he’s not as noir as Ian Rankin. Nor is he as cozy as Agatha Christie or P.D. James. He hits a sweet spot in between.

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Banks novels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Robinson_(novelist)

A few excerpts from the Banks opus ….

On the optimum time window to solve a murder:

Traditional police wisdom is that if a case doesn’t yield leads in the first 24 hours, everyone is in for a long haul. That time period could run to 30, 36 or 48 hours. That’s the problem. When do you scale down your efforts? The answer: You don’t.

A short “history lesson,” delivered by an ex-copper Banks knows [I’ve shortened the quote]:

“The first detectives came from the criminal classes. They were equally at home on either side of the law. Jonathan Wild, the famous thief-taker, for example. Half the time he set up the blokes he fingered. And back then, the days you’re asking about, I think we were a bit closer to our prototypes than the office boys we seem to have on the force today, if you’ll pardon my criticism. Now, I’m not saying that I was ever a crimo myself, but I lived close enough to the line at times to know what a thin line it is, and I was also close enough to know how they thought. I could think like them. I could’ve easily used my street smarts for criminal purposes ….” He let the sentence trail.

North Bay Noir – Giles Blunt

Giles Blunt was born in Canada to English parents. As he tells it, “they had colorful accents and amusing habits and never allowed themselves to be influenced by Canadians. Consequently I lived in England at home and Canada at school.” Regardless of the schism – or maybe because of it – Blunt learned how to write. Very well. He is one of the few crime writers to be nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award.

Blunt’s Detective John Cardinal novels have been turned into a TV series. I’m not a fan of the series, but I don’t blame Blunt. The TV offerings don’t deliver the vibrancy and depth of the Cardinal novels, a prime example of the general rule that books are better than the movies/series based on them. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (Movies vs. Books).

Back to Blunt. The Cardinal novels are set in Algonquin Bay, a thinly disguised version of North Bay, Ontario. OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Detective John Cardinal is a down-to-earth yet complex man. Blunt doesn’t hide Cardinal’s faults. The detective is not a particularly social animal (like many a detective; to wit, Connelly’s Bosch and Rankin’s Rebus). Although Cardinal bears psychic scars, he is humane, humble, and likable.    

The Cardinal plotlines demonstrate that crime novels can be personal, with “literary” character development. They don’t need to be all crime all of the time. If you have interesting detectives like Cardinal and his partner, Lise Delorme, you can deliver whodunits with depth. Of course, it helps if the criminals aren’t one-dimensional. Blunt doesn’t fall into that trap. He gives us nuanced perps. As Cardinal hunts them down, the reader walks both sides of the thin blue line.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giles_Blunt

A few excerpts from the Cardinal opus ….

Blunt delivers “literary” prose:

“The Planet Grief. An incalculable number of light years from the warmth of the sun. When the rain falls, it falls in droplets of grief, and when the light shines, it is in waves and particles of grief. From whatever direction the wind blows — south, east, north or west — it blows cinders of grief before it.”

Advice if you get lost in the Canadian woods:

“Panic will kill you faster than any wolf, faster than any bear.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Blunt novels.

The Queen of Canadian Mystery

Which female Canadian author has written the best mystery novel? Who’s the Queen of Canadian Mystery? Many will say Maureen Jennings, author of the Detective Murdoch series. Others will say Louise Penny, author of the Inspector Gamache series. I say Margaret Atwood. “What the &^$#!” you say. You’re an idiot.” I know. An opinionated idiot. Let the mud fly. 😉

Before I reveal the mystery novel, I’ll relate a few arguments I’ve heard from friends. “Atwood isn’t a mystery writer.” Correct, in as much as she’s not labeled a mystery writer. “Atwood doesn’t need kudos from anyone. She’s already famous.” Also correct. “Pick someone more current.” I will, when the new Queen comes along.

Now, to the question at hand. The best mystery novel written by a female Canadian author is …. The Robber Bride.

Get &^$%,” you say, “The Robber Bride isn’t a genre novel. It’s literary fiction.” Yep. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a mystery, and a damn fine one. I admit, it’s not noir. I’m also stretching the definition of “mystery novel.” The Robber Bride doesn’t feature a detective or a parade of murderees. The reader knows the villain (Zenia) from the start. But you don’t know what she did, or how she did it. That’s the mystery – the howdunit, you might say.

Atwood delivers enough plot twists and obfuscation to please the most demanding of mystery fans. She deploys wry humour and strong prose. She makes you think. However, The Robber Bride has its limitations. It isn’t for the hard-boiled. Too much literary description, too much talk of “feelings.” Oh, those dreaded feelings. Me, I like a good dose of feelings now and then. I don’t want noir all the time.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. McClelland and Stewart. 1993.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Robber_Bride

Cisco – Flannery O’Connor meets Elmore Leonard in San Fran

Cisco by Jim White. Dark Passages Publishing. 2019.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Cisco unfolds on the streets of San Fran. The protagonist, Cisco, is a cunning man, a kidnapper with a Biblical sense of wrath. His antagonist, Detective Helen McCurda, is a seasoned cop with no quit. The novella’s plotline is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story. The reader gets religiosity and hard-scrabble life in equal measure. In addition to the O’Connor fictional MO, we are in Elmore Leonard land. White delivers Cisco with sharp, clear prose. There are no wasted words. We are immediately pulled into the story.

Cisco knows his Bible, but he doesn’t turn his cheek. He’s a lawless evangelical. He has no apparent remorse. A speech impediment humanizes him. However, it turns out to be fake. Some think he’s a mad man. Is he ‘criminally insane’? I’d say not. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a killer/kidnapper of Biblical, as in monstrous, proportions, both physically and mentally. His strength appears to come from God, and yet he is a Fallen Man (echoes of Prospero and Caliban in ‘The Tempest’).

On the other side of the thin blue line, Detective McCurda is intelligent, tough, competent, and sympatico. She’s everything you want a cop to be. However, Cisco is the engine of the story. His actions and complex personality move the plot forward. As in Leonard’s novels, the criminals in Cisco are far more interesting than the cops. I like that. The cops can’t always be the stars. But I do have a minor complaint – which is really a compliment.I want more of Cisco. The story ended too soon.

The King of California Noir

Who’s the King of California Noir? Michael Connelly. Some might say Raymond Chandler (his protagonist was Philip Marlowe) or Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade). Others might make a case for Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t have to be a writer to be the King. However, in my eyes, Connelly is the reigning King of California Noir. His output surpasses that of Chandler or Hammett, but that’s not all. Harry (short for Hieronymus) Bosch, Connelly’s protagonist, is a more realistic and enduring lead than either Marlowe or Spade.

This post introduces Connelly’s Bosch series (it doesn’t review a particular novel). The Detective Harry Bosch novels are set in Los Angeles. Bosch is an LAPD detective. He’s a Vietnam vet, a former “tunnel rat” who operated in the vast underground mazes used by the Vietcong. He has no pretensions, and no patience for those who do. He’s tough and diligent, but he’s not a wooden macho man, not overly taciturn or snarky. Unlike Sam Spade, for example, Bosch is not hard-boiled to the core, which makes him an easier man to know. Hammett shows very little of Spade’s emotions and only the manly side. After all, Spade was a hard-edged dick. I’m not denigrating Hammett’s fictional MO. He wrote in the 1920s and 30s; hard-boiled was the schtick.

Connelly’s Bosch novels deliver plenty of explanatory details, making it easy to follow the story. Admittedly, that can slow the pace. He’s partial to what I call Hollywood plotting, such as extended car chases, but, hey, the books are set in LA. He’s more mainstream than Ian Rankin, for example. In some places, Connelly’s info-dumps are too long. Ditto for his police procedural details. At times, the prose is workman-like, which is not surprising given his prodigious output, almost a book a year. However, I’m OK with all of that. I get sharply plotted whodunits. I get a tough yet sympatico protagonist. I get LA. (I used to live there – shout-out to Irv and his family – and get a kick out of Bosch’s LA. Nostalgia Noir, eh.)

A few quotes from the Bosch opus ….

“Bosch knew every trick there was when it came to planting obfuscation and misdirection in a murder book. He could write a how-to manual on the art of turning the [pre-trial] discovery into a nightmare for a defense lawyer. It had been his routine practice back in the day to redact words in reports without rhyme or reason, to intermittently remove the toner cartridge from the squad room photocopier so that pages and pages he was turning over were printed so lightly they were impossible or at least headache-inducing to read.”

“Bosch never got used to viewing crime scenes. He had been to hundreds of them and seen the result of human inhumanity too many times to count. He always thought that if he got used to it, then he had lost something inside that was needed to do the job right. You had to have an emotional response. It was that response that lit the match that started the fire.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Bosch novels.