Police procedurals: five of the best

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It is not surprising that the police procedural is one of the most enduring forms of crime fiction. The process by which a crime is solved, and the relationships between members of the police, and those they have with family and friends, continue to fascinate. As Michael Connelly says, it’s not just about the way they work the case, but the way the case works them.

Some of the most successful examples of this sub-genre come from the United States. Joseph Wambaugh, himself an ex-policeman, wrote about cops being cops. Sometimes they were as stupid, craven and violent as the criminals they were chasing. Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels featuring Detective Steve Carella, amongst other, remained popular for over 30 years.

The extraordinarily prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon made a massive contribution to European crime fiction with his Maigret novels. In all Commissaire Maigret of the Paris Brigade Criminelle starred in 75 novels. Britain has produced its fair share of policiers too. Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet have both been successfully adapted for television. The differences between these two series illustrate the wide range of styles and themes that the form can support. Reginald Hill’s books are relatively mainstream with a gentle humour whilst Peace’s deal with police corruption against a backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders and are a delirious, disorientating read.

But there are many more fantastic examples of police procedurals, and below I look at some of my favourite series.

The Grijpstra and De Gier Mysteries by Janwillem van de Wettering
There are 14 novels and one collection of short stories featuring Detective-Adjutant Grijpstra and Detective-Sergeant De Gier of the Amsterdam Murder Brigade, and none of them is like any other book I have read. The first time our heroes interrupted an investigation for a flute and drums jam session in an upstairs room at an Amsterdam police station I nearly threw the book away. The second time, I laughed out loud. Perhaps the strangeness of the series can be explained by the life of the author, himself at times a world traveller, a Buddhist monk, and a volunteer with the Dutch police. The series becomes increasingly dark in tone as the originally light-hearted De Gier grows disenchanted with justice, developing fantasies of violent retribution against criminals. It has been speculated that this reflects the author’s own views on how Dutch society has experimented with decriminalising drugs and prostitution. I suggest trying The Amsterdam Cops: Collected Stories as an introduction.
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The Kramer And Zondi Investigations by James McClure
Set in apartheid-era South Africa, white Lieutenant Tromp Kramer solves murders with the help of his ‘boy’, Bantu Constable Zondi. As well as a fascinating reflection of race relations at the time, the witty, clever writing is a delight. Often passages have to be read twice to reveal their hidden meanings. It is a testament to McClure’s skill that he is able to make clear the evils of apartheid whilst still keeping the reader’s interest and sympathy with the characters. Try the series debut, The Steam Pig, winner of the CWA Gold Dagger.
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The Martin Beck Series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
This husband and wife team took on the incredible task of writing a ten book series, subtitled The Story of a Crime, critiquing Swedish society from a Marxist perspective. The couple wished to show their concern for the direction liberal Sweden was heading towards – a cold, capitalist society where the rich got richer at the poor’s expense. This series has been incredibly influential on later generations of crime fiction writers, as varied as George Pelecanos and Henning Mankell. Try Murder At The Savoy where Inspector Beck investigates the murder of a prominent industrialist.
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The Inspector O Series by James Church
Church was a western intelligence officer who worked throughout Asia for 30 years before his writing career began, and he provides a different perspective to the writers above. Here the communist state of North Korea is under the microscope as Inspector O is forced to investigate crimes in the dark, never fully aware of all of the facts , and never even sure if his superiors in the central committee even want the case solved. Despite, or perhaps because of his grandfather’s role in the revolution, O is never able to bend completely to the whims of others and celebrates his small victories against the state. It will be fascinating to see what Church writes next following the death of the Dear Leader. I suggest starting with the first in the series, A Corpse In The Koryo.
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The Inspector Montalbano Mysteries by Andrea Camilleri
This series stars Salvo Montalbano of the Montelusa police in Sicily. Montelbano is a gastronome to rival Pepe Carvalho, the fictional Catalan detective of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, and just like Montalban, Camilleri delights in describing the beautiful local cuisine his detective eats. I feel like I have put on half a stone after each book. The comic tone of the novels hides the often hardboiled nature of the plots and as befits Sicily; the mafia regularly features. Don’t be put off by the TV adaptation – it doesn’t do the books justice. The series seems to get better with each new book, so I suggest the most recent, The Potter’s Field, just published.
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Do you have a favourite series of police procedurals? If so please share your suggestions below.


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