by Peter Robinson

Published by McClelland & Stewart

400 pages, 2001

Buy it online

The Falls

by Ian Rankin

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

320 pages, 2001

Buy it online

The Take

by Graham Hurley

Published by Orion Books

289 pages, 2001









Cop Talk

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Police have occupied roles in crime fiction ever since Edgar Allan Poe's mid-19th-century "tales of ratiocination." However, they were often doltish foils against whom more perspicacious sleuths could clearly define themselves. The police procedural as we know it today is really a post-World War II invention, pioneered by authors such as Lawrence Trent (V as in Victim, 1945), former British cop Maurice Proctor (The Chief Inspector's Statement, 1949) and Hillary Waugh, whose Last Seen Wearing... (1952) is often described as the first book to perfect the procedural form. The Connecticut-born Waugh has said that Last Seen was inspired by his reading of a true-crime book, though of course he had to leave out many of the dull details and dead ends that are inevitable in real police work, to make room for the stronger narrative drive required of crime fiction.

Many others have since contributed greatly to this subgenre. They've also blurred the line between what is and is not a procedural. It used to be that the police investigation was the first, last and only thing that mattered in these books; that the romances or domestic situations of their protagonists had no place in the stories. Yet with crime fiction as a whole seeking a more literary flavor over the last 30 years, the definition of the police procedural has been "corrupted" by the authors' greater attention to character development and scenes that are not germane to the solving of a crime. This is a healthy change, really, but hard for some purists to accept. They still want to distinguish, say, Ed McBain's 85th Precinct novels (such as The Last Dance ) or Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra and de Gier mysteries from the offerings of Reginald Hill or John Farrow or Caroline Graham, which they might dismiss as "police dramas" rather than procedurals, because their characters don't adhere so slavishly to the strictures of realism.

It's far easier -- and considerably more reasonable in this share-your-feelings age -- to define the procedural liberally as fiction that features cops leaping through more-or-less-credible bureaucratic hurdles to bring down wrongdoers. Such parameters leave room enough to fit three gripping new novels set in modern Britain: Aftermath, by Peter Robinson, The Falls, by Ian Rankin, and The Take, by Graham Hurley.

* * *

If Robinson had some difficulty attracting a substantial international following, he has had no trouble retaining it. The British-born, Canada-based novelist has been on a roll ever since the publication of his so-called breakout work, In a Dry Season, back in 1999. Although some readers will argue that Cold Is the Grave (2000), the 11th and subsequent entry in his Alan Banks series, was an even more engaging tale -- thanks to its principal plot line, which found the detective inspector pursuing the errant daughter of his meddlesome senior officer, Jimmy Riddle -- few would dispute that both are worth reading. (Cold Is the Grave ranked among my favorite books of 2000.)

But Aftermath, while it is just as character-driven and intricately plotted as any previous Banks outing, finds Robinson testing his limits, concocting a powerful, if grim, serial-killer yarn that actually expands the possibilities of that too-well-worked theme.

The book's setup puts Banks -- who's been elevated to "acting detective superintendent," filling in for his injured boss -- in command of the North Yorkshire half of a two-county joint task force assigned to investigate the disappearance and presumed murders of five young girls. Uniquely, this story begins only after all of the killings have occurred; however, it loses nothing for having missed the chance to dwell upon carnage. Aftermath's sole truly violent episode comes within its first two-dozen pages, when a pair of English cops enter what they think is a domestic crime scene, only to discover a 15-year-old girl, naked and abused, in a basement torture chamber. After the husband of the household, Terence Payne, suddenly attacks the male policeman with a machete, his partner, Constable Janet Taylor, uses her baton to defend herself -- and then some:

Bugger technique and training. [Janet] swung out and caught [Payne] on the temple. His eyes rolled back and he slumped against the wall, but he didn't go down. She moved in closer and cracked down on the wrist of his knife-hand. She heard something break. He cried out and the machete fell to the floor. Janet kicked it away into a far corner, then she took the fully extended baton with both hands, swung and caught him on the side of the head again. He tried to go after his machete, but she hit him again as hard as she could on the back of his head and then again on his cheek and once more at the base of his skull. He reared up, still on his knees, spouting obscenities at her, and she lashed out one more time, cracking his temple. He fell against the wall, where the back of his head left a dark smear on the whitewash as he slid down and rested there, legs extended. Pink foam bubbled at the side of his mouth, then stopped. Janet hit him once more, a two-handed blow on the top of the skull ...

Allegations that Taylor used excessive force in subduing Payne form an affecting undercurrent in Banks' investigation, and provide an opportunity for Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbot -- Banks' on-and-off lover, currently assigned to Complaints and Discipline (the British equivalent of an American police force's Internal Affairs department) -- to join the action. Banks' greater focus, though, is on determining whether Payne, a 28-year-old schoolteacher, is really behind the disappearances of those five local girls. The fact that one of the missing was found in his basement certainly weighs heavily against Payne; so does the discovery of his 22-year-old wife, Lucy, beaten and left on another floor of their home. But as the case progresses, with more corpses turning up -- including a sixth, unexpected body -- and a police profiler digging into Lucy's nightmarish past, Banks has to ask himself whether there's a single serial killer here ... or a killer couple.

Robinson excels at casting clues and red herrings upon the troubled waters of a homicide probe. There are plenty of both in Aftermath. The early police suspicion is that Lucy was complicit in the serial killings. Yet there's contradicting testimony from the Paynes' neighbor, a children's book illustrator named Maggie Forrest. A battered wife herself, Maggie insists that Lucy was a victim, not a perpetrator, and that she had suffered greatly at the hands of a controlling husband whose sexual deviance ultimately brought horror to their marriage. Then again, Banks' profiler, Jenny Fuller, learns that Lucy may have killed before. And what's the connection, if any, between Terence Payne and a long-ago string of rapes in the town of Seacroft?

Just try not to hurt yourself as you flip back and forth between opinions on how this high-tension tale will end.

With so much of Aftermath's plot depending on relationships -- between Terence and his victims, between Lucy and Terence, between Lucy and her would-be savior, Maggie -- it's only natural that Robinson should pile on personal complications for DI Banks, as well. His 20-year-old daughter tells Banks that his ex-wife, Sandra, is pregnant by another man, throwing the music-loving cop into a spiral of self-examination suffused with guilt. However, when he tries to share Sandra's news with Annie, hoping for some female insight, he makes a mess of things, driving the already jumpy Ms. Cabbot further away from him. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, hoping that Banks will run to her in a storm, is Jenny Fuller, who still remembers fondly their encounter from years (and books) back, which she hoped would amount to more. You'd think a 40-something detective with Banks' record of success at closing cases could get a clue about how to have a decent romantic life (preferably with the comely and complex Annie). But the evidence in 12 books so far leaves the reader believing that Banks is fated to a life of unsatisfied want.

Perhaps that's for the best. Banks has become a keener character in his melancholy bachelorhood than he was as a married man. And author Robinson has found a storytelling style in his later policiers that works well -- putting Banks forward as the chief protagonist, but carefully balancing the inspector's time in the spotlight with scenes built around a handful of secondary figures and one or two memorably quirky newcomers per story. Add to this formula credible cases laid out at a pace that maintains the reader's involvement, plus an evolving job description for Banks that gives him the freedom to stay at the center of things (without becoming so unrealistic that he frustrates his real-life police fans), and you get one of the most satisfying UK-based crime series still in progress. With Robinson's earlier books being reissued in Britain by Pan and a 13th Banks installment (tentatively titled The Summer That Never Was) due out in the States by the spring of 2003, it's hard to see how this author gets any less popular in the future.

* * *

The same can be said of Ian Rankin. Having hit his best-seller stride on both sides of the Atlantic with Black and Blue (1997), the articulate and self-effacing Scottish wordsmith has become a darling of the book-tour circuit. His novels, all of which have featured a hard-drinking and unapologetically antisocial Edinburgh police inspector, John Rebus, are now reviewed with a breathlessness usually reserved for the prose of Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. And the 12th Rebus adventure, The Falls (published in Britain earlier this year, but just released in America), is only likely to burnish his rep.

This story finds Rebus feeling even more sorry for himself than normal. He's approaching retirement age, preparing to move out of his flat in Marchmont and sensing that he's yesterday's news among a crop of younger, team-playing Lothian and Borders cops. His former boss, Detective Chief Superintendent "Farmer" Watson, has been replaced by Rebus' ambitious ex-flame, Gill Templar. But it's Rebus' latest case that has really gotten under his thick skin. Philippa "Flip" Balfour, the university student daughter of a prominent banker, has vanished from her stylish digs and is more than likely deceased, but all Rebus has to go on in looking for her are the recollections of her nervous boyfriend, an enigmatic Internet game in which Flip was apparently participating, and a tiny doll in a crude wooden casket that was found near her family's estate outside the town of Falls. While his more computer-savvy associate, Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke, takes Flip's place in the online game that may have led her to her death, Rebus -- aided by a museum curator, Jean Burchill -- tackles dubious connections between that small coffin, a series of disappearances dating back three decades, and the still more infamous early 19th-century Scottish body snatchers William Burke and William Hare.

Naturally, Clarke's high-tech hunt places her in harm's way. Naturally, Burchill's growing affection for Rebus threatens her own future health. And, of course, the past and present inexorably connect in The Falls to give the sardonic inspector an answer not only to Flip's whereabouts but to the fates of several other women victims. One doesn't read Rankin novels expecting a reinvention of the wheel every time. There are plotting commonalties, certainly between the last four or five series installments. Yet those constants do not detract from Rankin's skill at building menace within his fiction or his ability to evoke Edinburgh's moodiness within the restrictive geometry of print. There's a sense of swimming against the tide -- of history, of social "progress," of political inertia -- that pervades all the Rebus yarns and derives directly from the character of Scotland's capital. Consider this scene, taken from late in The Falls, in which Burchill observes the streetscape as she and Rebus stroll through the city's Portobello neighborhood:

Kids on skateboards, looking American but sounding pure Porty, swearing like troopers. One chip shop open, that childhood smell of hot fat and vinegar. [Rebus and Burchill] still didn't say much, which didn't make them so very different from the other couples they passed. Reticence was an Edinburgh tradition. You kept your feelings hidden and your business your own. Some people put it down to the influence of the Church and figures like [16th-century Protestant reformer] John Knox -- she'd heard the city called "Fort Knox" by outsiders. But to Jean, it was more to do with Edinburgh's geography, its louring rock-faces and dark skies, the wind whipping in from the North Sea, hurtling through the canyon-like streets. At every turn you felt overwhelmed and pummelled by your surroundings. Just travelling into town from Portobello, she felt it: the bruising and bruised nature of the place.

The Falls' sole failing may be that its conclusion, though logically arrived at and suspensefully paced, is so obvious well in advance. Rankin is less adept at brewing up mysteries that need solving in a closing chapter than he is at telling hard-boiled stories (such as Black and Blue or 1999's Dead Souls) that depend for their success on a steady feed of plot twists and twisted character dynamics. Putting aside that caveat, however, The Falls is quintessential Rankin -- brilliantly conceived and darkly executed. Like any perfect crime.

* * *

A "battered old punchbag of a city," is how Graham Hurley describes Portsmouth, England, in his second Joe Faraday novel, The Take. Once a thriving and influential seaport, Portsmouth has suffered with the pullout of the Royal Navy. Its employment levels are down, its crime rates up and the population struggles on, hoping for a magic formula of circumstance and commerce that will turn things around.

So, it's of more than passing concern when South African gynecologist Pieter Hennessey -- who has taken an option to purchase three penthouse flats in a pricey new waterfront development called Gunwharf Quays -- suddenly goes missing. Even more worrisome is that Hennessey's last-known whereabouts was a hotel room in which prominent bloodstains were later found. Is Hennessey dead? CID Detective Sergeant Paul Winter wants to find out -- not just because it's never good to leave potential murders unresolved, but because burying himself in this case will take his mind off news that his wife, Joannie, is dying of cancer. And there's no question that the Hennessey investigation is consuming. The doctor has built up quite a roster of people over the years who'd like to see him hurt: women whose operations he botched in one way or another, often disastrously.

Meanwhile, there's a flasher loose at a local pond. Four women have described a man in a Donald Duck mask, who reeks of cigarette smoke and likes to drop his tracksuit bottoms for a bit of evening exposure. But only his most recent approach suggested the possibility that he might have rape on his mind, as well.

Oh, and if that weren't enough to keep Detective Inspector Faraday and his department busy, a grubby, "thick as a brick" father has complained that his teenage daughter is being molested by her college drama teacher. And Faraday is distracted by grief over the senseless car-accident death of his management assistant.

Anyone who read Turnstone (2000), the first installment of this series, knows that Hurley can simultaneously unravel several strings of story in a manner that keeps the reader hooked and unconfused. That's accomplished by frequent cut-aways of action that leave little room for the plot to bog down. But, too, Hurley has assembled a fine cast of well-delineated cops who work admirably in ensemble fashion. While Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin pretty much concentrate their own series around a main figure, The Take is only ostensibly Faraday's vehicle. Yes, the DI is a fine creation -- a tall, quiet and self-demanding widower in his early 40s, who finds escape in bird-watching and his reward in having reared a deaf son named J-J to early adulthood. Though Faraday can seem two-dimensional at times, in this latest story, his self-control is pleasantly undermined by the affections of a fun-loving Spanish woman named Marta. "There was, after all, a place for laughter in this life of his," Hurley writes, as Faraday reflects on Marta's influence. "It was, to his faint surprise, perfectly safe to let whole days unfold without plans or preparations, holding nothing but the promise of gossip and good company."

Still, The Take really belongs to Paul Winter. While Faraday views this maverick, truth-skimming DS simply as an old-style policeman, "a man for whom the difference between criminality and innocence was never less than subjective," Winter shows both more depth and more shallowness in this novel. At the same time as he struggles to avoid thinking about Joannie's fate, he commits himself to pursuing Dr. Hennessey through his victims, especially a young singer, whose repeat operations -- destroying any chance of her one day bearing children -- appear to have given the gynecologist sexual pleasure. It quickly becomes clear that Winter's interest in Hennessey includes a personal component: He's seeking to bring Hennessey to justice because he can't do anything about the physicians who've pronounced a death sentence over his spouse. Faraday does his best to understand; after all, he's gone through the demise of his own wife. However, Winter is ultimately unfathomable, channeling his anger into his investigation, with gratifying results all around.

Hurley has spent most of his adult life in Portsmouth, and it shows in his clear-eyed and sometimes brutally honest portrayals of life there. Hopelessness and hopefulness vie for dominance in The Take, just as they do in the town itself. And again like Portsmouth, this series gives off a feeling of longevity; one would be hard-pressed to guess by reading The Take that it is only the second entry in the Faraday series, rather than the 12th. Hurley may have come to the police procedural late, after spending years producing documentary films and penning stand-alone thrillers, such as Heaven's Light and Nocturne, but he carries himself in this subgenre with the confidence of a cop on his regular beat. | December 2001


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.