CRIME certainly pays if you’re an author who’s created a popular criminal investigator. Joe Nesbo’s Harry Hole for example, may be a deeply troubled police officer but he has an uncanny instinct for tracking down serial killers.
In fact, your popular criminal investigator doesn’t have to be a good-looking, clean-cut, pillar of society – the most popular are anything but. The best definitely have attitude. One of my personal favourites is Nero Wolfe – the obese investigator, lover of exotic home-grown orchids who solves crimes but refuses to leave his home office.
Author Ian Rankin has created one of the most engaging investigators in Scottish inspector John Rebus, a man fighting his employer as often as criminals. Rebus takes short cuts in a 21st century police force that demands, diplomacy, people’s rights and paperwork.
Standing in Another Man’s Grave is Rankin’s latest Rebus adventure, taking our man into retirement and civilian attachment on a series of disappearances stretching back to the millenium.
Rebus is up against everyone it seems, including old colleagues, and he doesn’t help himself by being stubborn and anarchic. But like all smart investigators you stay with him to the end.
Our home grown Peter Temple has the same ability as Ian McEwan to write crime scene dialogue in a spare but fluid style. Inspector Villani is from a bucolic Victorian country background who has slowly become infected by the blackness of the crimes he must investigate and solve. In Truth, his need to match the viciousness of the underworld depresses this otherwise cool and calculating officer, and he finds all the certainties of his life are crumbling.
Jack Irish is another or Temple’s private investigators – this time with a penchant for dubious gambling mates and a skill for furniture-making. Not surprisingly, this attractive but vulnerable investigator now has his own TV series.
Another of my close favourites of troubled investigators is Inspector Harry Bosch, the 20 year creation of US crime writer, Michael Connelly.
The spectre of the Vietnam War hangs heavy over Connelly’s new edition of the Bosch crime novel, The Black Echo. Harry had been a tunnel rat in Vietnam and the nightmares of that work still visits him 20 years later. The finding of an old Vietnam colleague in a Hollywood water pipe looks like drug taking gone wrong. Bosch senses otherwise, but the first fear to overcome is pulling the dead man out of the water pipe.
What adds perspective to the Bosch novels is our growing familiarity with LA and Hollywood. More importantly is the relationship he develops over time with his 15 year-old daughter, Maddie. She now lives with Harry since her mother was killed in Hong Kong.
Harry’s love for Maddie is well handled by Connelly. It adds a warmth to a character who is otherwise obsessed with the minutae of solving crimes.
Harry’s struggle within a plodding police culture makes for tense drama alongside his accelerating race to find the criminals. At the same time we have Harry’s personal struggle to work out a future for himself and his daughter.
Contemporary crime writing has a gritty, real-life edginess about it that’s far removed from the predictable plot lines of yesteryear e.g. Miss Marple, Poirot, Maigret or Perry Mason.
So, go look on your local bookshop shelves. You’ll be surprised at the choice of criminal investigators … with attitude.