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Edited by Barry Forshaw


Crime Uncovered Series

Bristol: Intellect, 2016

Paperback. 220 p. ISBN 978-1783205219. £19.50


Reviewed by Charles Brownson

Arizona State University



Detective is a book of commissioned essays on two themes: the growing international reach of the genre, and the propensity of it to reflect the social conditions of its time. In his introduction, Barry Forshaw asks what is the source of the enduring popularity of detective fiction. He finds the answer in its ability to palliate the chaos of an unstable world [7] which drives the other part of his answer, the growing international interest in the genre. The evidence is provided by thirteen “case studies” – brief critical essays on important writers and the detectives they have created. The list, which could easily get out of hand, is sensibly limited to professionals (the police), giving the group of thirteen a natural unity which brings the two themes to the fore. The list is five Scandinavians, three British, two French, and one each American, Spanish, and Sicilian.(1)

Here we see exposed one difficulty in the plan of this book. Among the requirements for detective fiction are a general adherence to the rule of law and an institutionalized agency empowered to punish lawbreakers. Past traditions of the detective genre have been tolerant of the amateur, but we now find amateur detectives implausible and vigilante justice unacceptable. The strongest fictional detectives are now policemen, but by sensibly choosing policemen for his case studies, Forshaw willy-nilly limits the field to those western European countries which can meet the two conditions of the rule of law and of institutionalized enforcement, thus hiding the readers’ much wider interest in the detective genre internationally. However, it is undeniable that the detectives chosen for discussion are key figures.

Looking over the list, one figure stands out: Georges Simenon’s creation Chief Inspector Jules Maigret. He is the oldest of the group and by far the nearest to the English Classic tradition of Christie, Sayers, and the other original practitioners of the consolidated genre. His importance is indicated by the fact that, although there is a case study devoted to Maigret, [Jon Wilkins : 34-43] he is mentioned in nearly all of them. Maigret’s mode of detection, with its heavily intuitive component, his dogged methods [46-47], and his uxorious ordinariness are qualities which are conspicuously significant to the modern formula. Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, The Thinking Machine, and others of the early tradition were notoriously wooden. Just as the amateur detective has become unacceptable, so we no longer enjoy the puzzle at the expense of the humanity of those involved: victim, criminal, bystanders, and crucially, the detective. Simenon and Maigret were first on the field in all these. It matters not whether the detective is happy or, more usually, unhappy in his relationships; what counts is that like us, he needs a refuge of intimacy. In many contemporary stories the detective’s private relationships take up as much of the narrative as solving the case. It matters not that the detective must be a rational person; as a person, we demand the human qualities of sympathy, intuition, fallibility, and others once thought to be an impediment to the detective’s work. In these and other ways, Maigret is a figure against whom the contemporary detective is defined.

The case studies are supplemented by four essays of wider scope, though the space in which they have to work severely limits how far the authors are able to explore their subjects, which are all concerned with the book’s second theme of the way in which the detective formula is able to engage in social commentary. These four concluding essays, or “reports” as they are called, discuss the maverick, the secular and the maladroit detective, with final observations on television.

This last report, by Jean Gregorek, usefully consolidates some of the implications of the book’s theme of the new vigor brought to the genre by its more international audience. His nominal concern is with British television, but in pointing out the sheer number of televised detective dramas [210] and the new diversity of their settings [211] he provides an exact analog to what is going on outside Britain. In a few remarks on “the power of place” he notes that earlier detectives were metropolitan. The use of these professionals to solve crimes committed elsewhere reflected “the extension of a unifying metropolitan influence and the subsequent weakening of the regions as self-sufficient.” [211].(2) And just so does the genre reflect changes in the society in which it is embedded.

The reports on the maverick and maladroit, by Steven Peacock and Jamie Bernthal respectively, take this matter of social commentary farther. Peacock begins by pointing out the importance of the single-hero action drama (the thriller) and its association with a brutalism derived from the hard-boiled formula. [182-183]. Now we find the “old-school practitioner” dispensing extra-legal justice superseded by a new sort of maverick, exemplified by Kurt Wallander, who finds his route to “succor and sanctity: retreat from colleagues, family and modern living” [187] blocked by commitments to the community. The modern maverick thus offers a “crucial corrective” [188] to the ills of modern society such as the growth of terrorism and distrust of the official police.(3) This is a point which runs through Forshaw’s case study of Wallander [69-77].

Bernthal’s report on the maladroit detective moves in the same direction as Peacock. The contrast between Holmes and his bumbling counterpart Lestrade, and the contemporary pairing of Morse and Lewis [Forshaw : 26-32], charts a course from buffoon to one hobbled by shortfalls of character, education, or experience – from comedy sidekick to bitter but earthy hero. Incompetence is no longer a laughing matter. The old tradition of benevolent maladroitness is an indicator of nostalgia for a vanished past. [208]

It is Alison Joseph’s report on “Reason and Redemption : The Detective in the Secular Age” which provides the most leverage for thought on this book’s theme of the relationship between the detective formula and the society in which it is embedded. It is the detective who drives the genre’s enduring popularity, because he “allows us to find order within chaos, redemption in the face of evil” [191]. In looking over the case studies it is easy to see the truth of this. But the key point has to do with the second reference in Joseph’s title: secular. While the origins of the matter of order and redemption can be traced far back to the mystery cults and the figure of the hero [193], it is in the present “fallen age” as she terms it, in which reason has replaced mystery and heroes are fallible, that we need the detective more than ever. Again, the truth of this is stark in the list of case studies. It seems also that the closer these detectives approach the “new brutalism” discussed by Peacock the more urgent this need becomes. But those quieter sleuths  apparently more dedicated to reason, such as Dalgliesh and Montalbano, display a strong redemptive component in their self-justifications. They are in this business despite a deeply embedded evil they are dedicated to root out and the possibility of failure. How unlike Poirot in times of yore.

In only one respect will I take Detective to task, and that is its acceptance of the reductive classification of “police procedural.” The true procedural is defined by its first appearance, Freeman Wills Crofts’s The Cask (1920, the same year in which Christie’s equally foundational The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published). The Cask is premised not on detection but on procedure. That is, by the thorough and systematic working through of every possibility which the puzzle offers. The term as it is now used attempts only to distinguish the rational methods of Holmes from the intuitional ones of Maigret, but in fact the procedural is neither rational nor intuitional. It is mechanical. It is a police procedural because only the police could have the resources for such a way of proceeding. As a story-telling strategy the procedural has obvious defects, and the pure procedural is rare. Most contemporary tales which are not thrillers nevertheless have a strong procedural component. This is the way the police go about their work. But equally to the contemporary sensibility, the procedural sidesteps the aspect of magic built into the original fictional model of Sherlock Holmes in which the detective’s inference chain is hidden from the reader by the uncomprehending Watson until the results can be produced all at once, voilà!, like Houdini emerging from his confinement.

This quibble aside, one would have wished to see the dual interest in social analysis and the international scope of the detective genre explored further, as revealed in the case studies and the reports, in particular intriguing hints of ways in which the two might be bound together. But the reality is that both topics are far larger than can be accommodated within the space of two hundred pages. As explanations for the renewal and expansion of the genre in our time, Forshaw and his colleagues have identified a conjunction of significance deserving further scrutiny.


(1) For the Scandinavians: Hole, Beck, Wallander, van Veeteren, and the Lind/Norén team. For Britain: Morse, Dalgliesh, Rebus. For the French: Maigret, Adamsberg. For the others: Bosch, Falcón, and Montalbano (with whom we ought to include the creations of fellow Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia).

(2) Paraphrased by Gregorek from Stephen Knight’s “Regional Crime Squads”. In Ian Bell [Editor].  Peripheral Visions, University of Wales Press, 1995.

(3) An inference, undrawn by Peacock, is that if the original thriller hero has fissioned into two forms, the old-school practitioner and the new more socialized Wallander type, this must reflect a parallel ambivalence in society as to the best way to address our problems. Unhelpfully, we usually ignore this distinction and call both types thrillers.



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