Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Procedurals: "Just the facts please, Ma'am"

The Dragnet television series, with actor Jack Webb as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, was my first introduction to police stories, and I have loved them ever since. The long hiatus of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and the loss of Reginald Hill and his marvelous Dalziel and Pascoe series left a large hole in my reading, so I went searching for authors of promising first novels in this traditional genre. Finding characters I would enjoy following through a series was a prime factor, as were a credible story line and well-constructed plot. Spelling and grammar errors are almost ubiquitous in novels nowadays, sometimes even those from big publishers. These books, while not faultless, are far better edited than many first novels.

I nearly passed over M. K. Coker's Dead White, thinking it another Midwestern cozy, but downloaded the sample for a quick bedtime look. While there is no sex and little graphic violence, this book is by no means a cozy. It took my breath away and riveted my attention for several days. Very few first novels are this assured, polished, and carefully plotted.

On the harsh plains of South Dakota, where snowfall is measured in yards and grudges in generations, Detective Marek Okerlund returns to his home town of Reunion with his five-year-old daughter in the midst of a swirling blizzard. He had been half of an elite and much-decorated pair of homicide detectives in Albuquerque, but gave up his career to care for Rebecca, traumatically mute since the death of her mother and unborn brother. He hopes that the lower-stress job of part-time county detective that he has accepted will allow him time to rebuild Rebecca's shattered sense of security.

To his surprise and dismay, Acting Sheriff Karen Okerlund-Mehaffey turns out to be his niece, daughter of the much older half-brother whose implacable hatred of his father's second family had helped to drive Marek away immediately after his mother's funeral. Karen had also returned home from her position as city police dispatcher to nurse her father after a stroke. As he recovered, she cautiously agreed to finish out his term as Sheriff (an Okerlund had been sheriff as long as the county existed), and soon discovered that she liked it. Painfully aware of her inexperience, she had begged the county supervisors to hire a detective to help train her in police work. Which explains why this disparate and mutually mistrustful pair stood side by side the morning after the blizzard, staring in disbelief at the frozen body of Dale Hansen, a local executive, chained to a fence by the highway with the straggling words "White Out" carved into his forearm.

The author offers remarkable character studies of the independent residents of this harsh insular farming community on the wide plains. Marek has no scene-of-crime team or police laboratory to help him; even the coroner isn't a doctor, but a mortician (yikes!). And his new boss is furious when he dares to interview her lifelong neighbors, many of whom are her relatives––and his. The conflicted relationships and harsh environment from which secrets emerge slowly, like bodies from snowbanks, make Dead White a very unusual and literary procedural. The author plans to release a sequel, tentatively entitled Dead Dreams, later this year. I can't wait.

In Hull, a tough maritime city in the stormy northeast of England, DCI Philip Marlowe (his mother loved mysteries) lives year-round with his dog Alfie on a narrowboat on the Humber River.

On a dismal January morning, returning to his station following a six a.m. obligatory budget meeting, he is notified that the body of a young man wrapped in plastic has been found on one of the many derelict wharves. In Alfie Robins's Reprisal, Marlowe, who had been banished to the seamy dockside station for his maverick hands-on approach, joins DI David Gowen and DS Jenny Bright at the vividly-described nightmarish urban scene.

The dead man, a small-time dealer, died of a nail punched into his skull, although the coroner says the quantity of heroin in his system would also have eventually killed him. Curiously, there were also traces of a date-rape drug in his system. After almost two weeks of intense but fruitless investigation, another plastic-wrapped body is dumped under a bridge. This time, there is a witness, a homeless man who watched the incident and can describe the van involved.

I perhaps should have spotted the killer, but had passed over a couple of clues as just background. At any rate, the ironically twisted denouement was both surprising and satisfactory. While the story could have been tighter and there was a bit more geographical description than necessary, it brought me up to speed on Hull, described in 1995 as "Worst place to live in the UK"  based on crime, unemployment, and weather. The author, like several of his characters, grew up in Hull and worked for a time in his youth on the docks. His intimate knowledge of the area and its denizens is much to the fore in this book. If you like a gritty urban procedural, Reprisal is well worth a look.  

In The Ninth District, by Douglas Dorow, senior FBI agent Jack Miller is charged with helping new agent Ross Fruen cut his teeth  investigating a low-profile series of curious local bank robberies. The robber, nicknamed "The Governor" for the lifelike mask he wears, has been hitting branch banks in and around Minneapolis, garnering only a few thousand dollars for his efforts. After each robbery, he turns to the security cameras and salutes, taunting the police. When he deliberately shoots a pregnant teller in the head during one robbery, the case escalates very fast.

When Ross, who has not been publicly named as the FBI agent on the case, tries to pay for a birthday lunch for Jack, his credit card is refused. And another. They return to the office to find that Ross's identity has been stolen and extensive financial damage has been done, all online. The following morning, he is driven off the road and nearly killed by a large SUV. Immediately before the accident, he had taken an anonymous call from someone who asked "Don't you know it's not safe to talk on a cell phone when you're driving?"

Ross convinces Jack that it was the Governor who first called, then rammed him. Jack immediately becomes concerned for his estranged wife, Jules, and their children. After three moves in 12 years, Jules had wanted a promise from Jack to stay in Minneapolis near her family. She and the kids had moved into her parents' house while they sorted out their issues. The Governor has access to too much private information, and has gone to too much effort to distract and even harm the agents for Jack's comfort. Something much bigger than branch bank robberies is being planned. A chance remark by his daughter, quoting a bus tour guide, "The Fed has never been robbed" turns Jack's thoughtful attention to the new Ninth Federal Reserve Bank building on the banks of the Mississippi.

In many ways, this book is as much a thriller as a procedural, with terrifying scenes and multiple heartless murders. While the Governor's propensity for complicated misdirection and nasty tricks makes his character a bit like Batman's Joker, the other characters in the book are well-developed and believable. The author is working on the second book in the Jack Miller series.

With interesting and diverse offerings like these from new authors, I apparently don't need to mourn the passing of the procedural. Authors and characters may come and go, but the sub-genre, to my relief, keeps renewing itself after all. These books are all available in paperback or very reasonably priced e-book format, for those––like me––who just can't wait.


  1. Periphera, thanks for the invitation to stop by and say hello. You've got a lot of great reviews here, and I am (as are most writers) an avid reader. I see some of my faves like Giles Blunt, Craig Johnson, and Arnaldur Indridason.

    What a wonderful review, the kind a writer would die for. Or kill for, more likely. ;-) It's nice to know that I didn't single-handedly kill off the police procedural, though I tried.

    Well-plotted is what tickles me the most. I don't write linearly or with a clear idea of where I'm going. And I usually end up entangled, if not strangled, in the plot threads. So, of course, I chose to write in the most difficult genre to plot!

  2. Just when I thought my to read list was going down. Charge the Kindle.

    Thanks for the places to explore.

  3. M.K., thanks for stopping by. Procedurals are hard because the writer has to know or learn enough about actual police investigative work to make it work. For readers, the 'look inside' adds a dimension to mysteries.

    Anon, charge up the Kindle indeed. Despite my best efforts, I can't seem to get below 30 pages of titles to be read.