commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on cities

The office is one of the axes of the detective-inspector novel; the city is another. The city is necessary in order to furnish a ready supply of new cases. When the detective-inspector investigates a new urban case, he or she must go through two layers of mystery: the reconstruction of the crime and its perpetrator, and the surrounding context of people who have till now been strangers to him or her.

The origins of the detective-inspector novel (and of the surrounding police-procedural genre) are in large cities indeed: Émile Gaboriau's Paris, and the later Paris of Georges Simenon. Ed McBain's New York influenced Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö's Stockholm; Michael Connelly's LA has a lot in common with Ian Rankin's Edinburgh. Arnaldur Indriðason writes Reyjavík Krimis and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán wrote ones set in Barcelona.

Yet a surprising number of detective-inspector novels – entire series, or installments of more metropolitan series – are set in fairly small communities. When such small cities are also real places, or thinly fictionalized versions of real cities, authors use a sort of accordion-like spatial process to make them more metropolitan, larger, more anonymous. This spatial process is an analogue to the "accordion time" that allows detective series to keep inspectors perpetually middle-aged, solving more mysteries in their fiftieth year than most police forces encounter in a decade.

I mean, seriously, how can there be so many vicious, elaborate, hideously complex, insoluble murder cases for Kurt Wallander to solve in the Swedish port city of Ystad? I travel through Ystad every other year. You can walk from one end of the city to the other in half an hour. As Carmen Amato points out, the murder rate for the entire nation of Sweden is virtually nil – 1 per 100,000 population per year. Ystad has 20,000 citizens. Even though Wallander apparently has responsibility for much of rural Skåne besides, he should be looking at one murder in a given year. And that one would likely be a domestic assault or a robbery gone wrong.

And so with Salvo Montalbano. Porto Empedocle in Sicily, Andrea Camilleri's home town and the model for his Vigàta, has fewer people than Ystad. (And Montalbano, unlike Wallander, does not have jurisdiction over a wider area; a continual plot point in Camilleri's gialli is that some crime has been committed just outside of the limits of Vigàta and isn't his responsibility (or more often, any of his business).

Particularly interesting is the way Vigàta seems to grow conceptually in the course of the series. Let's say for the sake of license that the town is supposed to be a little bit larger than Porto Empedocle's actual 17,000. Still, Montalbano has worked there a long time. Even given that he's utterly devoid of a sense of direction, it's odd that there are so many nooks and crannies, indeed entire quarters of his town, that he seems to have no knowledge of.

Despite the faithful local color of series like Camilleri's, the dimensions of Vigàta are both infinite and fractally expandable. There are no limits to its population or its development. In between its landmarks and its boundaries, one can cram an ever-growing number of streets, alleys, residences, and crime scenes.

A quote from a blog post by Andrew Goldstone caught my attention on the topic of cities in the contemporary Krimi. Goldstone both quotes and critiques Alex Beecroft:

Successful international crime novels use their cities (whether New York or Stockholm) merely as noir-ish backdrops, rarely engaging with their immediate political or cultural contexts in the ways that national-era detective fiction, from Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon to Dashiell Hammet [sic], manage to do. The contemporary crime novel … is a commodity packaged for export, nearly mass-produced and indistinguishable from its counterparts produced in other nations.

Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (London: Verso, 2015), 282-83.
I'm no surer than Goldstone that this is true. Goldstone notes that Henning Mankell (one of the most popular export commodities) is very sensitive to political and social developments in Sweden. Andrea Camilleri strikes me as deeply invested in anti-mafia thought and rhetoric, and very much alive to the same kinds of immigration issues that concern Mankell. As I've noted above, their Ystad and Vigàta are artifices, expandable cities with infinitely fractal local color. But they are imaginary cities that stand metonymically for very specific urban Sweden and urban Sicily respectively.

And by contrast, Hammett, though undeniably atmospheric, seems to me in The Maltese Falcon to represent not San Francisco but "The City" (one of the most evocative moments in John Huston's film is when Sam Spade sends a note to his PO Box and gives the last line of the address as simply "CITY").

Simenon is more complicated. His novels are bursting at the seams with local dynamics, to the point where it's almost impossible to characterize his geographical range. All corners of France are represented, several of the United States. Maigret ventures across several borders. In Simenon's wider work, colonial Africa is treated in ways that align his work with Graham Greene.

But to see Simenon's novels as "engaging with their immediate political or cultural contexts" is problematic. The Maigret novels, for instance, span from the early 1930s to the early 1970s. Features of life change: appliances, traffic, technology. But you can read all sixty-plus Maigrets and have no idea that a world war, an occupation, three different constitutions, and myriad governments have passed over the commissaire's Paris during his career.

Amato, Carmen. "The Correlation between Crime Rates and Creativity." Murder Lab, 19 September 2013.

Goldstone, Andrew. "Kurt Wallander and the Case of the Text-Encoding Gremlins." Arcade, 3 August 2016.