commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers


The detective-inspector novel is a very common, very specific, genre of the crime novel, usually taking the form of a series of novels with recurring casts of characters. The focal character is a police detective. Organizational charts define the genre. In the detective-inspector novel, our hero (or heroine) works as part of a team. He or she leads subordinates; he or she reports to superiors, sometimes to quite a hierarchy of superiors (who in turn report to other superiors).

The detective-inspector genre is a large subset of the police procedural, though not all procedurals are necessarily commissaire novels. In the commissaire novel, a police commissioner (inspector, detective lieutenant, or some other similar rank) leads a team of police detectives in the investigation of various crimes, usually murders, but sometimes organized crime, rings of thieves, drug dealing, white-collar, or other crimes, even verging occasionally into espionage and other international political affairs.

In the early history of the genre, the detective-inspector is almost always a man. Increasingly, in the past 20 years, women characters fill all ranks in the casts of these novels: often starting as supervisors and subordinates in series centered on men (like Henning Mankell's Wallander series), but more and more playing central roles, as in Swedish series by Helene Tursten, Kjell Eriksson, and Åsa Larsson. The detective-inspector may often share the stage with subordinates who become as important in a given novel as their boss, like Melander and Kollberg in Sjöwall & Wahlöö's Martin Beck series. Sometimes the hero or heroine will withdraw and leave an entire novel to one of these subordinates, as in Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlendur series. But a detective-inspector is always the keystone of the team and anchors the reader's interest, providing a "brand" for the series' publisher.

The detective-inspector novel places its central character in a position that most of its readers occupy. The detective-inspector is essentially a middle manager. (And he thus may stand as a surrogate for or representative of middle managers in many other professions and lines of work, where the hierarchies are similar to those depicted in these fictional police departments.) Most readers, too, fall somewhere middling on an organizational chart in their line of work. The detective-inspector novel appeals to mid-life workers in offices, organizations, and professions. The inspector, like us, occupies a box on a diagram.

Of course, we don't always want to read about heroes as constrained as we are. There are many other kinds of crime fiction, some that overlap to some extent with detective-inspector stories, and thereby help define the genre by contrast. In some ways it's easier to say what the "inspector" genre isn't than to say what it is. It isn't a private-eye story. It isn't a rogue-cop story. It isn't a legal thriller. It isn't a story of a civilian finding themselves inside a mystery story (or making a habit of it, as writers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, medieval nuns, and other amateurs do in so many detective series).

Most police procedurals fit the genre, but not all. A few procedurals have largely anonymous casts, offering us the org chart without a hero (or possibly the org chart as hero. Lawrence Treat's 1945 novel V as in Victim is an early example, and some of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels fit the model of the "centerless" procedural.

At other times, the procedural can offer a cop who is too much of a lonely hero to qualify as a "detective-inspector." I think of TV shows like Columbo and Monk. In the former, the hero is a police lieutenant; in the latter, he's an ex-cop who consults on police investigations. Cops populate both shows, but neither one is really about the reality, or even the fictional formulas, of police work.

As Columbo expert extraordinaire Ray DiPerna tells me, Columbo occasionally interacts with superiors – usually when the suspect he's already twigged to attempts to get him taken off the case. But for the most part Columbo works alone, neither directing nor taking direction. He's like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot – or like the earliest such consulting detective, Émile Gaboriau's père Tabaret. Such detectives can work alongside, or sometimes against police, but they are never professionally bound into the system. And despite the LAPD signing his paycheck, Columbo seems an independent agent.

Monk is further still from the role of detective-inspector. As I noted, he works with the police, and has both a supervisor of sorts (Stottlemeyer) and a sidekick/subordinate (Disher) who are cops. But Monk himself is technically a private eye who just happens to get hired by the cops, and his investigations are even more of the ratiocinative kind than Columbo's (the Lieutenant being a bit more intuitive). Monk might as well be Poirot at times, being a contrast to the police he works with rather than a colleague.

Both Columbo and Monk verge on the most famous brand of detective novel, and arguably its earliest: the consulting-detective story. Edgar Allan Poe, so often invoked as a crucial influence on crime fiction, wrote the iconic consulting-detective stories in the 1840s: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," "The Purloined Letter." The simple premise of these stories is that a clever amateur can be a far better detective than a professional policeman. Dupin, Poe's hero, succeeds where the police cannot. Archetypally, in "The Purloined Letter," the police are unable to find the title document via scientific research or material search algorithms. Only Dupin, by identifying with the thief's thought processes, can see what's literally in plain sight.

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe – for that matter, the much-derided Jessica Fletcher – are the heirs to Poe's Dupin. Early in the history of the French detective novel, Émile Gaboriau gave the police detectives in L'affaire Lerouge (1865) a foil, père Tabaret or "Tirauclair," the volunteer detective, independently wealthy and obsessed with crime writing. Tabaret can take a crime scene and infer temporal narrative details from their static material traces. Arthur Conan Doyle adapted the character, making Sherlock Holmes a professional, a somewhat younger man, more detached from family and friends – and equipped him with the stolid but high-verbal Dr. Watson.

But Tabaret, Holmes, and their many descendants are not within my purview here. The fictional world I explore in these pages is greyer and offers less scope for mercurial brilliance and stupendous feats of inference. The detective-inspector and his colleagues work in a civil-service system. They work for the state (or for a city, but for the government in any case.) They are constrained by laws, by budgets, by politics, and by the culture of their workplace. The cases they take on are sometimes not really mysteries. Their perpetrators are either obvious, or have a contingent, even random connection to their victims. A relatively low percentage of detective-inspector-novel murders belong to the classic puzzle type, with its well-defined set of stock-character suspects in a limited setting. And detective-inspector-novel crime usually doesn't arise within the passionate, malevolent networks of violence that fuel the hard-boiled private-eye novel.

Instead, for the detective-inspector and his team, murder is part of the social fabric, a problem to be confronted with bureaucratic means of regulation. (Or occasionally, to be set right in defiance of bureaucratic means of regulation, but never out of their shadow.) Police procedure may or may not be accurately depicted. Such novels show investigations made by a corporate organization, investigations that conform to routine patterns. But the "pure" procedural attempts to document real-life detection. The detective-inspector novel, by contrast, may at times make only the most perfunctory of gestures toward realism.

It matters far less, in the detective-inspector novel, that the methods of police departments are conveyed, than that the psychology and sociology of organizations in general are represented. The detective-inspector novel is beholden not to the way actual detectives work, but to the way that detectives have worked in previous detective-inspector novels. The conventions of the detective-inspector novel are thus set in ambiguous relation to realism. Detective-inspector novels are realistic fictions, depicting the current world at hand, its problems, its personalities. But their depictions of reality are conventional, and never stray too far from literary models.

Of course, the conventional nature of the detective-inspector novel is no bar to such novels making their own rhetorical pretensions of verisimilitude. Just because something's a formula doesn't mean it can't say it's original and real. Critics like to characterize detective-inspector novels as giving insight into genuine police work. Sometimes the ethos of the author is invoked; someone spent time with cops, covered cops for papers, was in fact a cop. The detective-inspector novel sometimes plays up its metafictional quality, but more often injects metafiction in the service of establishing distance between itself and novelistic conventions. In Karin Fossum's Se deg ikke tilbake! [Don't Look Back] (2002), hero Konrad Sejer gets some advice from his superior:

You have good instincts. But there's one thing you do have to realize. … You are not the hero of a detective novel. Try to keep an objective mind. (206)
Of course, Sejer is the hero of a detective novel; he is nothing but the hero of a detective novel. (Even his dog is called Kollberg [172] after a character in the Martin Beck series; Scandinavian detective-inspector novels are shot through with cross-references.) But the advice tends to make the reader perceive him as less formulaic, more contingent and realistic. Both characters acknowledge in the process that there are detective novels in their fictional universe, and that those novels comprise a set of conventions that constrain real and fictional detective work alike.

Detective-inspector novels are often defined by inertia. No matter how many murders he solves, new murders will arise. There are no happy endings because there are no endings, just files moving from one filing cabinet to another. As a result, the detective-inspector is typically depressed. He or she may be divorced, widowed, long single, in a difficult or unfulfilling relationship if he's partnered at all. They frequently have kids, but they're estranged or indifferent to one another's problems. A detective-inspector eats poorly. Alcoholism is not inevitable, but it's quite common. The detective-inspector doesn't communicate well. He's in stereotypical midlife crisis. His job just worsens his crisis, but since his job is all he has, all that defines him, he can't detach himself from it to deal with his problems.

All these features of the genre are generalizations, and odds are that any single detective-inspector will present an exception to one or another of them. Georges Simenon's Maigret, the most famous of all commissaires, is happily married, and his home life is of exceptional stability. Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano eats exceptionally well. (Though even in those cases, Maigret spends little time at home, and drinks to excess when he's not home. Montalbano eats way too much.)

Bureaucracy is the commissaire's inescapable condition. Sejer again, from Se deg ikke tilbake!:

One of the things he liked about the bureaucracy, that unwieldy, cumbersome, difficult system that governed all departments, was the principle that everything had to be recorded and archived. Dates, times, names, diagnoses, routines, irregularities, everything had to be in the file. Every facet of a case could be taken out and reexamined, by other people with different motives, with fresh eyes. (231)
Here's a situation that would verge on paranoia in some other modes of literature (there is a bureaucracy somewhere devoted to knowing everything about you, the nightmare of Kadare or Saramago). Yet this proto-paranoid situation is the consolation of a sympathetic hero. It's not just the consolation of knowledge in the abstract, but of a particular kind of social organization. Some procedurals anchor their worldviews in impersonal archives: CSI, with its endless proliferation of databases devoted to DNA, fingerprints, criminal records, ballistics information, hair and chemicals and fibres and dentistry. Sejer, however, is consoled not by the science of the procedural, but by the social organization that enables human activity to flow around the data and reinterpret it for new purposes. An earlier passage in Se deg ikke tilbake! is of equal interest:
Headquarters was a twenty-four-hour institution that served a district of five communities, inhabited by 115,000 citizens, some good, some bad. More than two hundred people were || employed in the entire courthouse and prison offices, and one hundred fifty of them worked at Police Headquarters. Of these, thirty were investigators, but since some staff members were always on leave or attending courses and seminars by order of the Minister of Justice, in practice there were never more than twenty people at work each day. That was too few. According to [superior officer] Holthemann, the public was no longer in focus—they were more or less outside the field of vision.
Minor cases were solved by single investigators, while more difficult cases were assigned to larger teams. Between 14,000 and 15,000 cases poured in annually. (36-37)
This is less approving (and is in a neutral narratorial voice, not in Sejer's free indirect style). But it speaks at least neutrally of the same system of policies and procedures that comforts Sejer as he plays the part of functional cog in his profession.

By contrast, Andrea Camilleri epitomizes bureaucracy in the never-decreasing stack of papers to be signed that always populates Montalbano's desk. The papers mean nothing; signing them serves no earthly purpose. But it must be done; though there is no reward for doing so, there is a punishment for not doing so. Sometimes a team member internalizes the bureaucratic imperative of recording everything, as with Melander's photographic memory in the Martin Beck novels, or Fazio with his mania for biographical data in the Montalbano novels.

S.S. Van Dine, in 1928, forbade the use of teamwork in detective stories:

To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his codeductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
At times it seems that an entire sub-genre is devoted to the breaking of each of Van Dine's arch imperatives. The procedural in general breaks this proscription of multiple perspectives. But the detective-inspector novel repairs the breach, partway. We get to have a realistic institutional setting (and even Van Dine's rules are laid down in the service of verisimilitude). But we also get to have our hero and his or her "thread of logic" (or alternatively, angst-ridden anomie).

Perhaps the most significant features of the detective-inspector novel are its adaptability to circumstance, its ubiquity, its inexhaustibility. Most popular in Europe, the detective-inspector novel can be found on every continent. The murders solved by the world's fictional detective-inspectors in a given year certainly exceed the number of murders in any given locale, and probably exceed the number of truly mysterious murders (those not obviously and banally related to gang activities or domestic violence) in the entire world. The detective-inspector novel is a whole way of looking at the world, and at just about anything in that world. Far more than another fictional or literary genre, it is its own epistemology. One writes and reads (and watches) detective-inspector fictions not (or not just) to enjoy mystery puzzles or get a bracing splash of hard-boiled dialogue. One experiences them in order to understand the world.

Icelandic critic Katrín Jakobsdóttir (who is also a political leader) says that "crime fiction forms a microcosm of a broader social reality through which readers can sharpen their understanding of society" (47). I would agree, and elaborate the claim: crime fiction is of many types, each of which forms a microcosm of part of a society, or a dynamic within society. With its inherently social and organizational setting, detective-inspector fiction sharpens understandings of – and projects wishes onto – representations of work, bureaucracy, the legal system, and the relation of individuals to groups. Such understandings are powerful, significant, and circulate widely within, and increasingly across, national literatures and international readerships.

Of course, the first rule of definitions is that they are made to be bent. As John Scaggs remarks,

to straitjacket the genre … within an endless catalogue of sub-genres … is reductive, and serves only to lead the reader down a multitude of formal and thematic dead-ends. … One of the defining characteristics of crime fiction is its generic (and sub-generic) flexibility and porosity. (2)
From the start I've had to qualify my definitions in the interests of inclusion; after all, you can define a genre so strictly that you're left with almost nothing to include. One might say that the forms and structures of the novels I discuss here participate in a dialogue with one another, and keep extending the dialect of that dialogue, with influences constantly streaming in from outside – rather than following some graven-in-stone tradition. For that reason and many others, a critical project should move with the dialogue instead of finding reasons not to listen.

Scaggs places the detective-inspector genre within the procedural without naming it, but by seeing it as a level of "purity":

The police procedural … examines how a team of professional policeman and women work together, and for this reason there are "purer" examples, such as the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain and television series such as Hill Street Blues, and those which, in their concentration on a single individual within the police force, are less "pure." (30)
I'll provisionally group the novels I'm most interested in at a certain level of impurity. They can't forswear heroes altogether, but they can't be solely about their heroes either. The balance between individual and team is crucial for the dynamic. And I'll posit that that balance allows the individual reader to identify with the hero just as he or she identifies the precinct and team with his or her own workplace.

Most detective-inspector novels come as series installments, and thus any series can fluctuate quite a bit between Scaggs' poles of purity. The 87th Precinct is a varying group of cops, but Frank Carella often plays the role of a very standard detective inspector: we are interested in him as sleuth, team leader, and private person. By contrast, Georges Simenon's Maigret is pretty much the archetype of the detective inspector, but in some novels he slips through the system and functions very much like a consulting detective. Ian Rankin's inspector Rebus behaves like a rogue cop at times, while Michael Connelly's rogue cop Harry Bosch at times seems almost domesticated within his police-procedural team.

There is also the possibility, exploited early on by McBain and then by Mai Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, of transferring our attention from one member of an established team to another. In such series, the entire series may lack a distinct hero, but the individual entries are well within the detective-inspector tradition. Arnaldur Indriðason did this in his Erlendur series, "spinning off" detectives from the team to solve their own cases as lead detectives. Tana French has adopted that shifting-focus approach to an entire series based on an Irish police force that lacks a central hero overall but follows separate heroes in each novel.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir. "Meaningless Icelanders: Icelandic Crime Fiction and Nationality." In Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, eds., Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011. 46-61.

Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005. [The New Critical Idiom]

Van Dine, S.S. "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." American Magazine, 1928.