commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

essays may contain spoilers

on realism

"The urban realism of the procedural," says John Scaggs,
is central to its commitment to social, structural, and thematic realism. The characteristic use of third-person narration in the procedural demonstrates this commitment at a narrative level … The stress on the methods and procedures of police investigations that characterizes the police procedural is another example of this commitment to realism, as is the celebration of teamwork. (93-94)
Yet while police procedurals display a strong rhetorical commitment to realism, they can also be read as existing entirely in settings built intertextually, collaboratively, and virtually across decades of world-building in hundreds of novels. Procedurals wouldn't exist without the realistic impulse, but their fabric is entirely unreal, a system of signs and representations with almost exclusive reference to the interior of the system itself. Many procedural characters, especially the detective-inspectors who are my main interest here, are readers of procedurals, and realize that they exist (or don't exist) within a system of signification that has everything to do with literature and little to do with life.

It is this intertextual, virtual community of fictional characters and cultures that enables the creation of elaborate police procedurals that bear no mimetic relation to any known culture: China Miéville's City and the City, the imagined-nation procedurals of Håkan Nesser (with his inspector Van Veeteren), The Bridge of Sighs and its sequels by Olen Steinhauer.

The supposed connection of procedurals to reality begs the question: if police procedure exists in the world and can be represented directly, why do fictional police offices from Ystad to Reykjavík to Vigàta to Rio de Janeiro all seem to be run identically?

"I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do" to the typical amateur detective of the English "cosy," says Raymond Chandler in "The Simple Art of Murder." The Dorothy Sayers type of Golden Age mystery, writes Chandler,

was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications.… If it started out to be about real people … they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.
By contrast,
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket …
and Chandler goes on to list a half-dozen other features of "the world you live in": all of which now seem utterly formulaic, if not in their own way as arid as the vicarages and country houses of the Dorothy Sayers world.

Chandler, Raymond. "The Simple Art of Murder." 1950.

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