Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Crime As A Hobby

Recently, I attended a job interview where I was asked to name my hobby. Reading crime novels, I replied, and added that I specialized in reading an entire series and that I focused on novels from UK/Europe written post WW II. Now, does that sound like a candidate’s specialized topic in the BBC quiz program Mastermind? They did not ask me for further details. Like some people with a hobby, I want to be a persistent bore, convert a few to this path of crime and provide a short note – straight from the heart, a cliché to excuse errors, chronological confusion, completeness and paucity of academic points – say, dummies’ guide to crime novels.

Similar to the classical pranamam, the foundation is laid with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and bits of G.K.Chesterton, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and, that is of course, just naming a few in the pre-WW II era. Then comes P.D. James’ Dalgliesh (personally, I preferred the early books about this detective-poet who survived the loss of wife and child rather than the later novels with more romantic sentiments) and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford (the family man with his devoted wife, weight and heart problems, daughters who reflect the changing times and the equally well-formed sidekick Burden). This is one instance where my favourite novel of the latter is not one of the series but the stand-alone The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (writing as Barbara Vine).

Next, one should try the more contemporary (from the late 70s to the 90s) novels by Colin Dexter, R.D.Wingfield and Reginald Hill with their respective detectives E. Morse (working class background, never completed studies in Oxford, loves a good drink, classical music especially Wagner and crosswords), Frost (people are more familiar with the TV series but the books offer a better character though a less politically correct one) and Dalziel & Pascoe (the gross Fat Man whose wife left him and the refined assistant with a strongly opinionated loving wife). Like Reginald Hill’s novels, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks (divorced, two kids, likes rock & blues but dislikes country music) series are based in Yorkshire. Minette Walters does not have a series with a hero but her books which deal with contemporary issues, and wronged misunderstood individuals are not to be missed. From Scotland, we have Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. Val McDermid has three series of which I prefer the Tony Hill & Carol Jordan lot (psychiatric profiler with lots of problems of his own and a successful policewoman). Rankin’s Rebus is divorced, loves his daughter, lonely, well-versed with rock music, drinks, smokes, abhors promotion and works best alone. From across the Atlantic, we have Michael Connelly’s series with Bosch who is similar and tries to come to terms with emptiness and hopelessness. We have less misanthropic heroes in the series by Elizabeth George (Peter Lynley), Martha Grimes (Richard Jury) and Anne Perry (William Monk).

Now, crossing over to the Continent and elsewhere, one should start with the Swedish husband and wife pair, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall and the Martin Beck series of the 60s and 70s. Beck (divorced, two kids, favourite pastime being miniature ship building, methodical, hardworking) and the other interesting characters are used to give a picture of the Swedish society and frustrations of that time. Following that tradition, we have Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander (divorced, one daughter, difficult relationship with father, struggling to control weight and relationship) series. I started with the stand-alone novel The Return Of The Dancing Master where the protagonist is trying to come to terms with cancer and mortality, and later got hooked onto the series. With Rebus, Bosch and Wallander retired, the serial reader is left wondering about future works of crime.

The atmosphere is quite similar in Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series. From that part of the continent, and straying from series, we have Peter Hoeg’s bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Here, I admit that I preferred his lesser-known non-crime eco-related novel Woman and the Ape. Quite recently, volumes 1 and 2 of the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson have been posthumously released. These novels are quite different from the other crime novels mentioned here and, the protagonist is an oddity.

Moving to warmer climate, we have three interesting series from Italy. First, the more serious and pondering Aurelio Zen series from Michael Dibdin who died recently. Second, we have Andrea Camilleri’s hugely popular Inspector Montalbano series set in south Italy. Third, we have the Commissario Brunetti series from Donna Leon. Though I will not describe the protagonists here, I recommend trying out Brunetti as appetizer, followed by Zen for main course and Montalbano for dessert. Now, how can one leave Italy without ever trying Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose?

Finally, shifting from Europe, one should try Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series which is set in Shanghai. Reading about certain Chinese dishes in Red Mandarin Dress is itself an experience. Now, try these site from the Telegraph or TimesOnline for a better list.

By the way, I did not get the job – surely, that was not a cliffhanger.

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