A Murder in Thebes, by Paul Doherty (1998)

Note: This book was originally published as by “Anna Apostolou”; the author whose work it is has many pseudonyms but is generally known as either Paul Doherty or P. C. Doherty. It is now published as an e-book under Paul Doherty.

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction and come quite close to giving away a central secret. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 


I’m never quite sure how to feel about authors with a huge output of published writing. I’ve had bad experiences with Gladys Mitchell just lately — similarly Edgar Wallace, Elizabeth Linington, and John Creasey. Simenon leaves me relatively cold, although his skill is evident. But Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr, and Agatha Christie are always interesting to me. It’s too simplistic to say that if an author produces a huge number of volumes they must automatically be a hasty and poor writer. It does sometimes make me approach a prolific writer with caution, though.

And that’s the frame of mind I brought to the work of Paul Doherty, who has written, by Wikipedia’s last count, more than 100 mysteries; I believe all or nearly all of them can be categorized as “historical”. I read a few of his earliest books back in the 80s, but have forgotten very nearly everything about them; at that point in time I was already surfeited with Ellis Peters’s adventures of Brother Cadfael (yes, you read that right, I’m not a fan; I think they’re ersatz and bland) and didn’t feel I needed more mediaeval hijinks in my life.  When you couple that with the idea that I only occasionally read anything written after I was born, you can understand why I’ve only experienced about 5% of his output, if that.

But then I discovered that, as Anna Apostolou, Doherty had written a couple of mysteries featuring Alexander the Great. Now, I’ve always had a huge interest in Alexander the Great; I’ve read a bunch of books about him, sparked off by the excellent novels of Mary Renault, and will always pick up anything about him, fiction or non-fiction. When I happened across a copy of #2 in the series, A Murder in Thebes, I thought, what the heck? How bad can it be?

I say this because my pessimism for once had no payoff.  I found, to my pleasure, that while this is not a novel for the ages, it’s very competent and smartly done, and Doherty (whom Wikipedia tells me is an expert on Alexander the Great in his own right) has hit most of the right notes along the way.

The story is actually about sister-and-brother Israelite detectives Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus; they are fictitious and the conceit is that they were sent to be educated by Aristotle along with Alexander. Miriam is an intellectual with a “determined mouth” who acts as a kind of … well, let’s say “private eye” for Alexander, who apparently keeps running into locked-room murders unknown to history.  Some other characters are actual historical figures in the correct time and place as we know from history; the events in this novel and most of its characters are imaginary, though.

5176BX692ALI suppose you can’t write 100 mysteries without having, if not a formula, then at least a pattern.  This one was easy to see, and the book is well-constructed.  The A plot is the murder case that involves someone killing Alexander’s officers during the siege of Thebes (and after Alexander takes the city); apparently there’s a spy among them in the pay of Persia, known as the Oracle.  Most of the book is devoted to the identification and unmasking of the spy/murderer and, honestly, since I spotted the central clue pretty much within seconds of its transmission, the problem didn’t occupy my mind much. (I will merely say I’ve owned dogs; I got the right answer for mostly the wrong reasons, so that little clue will mislead you.)

The B plot is involved with “The Iron Crown of Oedipus”, a sacred relic of Thebes in its own shrine with attendant priestesses.  The crown itself is fixed to a post, and the post is surrounded by pits of fire, pits of poisonous snakes, and pits of spears. In fact, it’s an “impossible crime” situation; the chief priestess knows how the crown can be removed (without the use of tools, which are blasphemous and sacrilegious in the context) but nobody else is aware.  When the crown vanishes, just before Alexander needs to wear it publicly to confirm his acquisition of Thebes by Macedon, Miriam has to figure out who took it and how.

The reader will not be surprised by this puzzle either, if s/he ‘s paying attention; there are a couple of very broad hints that seem a little anachronistic and thus obvious even to a reader of limited experience with detective fiction.  I’ll accept that Doherty is a historian and thus I’ll suspend my disbelief about what he says was a common toy among Theban children and Macedonian soldiers. But honestly, it might just as well have had a neon arrow in the text saying, “Big ol’ clue right here.” There was just no reason to include its repetitive mention otherwise.

I actually think the reader is supposed to grasp the central premise of what’s going on; it’s an interesting idea, that the author should build in opportunities to make the reader feel better about his/her intellectual gifts.  After you put two and two together — well, okay, I’d figured out the killer and I’d figured out the puzzle, and I felt very clever for a moment. It’s not an experience I often have with detective fiction, and it would have been very unusual to have it with, say, Christie, Carr, or even Gardner upon my first reading of their works way back when. I suspect I might be able to solve other volumes in this series, and others of Doherty’s many series, without too much strain, and while that seems superficially an attractive prospect it does rather pall when I contemplate the great books which have so cleverly pulled the wool over my eyes and provided me with more pleasure by fooling me.  Your mileage may definitely vary, and I know Doherty has a lot of adherents, so perhaps I’m extrapolating far too much from a single example.


I’m not sure why Doherty inserted the distancing mechanism of having the central characters as Israelites … for me it doesn’t work as well as merely having a Macedonian do the job. I suspect it has something to do with offering the reader a female character with whom to identify and having her not be, as one might say, overly troubled with sexual activity. Miriam protects children and the innocent and wields great power as a favourite of Alexander, and reacts angrily for the most part when she is sexually harassed.  I just find it hard to accept that a female from what today is called Israel would be in that position; it strains my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

The part that Doherty really has nailed on the head is the character and situation of Alexander. I’ll be blunt and say that I was expecting Alexander to have been de-gayed for the lowest common denominator of reader; not so, and full marks for having Hephaestion described as Alexander’s companion and lover, and kissed once in a while to boot.  Indeed, the everyday socialization of what we would think of today as “kinks” is a part of the narrative, and not in a sniggering or heteronormative way either; it’s part of everyday Macedonian life and this murder too, since many of the male characters have male partners and casual lovers, and cross-dressing is an accepted idea that bears upon the plot without being meretriciously paraded.

Similarly, this is not your average cozy, in the sense that as the book begins, Alexander breaks the siege of Thebes and captures the city, killing many of its inhabitants and enslaving the remainder. We’re not spared the stacks of dead bodies and the terrible smell and floating ash of their funeral pyres; there’s also a rough-and-ready cure for diarrhea offered by Alexander. The punishment for just about everything is death. The characters lead lives, at that everyday level, that seem appropriate for the time and place without any sops to 21st century morality.  (Neither do any characters decry the backwardness of their own existence, thank goodness.)

All things considered, I enjoyed this. It’s a nice easy mystery story based firmly and accurately in historical knowledge — and you don’t “walk out humming the research,” as occasionally happens with other historical mystery writers. The characters are simply drawn and pleasant to contemplate and there is the “impossible crime” aspect, although not much of a one to be honest.

Would I go out and get more of these? I hope to track down the remainder of the Alexander series, certainly, but I would have done that anyway just to see how the rest stack up. I think I’ll spare myself his mediaeval mysteries for the moment; while I’m sure it would be delightful to have a further hundred books to add to my To Be Read list, I just can’t face all that mediaevality (with the disembodied face of Derek Jacobi floating in my mind, exclaiming pompously, “But this is positively mediaeval!”). It is, however, a sharp lesson to me not to be so fast to assume that because a writer is fast, his quality suffers. This is a well-written book with good characterization and an excellent balancing of the plot structure and I’ve read a lot worse — a LOT worse — in the cozy genre.





Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.


I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of archive.org, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.









Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962) (#003 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #003

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962)


Linington“Dell Shannon” was the principal pseudonym of Barbara Linington (left), who also wrote as Elizabeth Linington, Egan O’Neill, Anne Blaisdell, and Lesley Egan. Many early hardcover editions of her books made much of the fact that she was a proud member of the John Birch Society, which Wikipedia describes as “radical right-wing” and “a fringe element of the conservative movement” which was actually denounced by William F. Buckley as being “far removed from common sense”. In my opinion, Ms. Linington was a ghastly racist whose political views were a little to the right of Attila the Hun and who used her books as a vehicle for her far-right politics. She was also known as the “Queen of the Procedurals” — I am unable to determine who gave her this title, or precisely why, but it seems to be based on the fact that she was the most prolific female writer working in the genre of the police procedural mystery novel. My contention will be that she merely appropriated the form without understanding its roots, but that will be seen below.

Publication Data:

$T2eC16J,!)0E9s37FbcFBRjGk444nw~~60_3This is the fourth volume in a series documenting the adventures of Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the LA police department. The first edition is from William Morrow in 1962; first UK edition appears to be from Oldbourne, 1963. A number of paperback editions and book club editions exist. It is ordinarily my practice to display the edition which I have in my hands but the entire internet doesn’t appear to contain a photograph of the 1984 paperback from Mysterious Press; my edition has a tasteful and vaguely Art Deco cover that is part of a uniform edition of a handful of Shannon’s novels. As a placeholder I have given you an image of the first edition but I’ve allowed pride of place to the thin-lipped and censorious face of the author herself, above.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Lieutenant Luis Mendoza leads a team of detectives working in the Los Angeles homicide squad of 1962. The story begins with a scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, beautiful red-headed Alison Weir, who owns and runs a charm school. We soon learn that although the police made an excellent case against Allan Haines for the rape and murder of Mary Ellen Wood, and he was tried and executed, his alibi witness came forward some months later and exonerated him.  And since the newspapers are leading an outcry against this error, the detectives must work extra-hard to find the killer.

We learn a little bit about the personal lives of some of the team of detectives as they plod through a routine which is hinted at, but not really described in detail — too boring, one supposes. Mendoza is famous for his poker-playing, his inherited millions, his Abyssinian cats, his beautiful wardrobe, his Facel-Vega sports car and his hunches about how to solve murder cases; this last is a good thing since he seems to do very little actual work. After dithering around for most of the novel getting nowhere, an out-of-town policeman walks in and hands them the solution to the identity of the real rapist/murderer, who is just about to murder, you guessed it, Alison Weir. In what is meant to be an exciting finish, Mendoza ruins his sports car in the process of racing to the crime scene to save her in the nick of time and, one supposes, reconcile with her, since the many further books in the series detail their idyllic married life.

This book was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Novel. As you will soon discover, I suspect this may have been in a parallel universe.

Why is this so awful?

The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery novel that consists primarily of a group of police officers who work as a team, doing everything that they do in order to solve crimes. We see good officers and bad officers doing both smart and stupid things, following hot leads and trails that peter out. The officers’ work is never done and they are usually working on multiple cases at the same time; occasionally these cases are less than serious. Sometimes cases remain unsolved. Most such novels describe a number of cases that are in various stages of closure. This is meant to give the reader the flavour of what police work is really like. The best-known practitioner of this school is Ed McBain, whose many novels of the 87th Precinct in a fictional city not unlike NYC have delighted generations of readers.

This novel and its companions in the series are meant to be procedurals, and the author as noted above is known as the Queen of the Procedurals (for some reason, procedurals are very, very rarely written by women or for them, it seems). In fact, these novels are more like romances than procedurals. The author appears to know virtually nothing about how police officers actually behave or work in real life — but then, as soon becomes clear, she appears to know virtually nothing about how human beings actually behave in real life, so this ignorance of procedure is unsurprising.  Frankly, it seems as though at some point many years ago, she spent a couple of days hanging around a police station, listening credulously to bullshitters telling her exaggerated tales of their own excellence, and parlayed that into a long-term career.

What we are presented with, in fact, is a right-wing nitwit’s fantasy about how police should work, unsullied by little things like the rules of court, evidence, and common sense. I realize that it is usually an error to ascribe the social values of 2013 to a novel published in 1962, but the attitudes and mores displayed here as if they were normal and sensible are so disgusting and so disgraceful, so anti-law, that I cannot believe that the citizens of 1962 would not have risen up and replaced their police force to a man had they acted or thought like this.

For instance, an early example from Chapter 5 (page 66 in my edition). The hero — the hero! — says:

“There’ve been thirty-odd cases of rape and attempted rape through headquarters this eighteen months, and in all but seven or eight of them the woman was at least partly to blame, for voluntarily putting herself in danger. And I’m not counting the statutory cases, where it’s legally rape because the girl’s under age — I mean the real thing, sex by force. Thirteen of those cases ended in homicide. Of those thirteen women, six can be called — mmh — respectable. The others had asked for it, just like those where it didn’t end in murder — hanging around bars alone, picking up strangers, or they lived or worked or visited in the back alleys of bad districts.”

The corollary, of course, is that because the rapist in this particular case is not a badly-dressed drooling degenerate, or a Negro — the two are pretty much equivalent to this author in later cases — the police are baffled and the public is outraged. Later on (page 75), Mendoza says, in conversation with his second-in-command, “… can any man say there hasn’t been a time he didn’t have the impulse to violence with a woman — to let her know he’s a male creature? Or with some men, to repay her for being female? Tell the truth to yourself if not to me.” Sergeant Hackett replies, “Like they say, touché.  It’s a thing in us, if we’re men at all.”  The incredible part is that of course this is being written by a woman about an imaginary police officer, whose job seems not to be to serve and protect but rather to sit around in his office and make moral judgments. Wikipedia and other sources are silent as to whether Linington ever married or had children or anything approaching a relationship with a normal human, but I’m suspecting not. Nor, I suspect, was she ever the victim of a crime that she felt to be “her fault”.

The police procedure in this novel is nearly non-existent. Unlike the classic procedural, the entire police force seems to work on a single case here. Officers apparently decide what to do by divine inspiration and then go and do it — very rarely are they actually directed, they are merely said to be directed. It seems as though the author feels as though the routines of police work are far too boring to be dwelt upon, even though this is actually the basis of the procedural. The police specifically deprecate “head doctors” as having useless opinions in cases like these. My instinct is to suggest that this is because any psychiatrist worth his salt would lock up half these policemen as being misogynistic psychos after a few minutes of conversation. (Immediately after opining that head doctors are useless, Mendoza muses about the blonde with whom he apparently had casual sex  the night before.  She is nameless. “A silly female. Just, in effect, a female — compliant — and obtuse. Nobody to talk to, to enjoy being with, just for herself. You might say, on a par with the waitress who fetched you a meal when you were hungry. That kind of thing.” One wonders why the female readers of 1962 did not rise up en masse and insert these volumes into the author’s vagina sideways.) And in fact, the boring police work is depicted as being just as useless as actually, you know, bothering to research it for the edification of the reader. Instead, Mendoza is constantly said to have “instincts” that have led him to promotion over his fellows. And the out-of-town police officer who comes in while on vacation in LA and identifies the killer does so because he had a “feeling” that this individual killed a girl in his home town. How can someone be Queen of the Procedurals who doesn’t know much about police work and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile anyway? Bah, it’s all rubbish. These police officers threaten reporters with violence for reporting the truth and having an anti-police attitude — Mendoza punches one and there are no consequences. They bemoan the interference of the ignorant public and the counterproductive justice system, all of whom collude to prevent the police from administering the rough justice that they alone know how to dish out, to anyone whom they decide is guilty. And these men are the HEROES of this novel.

The other disgraceful part of this novel is the author’s attitude towards her fellow human beings.  And here, I have to say, she constantly works the same trick. Essentially she selects a minority whom she dislikes — and believe me, that’s all of them, because this lady only likes upper-class well-spoken well-dressed white people who are God-fearing, obedient and Republican — and creates a character who is NOT as bad as she implies the rest are.  Mendoza, for instance, is probably Mexican (his internal monologue appears to imply that his grandmother pretends to be descended from the pure-blooded Castilian settlers of long ago, in order to raise her social class) but he is wealthy, well-dressed, a professional, etc.  And so when other characters imply that he is a “dirty Mex”, because this is a perfectly natural attitude for a member of the white middle-class hoi polloi, Mendoza allows himself to reflect on how misguided they are. Similarly, in later books in this series, there is a kind, sensible, family man who is, as they were called back then, a Negro police officer. This gentleman doesn’t raise a finger to stop his fellow officers from bullying and occasionally beating other Negroes, and occasionally allows himself a God-fearing regret that they don’t know better than to have too many children, but he himself is the kind of Negro whom whites should respect and pat on his woolly little head. Grr. Certain types of people are irredeemable; I think the author is incapable of believing that a Communist or a homosexual could ever be a “good person”, and all such in her books have metaphorical horns and tails. The lower classes are all lazy scum who breed too frequently all except the occasional one who works her way out of poverty by dint of keeping her skirts long and her knees together and her nose to the grindstone. (Alison Weir’s comments about the girls from whom she takes money to teach them manners are absolutely outrageous. She seems to believe that, without her gentling influence, they would all be makeup-caked whores teetering around on four-inch heels having sex with anyone who asked.)

There’s a moment in this novel that made my blood boil. Chapter 14, page 193 in my edition, Mendoza is having a difficult time solving the case by intuition, and police work isn’t helping, so he decides to go out and get drunk at lunch.  Yes, seriously.  He goes to a restaurant where he is known, and a kindly black waiter who notes that he’s drinking much more than usual and not touching his food generously offers to make him food more to his taste, and suggests that he cut back on the drinking.  To which Mendoza replies, and I quote, “Hell and damnation … are you trying to wet-nurse me, boy? If I don’t get served here, there’s a bar three doors down.” Boy, indeed. What a disgrace to the badge.

Of particular note in this volume is the author’s attitude towards women — this book is, in a sense, about women, because the “psycho killer” at the heart of it all has been driven off the deep end by finding out that the woman he loves is a slut.  (It’s hard to say exactly why, but I suspect she indicates that she is willing to have sex before marriage with him, so he strangles her and all other women whom he decides are sluts.) One character, the slatternly Madge Parrott, is a case in point. Her best friend and fellow slut — sorry, waitress of easy virtue/roommate — was killed by the killer because she was willing to have sex with him, it seems.  They used to laugh at him for being unsophisticated and thinking that they were virgins. Madge is entirely willing to cooperate with the police, of course, but makes no bones that she would fuck the bejeezus out of Mendoza or any other nice guy if it got her a wedding ring and a ticket out of waitress-dom. In the meantime she will insist upon being plied with daiquiris before she gives out information, and you know that’s the sign of a bad girl. A middle-aged women who is driven by economic necessity to rent rooms in her house is presented as a fool. There are no women police officers in the homicide squad, of course. (Later in the series one is added and it turns out that the men are too timid to suggest that she type their reports, which is precisely why she’s there.  In fact, she longs to BE their secretary and is sad that they reject her typing skills.)

And Alison herself rejects most ordinary men because she has been spoiled by the ultra-macho Mendoza; it’s only when she decides to subordinate her red-headed wilfulness to his masculine superiority that he can save her life and end the book.  In the meantime, she accepts a date with a polite nonentity (the killer, of course) because she is single, and heaven forbid she should stay home on a Saturday night alone. So she spends a weeknight  redoing her nails in copper to match her new skirt, so as to please a man about whom she doesn’t care a scrap. The book is full of such nonsense.

Other than ridiculous characterization, a complete ignorance of police procedure and a plot that is based on coincidence, the other dire aspect of this novel is the writing style. And here, other than a reliance upon cliches about race, class and gender that are horrific to the modern eye, there are two main issues that grate tremendously upon the reader’s ear.

The first is that Mendoza, in order to give him a character beyond the trappings of his money, cars, cats and lack of integrity, constantly speaks in Spanish words and phrases. This rather feels, to quote Dashiell Hammett describing Philo Vance, “like a high-school girl who had been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary.” It is constant and unrelenting, and I found it very hard to take. At the end of the novel, when Mendoza is racing across town insanely in order to save Alison from first the fate worse than death and then death, he seems to lose the ability to speak English at all. This book is putatively written for an English-speaking reader, and much like Dorothy L. Sayers including a dozen pages entirely in French with no translation in Clouds of Witness and expecting the reader to get the point, it is incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the Spanish is for “Go fuck yourself, you bigoted hag,” but I would have liked to scream it into the writer’s ear.

My long-time loathing of Linington’s writing began in my early teens when I became aware of a stylistic tic of hers that drove me crazy. It’s connected with the word “the”, misused in place of “a” or “an”. She puts this idiosyncratic use of the word into the mouths of all sorts of different characters as if it were common parlance for everyone, and it drives me crazy.  For instance, and I found this almost by opening the book at random: “… the most respectable high-minded women, nine times out of ten they’ll feel the animal attraction to the big male brute, never mind if he’s the plumber or the garage mechanic or whatever …” (page 69 of my edition).  What’s wrong with “an animal attraction to a big male brute”, etc., just like the rest of the world says it? And it’s so constant and consistent, in all her novels regardless of the pseudonym she’s using, that it’s like a signature. For me, it’s like a sore tooth that she keeps biting in my mouth.

It is astonishing to me at this remove that this writer was so popular in the 60s that she published dozens of novels under a handful of names. But I take a great deal of pleasure in the fact that her work is almost completely out of print today, mostly because she is racist, sexist, misogynist, a terrible prose stylist and completely ignorant of the requirements of the form in which she was working. I hope I have persuaded you to avoid her work completely in the future.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com offers an inscribed and signed 1st edition from a UK bookseller for the unusual price of $102.48. A Good first in jacket will set you back as much as $40 or $50, and a reading copy in paperback might cost you $5. There are no noteworthy editions, to my mind, and even the paperbacks do not have the cheerful vulgarity that marked so many of their fellows during this period. Many, many book club editions exist — she was a profilic contributor to their lists — and since these editions are nearly worthless, you should have to pay nearly nothing for them. If you truly feel you must read these books, I recommend you pay as little as possible for them.

As I have commented elsewhere, good books by good writers hold their value and even increase. Therefore, on that logical basis, someone would have to pay me to accept a copy of this book. I seem to have paid $2.50 for mine, which means I’ve wasted $2.50 that no one will ever give me back.