Archive for Detective Fiction


Posted in Television with tags , , , , on December 12, 2015 by telescoper

Over the past week or so I’ve been watching the original TV series The Killing (in Danish with English subtitles). This was actually first broadcast in Denmark in 2007 but apparently achieved a bit of a cult following in the United Kingdom in 2011 when it was shown on BBC4. That was round about the time that I basically gave up watching television so I missed it then. However, I saw the DVD box set at a drastically reduced price a few weeks ago and decided to buy it. I’m very glad I did.


I’ve been to Copenhagen many times in my life but this is the first time I’ve seen some familiar locations on the small screen, which added a personal dimension for me, but my main reason for doing a blog about it is just to salute it for being exceptionally good.  The Killing (in Danish Forbrydelsen: “The Crime”) is often quoted as an example of Nordic or Scandinavian Noir but that term is generally reserved for crime fiction novels rather than movies or television programmes.  The Killing definitely retains some elements in common with classic  Film Noir – a strong central female character and low-key visual style to name but two – but I’m not sure I would categorize it as “noir“. On the other hand some classic examples of film noir don’t display many of the characteristics associated with the genre either. Categories don’t really matter that much anyway, even when they are easily defined which is not the case with Noir.

The plot of The Killing revolves around the police investigation into a terrible crime: the brutal rape and murder of a young woman, Nanna Birk Larsen, who disappears after a Halloween party. Each of the twenty 50-minute long episodes depicts one day; the series has to be that long to accommodate all the twists, red herrings and false dawns, but it never loses pace or tension. That everything happens in a Nordic November means short days of grey skies and long wintry nights, establishing an appropriatelt sombre visual mood.

The complexity of the plot and the Copenhagen setting are not the most compelling things about this as a piece of TV drama, however. What stood out for me was the excellence of the acting not only from Sofie Gråbøl as lead investigator Sarah Lund but from the entire cast. The effect on the Birk Larsen family of the loss of their daughter in such cruel circumstances is portrayed most movingly, especially by Bjarne Henriksen as the father, Theis Birk Larsen.

I am so late writing about this that I don’t suppose I would spoil it for too many people if I revealed who did it, but I’ll refrain from doing it. What I will say, however, is that I was pretty confident that I knew who the perpetrator was right from Episode 1 and I proved to be right. That doesn’t mean that I’d make a great detective, just that I’ve had enough experience of detective stories to know some of the tricks writers use to throw the reader (or viewer) off the scent.

If you haven’t seen The Killing, I thoroughly recommend it. I gather there’s a second series too. I must watch that sometime…


Rest in Peace, P.D. James

Posted in Literature with tags , , on November 28, 2014 by telescoper

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death, at the age of 94, of the great crime novelist P.D. James so decided to take a few minutes out of my lunch break to post this little tribute. I’ve long been a fan of detective fiction in general but there was something very special about the writing of P.D. James; the initials stand for Phyllis Dorothy, by the way. I think she was one of the few crime novelists who managed to transcend the whodunnit genre  to produce work of authentic literary merit in its own right; Ruth Rendell is the only other that springs to mind among contemporary writers of detective fiction. Her style was as polished and the subject matter as meticulously researched was you would expect from a direct descendant of Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading exponents of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction.

P.D. James is most famous for her series of fourteen books featuring the poetry-loving detective Adam Dalgleish, the first of which, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. That series contained many superb stories, such as Shroud for a Nightingale, Devices and Desires, and Death of an Expert Witness. She also wrote two novels about the female private detective Cordelia Gray, including An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. More recently she wrote a murder mystery  sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes to Pemberley. I bought this last year, but somehow never got around to reading it but will definitely do so now, as I now know it her last; I have read all her other books.

As well as numerous awards for her writing, P.D. James was honoured by the Establishment with an OBE in 1983 and a Life Peerage in 1999. It’s says most however that so many other authors, even those whose style is markedly different have offered heartfelt tributes to her (including these in the Guardian). The main reason why she was held in such high regard by fellow authors was simply that she was bloody good at being a writer; she cared about her craft and was proud of what she did.

There’s something distinctively English about the detective novels of P.D. James, although that something is a something that clearly tends to polarize people. Some find her approach a bit too detached and genteel, some find it, “cosy”, snobbish and class-ridden, and some think that she was just an anachronism, harking back too much to the era of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Yet others can’t understand the attraction of the genre at all. People are welcome to their opinions of course, but I think that the best detective fiction is not just about setting a puzzle for the reader to solve, but also posing questions about the nature of a society in which such crimes can happen. Far from being “cosy”, great crime writing actually unsettles bourgeois attitudes. The solution of the mystery may offer us a form of comfort, but the questions exposed by the investigation do not go away. As Val McDermid
wrote in the Guardian
, “People who know no better sometimes describe her work as cosy. If a scalpel is cosy, then so was Phyllis”.

Rest in Peace, P.D. James (1920-2014).

The Moral Activity which Disentangles

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2013 by telescoper

I came across this last night and thought I would share it with you. It’s the preamble to Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is arguably the first-ever work in the genre of detective fiction. The piece is a bit dated (especially by the reference to the (now) discredited pseudoscience of phrenology, but Poe nevertheless says some very interesting things about a topic that I have returned to a number of times on this blog: the interplay between analysis and synthesis (and between deductive and inductive reasoning) involved not only in detective stories but also in card games and – I would contend – in the scientific method generally. I  agree with Poe when he says that the most fascinating part of such endeavours is the poorly understood yet vital element of intuition, that creative spark of ingenuity that sets apart a true genius, but am not sure about his contention that it is closely related to the analytic aspect. Anyway, see what you think…


IT is not improbable that a few farther steps in phrenological science will lead to a belief in the existence, if not to the actual discovery and location, of an organ of analysis. If this power (which may be described, although not defined, as the capacity for resolving thought into its elements) is not, in fact, an essential portion of what late philosophers term ideality, then there are, indeed, many good reasons for supposing it a primitive faculty. That it may be a constituent of ideality is here suggested in opposition to the vulgar dictum (founded, however, upon the assumptions of grave authority) that the calculating and discriminating powers (causality and comparison) are at variance with the imaginative — that the three, in short, can hardly co-exist. But, although thus opposed to received opinion, the idea will not appear ill-founded when we observe that the processes of invention or creation are strictly akin with the processes of resolution — the former being nearly, if not absolutely, the latter conversed.

It cannot be doubted that the mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles.  He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul ­and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

The faculty in question is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis.  Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other.  It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, that which is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for that which is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers. In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen. To be less abstract — Let us suppose a game of draughts, where the pieces are reduced to four kings, and where, of course, no oversight is to be expected. It is obvious that here the victory can be decided (the players being at all equal) only by some recherché movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into miscalculation or hurry into error.

Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency ­ in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources (whatever be their character) whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. To observe attentively is to remember distinctly; and, so far, the concentrative chess-player will do very well at whist; while the rules of Hoyle (themselves based upon the mere mechanism of the game) are sufficiently and generally comprehensible. Thus to have a retentive memory, and to proceed by “the book,” are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the falsity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honor by honor, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph or of chagrin. From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it can make another in the suit. He recognises what is played through feint, by the air with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation — all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs. The first two or three rounds having been played, he is in full possession of the contents of each hand, and thenceforward puts down his cards with as absolute a precision of purpose as if the rest of the party had turned outward the faces of their own.

The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the  ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. I have spoken of this latter faculty as that of resolving thought into its elements, and it is only necessary to glance upon this idea to perceive the necessity of the distinction just mentioned. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater indeed than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than profoundly analytic.

Gremlins in the Vault

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on February 24, 2013 by telescoper

Here I am, on campus again (this time on a Sunday). Just going to finish off some urgent things in advance of a busy week next week: tomorrow in London for the first meeting of the 2013 Astronomy Grants Panel; Tuesday all day interviewing for a new faculty position in Physics, Wednesday preparing the University’s equivalent of the 5-year plan; most of Thursday interviewing prospective PhD students; continued, p. 94….

Anyway, I thought I’d warm up my typing fingers this afternoon with a quick post that’s got nothing to do with my job and will probably generate negligible interest among my readers, but the subject got on my mind so here goes anyway. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m a bit of a fan of detective stories. I haven’t blogged much about Crime Fiction per se but I have referred to various examples in the course of other posts. Having recently given up entirely on television and done a bit more travelling on buses and trains, I’ve had a bit more time to read so have started to clear the sizable backlog of books I’ve bought but never actually opened.

All of which brings me to The Vault by Ruth Rendell. This is the 24th book to feature her detective Inspector Wexford, although Wexford, having retired,  is no longer an Inspector in this book. The plot of The Vault revolves around the discovery of four bodies (two male, and two female) in a coal hole belonging to a posh house in St John’s Wood. Wexford is drawn into the subsequent investigation by a friend of his who is still a policeman and thereafter the story interweaves two different genres (the Police procedural and the psychological thriller) in Rendell’s inimitable style, alongside beautifully nuanced description of the parts of London in which the drama unfolds.

In parenthesis I’d say that Ruth Rendell is one of the few crime novelists whose writing transcends the limitations of the crime genre and establishes her as a major literary figure in her own right, a feat only rarely accomplished in the history of detective fiction, the American Dashiel Hammett being another example.

When I bought it I didn’t realize that it was a kind of sequel to her earlier novel A Sight for Sore Eyes in which Wexford does not appear. In The Vault, set 12 later, Wexford only has the four initially unidentified bodies to work on; he hasn’t read the earlier book either. Anyway, to cut a long (detective) story short, three of the bodies relate to the earlier plot whereas the fourth was added to the coal-hole collection about 10 years later. As for the initial three, it seems two were victims of the murderous third who accidentally fell into the hole after disposing of their bodies there.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and detail of Ruth Rendell’s writing as much as ever, but when I’d finished the book I was troubled by one glaring problem with the plot. If the murderer, Teddy Brex, had indeed fallen into the coal hole by accident, who closed the manhole cover that sealed him in? It’s essential to the plot that nobody find the bodies for a dozen years, but surely if the lid had been open someone would have looked inside? Worried that I was just being dense and had missed some detail, I searched around the net and found a blog review on which a similar comment was made.

Part of the pleasure of reading a mystery novel, as is the case with a crossword puzzle, is to see the pieces fall nearly into place at the end. That’s always happened with Ruth Rendell’s books before, but this one left me profoundly unsatisfied. For a writer of her quality, the lapse was most disappointing. It won’t put me off reading other books, of course. Maybe it’s all explained in the earlier book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a flaw in this one.

Anyway, this particular fly in the ointment led to an interesting little exchange on Facebook about plot errors in The Day of the Jackal so I thought it might be fun to use it as an example, and see if anyone out there in internetshire can think of similar narrative gremlins affecting films or novels? They don’t have to be detective stories, of course, although for reasons described above I think they are especially irksome in that context.

The comment box beckons, but make sure you don’t fall in…