Two kinds of detective stories

I really can’t accept that it’s September already, so instead of talking about new books for the fall, or good reads for chilly nights, I thought I’d tell you about a couple of books I really enjoyed this summer.

The GCPD in action.

On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the DC comics series Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka.  The original run has been reprinted in a number of trade paperbacks, and WPL has all of them. This series is unique in that it follows not one main character, but an ensemble cast, over its 40 issue run.

Gotham Central focuses on the police department of Gotham City, which just happens to be Batman’s city. It tells the stories of the men and women who work in the Major Crimes Unit (MCU) of the department. What I like is that it doesn’t make the cops out to be one-dimensional stooges who need rescuing and assistance from the superhero in every issue, as in many superhero comics. Rather, the detectives try to solve cases, big and small, on their own and only turn the Bat-signal on as a last resort. The police actually resent the idea of Batman and often find him to be a distraction.

Batman and many familiar villains (Mr. Freeze, Joker, Two Face, etc) appear throughout the series, but often only in supporting roles. The true stars and heroes of this series are the police who follow up on mundane leads, sit on stakeouts, and navigate departmental politics.

I stuck with the detective theme and really enjoyed P.D. James’ Unnatural Causes.

This is the third book in which Inspector Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard appears. Dalgliesh has just completed a gruesome and emotionally draining case in London, and is looking forward to a peaceful holiday on the Suffolk coast at his aunt’s cottage. But it isn’t long until his holiday is interrupted by the news that a body has washed ashore in a small boat  — with both hands cut off. It turns out to be the body of a local mystery writer and soon we’re introduced to many of the eccentric residents of this usually sleepy village, most of whom are suspects. While Dalgliesh is not officially a part of the investigation, news spreads that Scotland Yard’s finest is in the vicinity and he is drawn in to help solve the case.

While some have criticized James for being too wordy, I personally love to get lost in her poetic prose. I’ll leave you with the following passage, when Dalgliesh first arrives at the coast:

At the crest of the track Dalgliesh stopped the car to watch and to listen. Autumn had never been his favourite season, but in the moment which followed the stopping of the engine he wouldn’t have changed this mellow peace for all the keener sensitivities of spring. The heather was beginning to fade now but the second flowering of the gorse was as thick and golden as in the first richness of May. Beyond it lay the sea, streaked with purple, azure and brown, and to the south the mist-hung marshes of the bird reserve added their gentler greens and blues. The air smelt of heather and wood-smoke, the inevitable and evocative smells of autumn.


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