Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On the Police Procedural: Peter Lovesey & Donna Leon (with a Brief Nod to Tana French)

Though I am but a novice and erratic explorer, I sense that the large world of mystery novels holds any number of provinces, one of which is called (if I’m not mistaken) the police procedural.

To enter this world is to live within the tight focus of an imagined here and now: more precisely the here and now of a dead body recently discovered. This focus becomes the story’s world, one purged of the extraneous: little concern over current events except as they might be reflected in one example, little discussion of sports or movies or of the various diversions that can typically constitute a week or a month. Little discussion or interest in anything, really, except as it might constitute evidence or motive. Thus a police procedural can make a narrowed world at once scary and comforting, comforting because typically its moral compass stays firm, scary because it’s a world of what appears to be (at least at first) random and inexplicable violence. One enters this world as a reader precisely because a police procedural promises that the random will be transformed, page by page, into an explicable result of cause and effect.

The Peter Diamond series, authored by Peter Lovesey, and the Commisario Brunetti series, authored by Donna Leon, both inhabit this large world. Both consistently feature one detective, center on a single crime or series of related crimes, and locate themselves in or around a single locale. Peter Diamond works out of the nick on Manvers Street in the English city of Bath, while Guido Brunetti’s office is located in the Questura in Venice, Italy.

Over the course of many novels, both series offer deepening understandings of their principal characters. Peter Diamond is paunchy, smart, intolerant of paperwork. He inspires loyalty because he is clearly and fundamentally a decent guy; he inspires sympathy because, in the latest novels in the series, he has had to deal with bereavement -- for his own wife was killed. Guido Brunetti is of a similar middle age, married, his wife a university teacher of literature in English with a particular interest in Henry James. She’s a great cook, and she’s a member of one of Venice’s most powerful families. The Brunetti’s two children grow as this series of books progresses, giving all the Brunetti characters the chance to deepen, giving readers an even more rounded view than we get of Peter Diamond.

Both series also owe some of their attraction to the beauty and historical interest of their locations. To follow Brunetti is to walk the streets, the calle, and bridges of Venice, experience its tides and weather, and begin to understand its unique culture and relationship to the rest of Italy. It’s also to see the tensions produced by tourism, by European unification, and by the corruption of politics. To read a Peter Diamond mystery is always to be located in or around Bath. Though Peter Diamond himself may not know its full and deep history, someone in any given novel does know it. And Lovesey frequently weaves in literary allusions. Thus reading a Peter Diamond mystery, one may learn that Mary Shelley wrote part of Frankenstein while in Bath, or that Jane Austen stayed at a particular address.

Both series also rely on a deft management of point of view. As readers, in effect we become either Peter Diamond or Guido Brunetti, sharing their intelligence, foibles, trials, private lives and baseline commitment to civil society. Both detectives often must deal with inept (or, in Brunetti’s world, sometimes also corrupt) colleagues. Both lean on trusted equals of longstanding, and both must negotiate the use new computer and electronic surveillance techniques that they at once welcome and distrust. This is a point-of-view that readers have full access to at the start. It’s also one that is subtly withdrawn as any given novel proceeds to its end. At some point, some crucial reflection or series of conclusions made by the detective is not presented; thus, the endings to these books are not necessarily predictable, which may also make them more enjoyable.

Yet in terms of pacing and focus, Leon’s and Lovesey’s books diverge considerably. Lovesey stays close to the crime and to the police investigation that results. As the series has progressed, Peter Diamond has risen to a leadership position, a fact which changes the part of the procedure that he might conduct and direct. For readers who follow the series closely, this is a satisfying progression. Donna Leon can be less focused on a given crime; it can take many pages before the crime even occurs. Leon’s interest is often more fully invested in her lead character, Guido Brunetti. He has consistently held his superior rank as Commisario, which places him one level below the Questura’s senior leader, an incompetent and vain individual whom Brunetti tolerates and manipulates by turn. He enjoys his food and drink, and often both are given in some detail. His marriage functions as a genuine partnership and he clearly struggles to keep the parts of his life in healthy balance. He loves his city and his walks through it – all things Leon takes time to present.

Peter Diamond almost always gets a result that leads to charges and convictions. In a Donna Leon novel, Brunetti typically unravels the mystery, but such knowledge, while at least somewhat satisfying to him and to readers, may not lead to the public affirmation of a judicial process. Sometimes Brunetti cannot prove what he knows. An educated man, he reads Tacitus for consolation.

Both series dependably do what police procedurals do: offer a tested formula of character and action. Neither Peter Lovesey nor Donna Leon can claim to have penned great literature. If you remember the plot arc of one of their novels, there’s considerably less enjoyment in reading them a second or third time. In contrast, Tana French has written at least two books that might fall into this same genre description, yet also rise above it. But that’s a new discussion.

To help track locations in Donna Leon’s Venice, see this site: http://www.groveatlantic.com/leon/tour2.htm

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