Social inequality and sense of place in crime fiction

Ian Rankin fans will enjoy reading his conversation with the Indian communist leader Prakash Karat, who has read all his 17 Inspector Rebus novels and did his Master’s in politics at the University of Edinburgh, in Rankin’s hometown.

Rankin talks about his working-class parents, his being the first from his family to go to university — he read English at the University of Edinburgh — and his early struggles as a writer. Knots and Crosses, his first Rebus novel published in 1987, wasn’t a hit with the critics and readers. Instead, piquantly, he became a crime suspect as the plot resembled a murder case, he says!

Success came only 10 years later with Black and Blue, his eighth Rebus book.

Now, says the Hindu, “Ian Rankin is the best-selling writer of crime fiction in the United Kingdom, accounting for 10 per cent of all its crime book sales.”

The Indian newspaper published his conversation with Karat during his visit to India last month under the headline, “Crime fiction is about social inequality”. You can read it here and here.

The headline is a direct quote from Rankin.

Discussing politics and crime fiction with the Indian communist leader, he says:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality. Why do people do bad things to each other? Much of the time, it’s economic. It’s to do with basic human nature — greed, a sense of injustice, other people having things that you want, a sense of grievance that something’s happened at work. That’s what I like about crime fiction specifically. It tells us that the civilised world is just a veneer, a very thin veneer.


James Lee Burke, poet of crime fiction

James Lee Burke is a poet of hardboiled crime fiction. His violent thrillers are filled with twisted characters, whip-smart dialogue and great descriptions of nature. He loves nature with the same intensity that his hero, reformed alcoholic and devoted family man Dave Robicheaux, and his buddy, boozy, womanizing Clete Purcel, are haunted by their nightmares of the Vietnam war. It all adds up to thrilllers in the Raymond Chandler mode, which are social commentary sugarcoated as entertainers.

In Burke’s latest book, Swan Peak, published last year, New Iberia police detective Robicheaux, his wife Molly and Purcel the PI are staying with a friend in Montana after surviving the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. Their ordeal was the theme of  the previous book, Tin Roof Blowdown, which is hard to beat for the sheer power of its description of the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans. They come to Montana for peace, but trouble follows them like a fly.

They encounter oilman Ridley Wellstone and his brother, Leslie, whose face has been horribly disfigured by a fire in an army tank, it is said, but whom they suspect to be Mob boss Sally Dio. But Sally is supposed to be dead, killed in a plane crash after Purcell put sand in the oil tank. And the case is still under investigation. Luckily, for Clete, FBI agent Alicia Rosecrans falls for him – and he for her. That is the only good thing that happens, though.

A serial killer is at work and the local sheriff wants Robicheaux to track him down.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s pretty wife, Jamie Sue, a former country singer, persuades Clete to help her trace her old lover, rodeo-riding, guitar-playing Jimmy Dale Greenwood. Who is on the run from the prison, where he had been wrongfully jailed. Pursued by a gay prison officer, Troyce Nix, whom he had nearly stabbed to death for sexually abusing him. Along the way, Troyce has picked up a woman, Candace, with whom he has fallen in love and who is trying to dissuade him from killing Jimmy.


PD James’ leisurely murder mystery

The Private Patient by PD James

This is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery where the Scotland Yard detective enters late into the story. And even then Commander Dalgliesh hardly occupies centrestage. The focus keeps shifting from one character to another. His subordinates, Kate Miskin and Francis Benton-Smith, duly get their turn in the spotlight as do several others in this country house mystery. There is an eminent cosmetic surgeon, a successful woman journalist who is murdered in his private hospital after surgery, and others in the country estate where he operates on wealthy patients.

Even after Dalgliesh takes up the case, there is another murder. His investigation turns up a convicted murderer in the house halfway into the story, but this being a murder mystery, the killer here has to be somebody else.

PD James like Agatha Christie likes to depict her characters at length. And the characters here are more interesting than the mystery itself. The Private Patient is not a taut, suspenseful thriller. It is as much a novel of manners, depicting the mores and lifestyle of upper and upper middle class people, though it does look at people lower down the social scale and their problems, for let no one say PD James is not socially aware. That slows down the narrative, however. It’s not chatty and breezy like Agatha Christie. PD James is more meditative, commenting on life and society. She has written more riveting mysteries in the past.

PD James unfortunately writes in a manner that makes one suspect here is a superior woman. The leading characters tend to have stiff upper lips, the cuisine is never fish and chips, any depiction of love is more likely to be spiritual than physical, the music classical. It’s a bit claustrophobic.

And there’s this focus on successful people. Dalgliesh is a top detective and a poet though no poetry appears in this novel. The surgeon and the murdered woman journalist are rich and successful. When Dalgliesh’s prospective father-in-law is briefly introduced in this novel, he is described as a retired university professor who has “done very well”.

It may be because of the life she– PD James – has known. A former civil servant who served as a governor of the BBC and was made a life peer, she has won many prizes and honours. Is that why she writes about successful people, because she knows them intimately, or is it because she is an overachiever by nature? Her brief biography in The Private Patient mentions the girls’ school she attended and says she has received honorary degrees from seven British universities. And the OBE. What else remains to be accomplished?

Now 88 years old, PD James can still write a bestseller. Her fans won’t rest until they have finished reading The Private Patient, and it is a good read. The women in this story are portrayed sensitively, in depth if not always at length. It is they who make it memorable though it is an Adam Dalgliesh mystery. The book ends happily on a romantic note: the right woman gets the right man. It may have been written with women readers in mind.