Following the Detectives

Maxim Jakubowski (ed), Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction (New Holland, 2010)

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

Following the DetectivesMaxim Jakubowski’s Introduction to Following the Detectivesrightly argues the importance to crime fiction of a sense of place, and emphasizes the extent to which the genre’s protagonists are strongly identified with “the environment they function in”.

With the proliferation of crime fiction in languages other than English – French, Scandinavian, Italian, Spanish, German,Argentinian, Cuban – there has been increasing critical attention paid to the contrasting environments within which crime fiction is now flourishing.  Over the last few years, a number of conferences and proposed collections of essays have tried to address the multicultural nature of contemporary crime writing, theorizing national differences and cultural identities. Following the Detectivesisn’t attempting anything so academic or so systematic.  But it does, in its own way, illuminate the huge diversity of an international genre.  Following the Detectives is much more than entertainment for the “armchair tourist” – though it is certainly that as well.

The maps and photographs and general liveliness of the essays will make them hugely appealing to any detective fiction enthusiast – particularly to those who want to experience the haunts and sights of a city in relation to their reading of favourite crime writers.

It’s intriguing to know that you can still retrace Marlowe’s footsteps and car journeys from novel to novel, “from the lush Sternwood residence on Franklin Avenue and the Geiger bookstore  and residences on, respectively Hollywood Boulevard and Laurel Canyon (in The Big Sleep) to Florian’s Bar, where Marlowe met up with Moose Malloy in The Little Sister…or visit the Barclay Hotel, formerly the Van Nuys, site of the ice-pick murder in The Little Sister…”  Actual or armchair tourists will interested in the fact that V. I Warshawski “regularly eats at the Belmont Diner in an old working-class neighbourhood, that she drinks at the Golden Glow, a saloon in the South Loop that’s been there forever”, and that she’s a Cubs fan and goes to games at Wrigley Field.  We’re taken on an agreeable tour of The Eagle and Child in St Giles’, The Perch Inn overlooking Port Meadow, The Trout Inn by Godstow Bridge, and the other Oxford pubs frequented by Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse; we follow Dave Robicheaux’s ambles through the French Quarter of New Orleans and his visits to The Pearl, “just off Canal Street” to enjoy “a beer and some oysters on the half shell”; and we discover that you can still eat the same meal that Sam Spade ate (chops, baked potato and sliced tomato) at John’s Grill, where he stopped off in The Maltese Falcon.

The culinary and recreational details are, however, balanced by equally close attention to deeper concerns, political contexts, and social issues.  The essays make a valuable contribution to our understanding of how detective novels represent distinctive national anxieties and preoccupations, and, reading the collection as awhole, we’re led to reflect on international and cross-cultural comparisons.   In addition to following the lives of fictional characters as they track villains through the darker corners of their cities, contributors illuminate the politicization of crime novels and the extent to which fundamentally serious themes are brought to the fore.

We’re shown, for example, the way in which beauty of Venice is contrasted with its underlying violence, as Donna Leon plots her mysteries in “a country where corruption reaches to the highest levels of government.”  Paretsky’s increasingly political take on Chicago’s crimes is apparent in novels that map “the gentrification of ethnic areas and the blight that modernization leaves behind, the poverty and the inequalities.” Henning Mankell represents the widening “cracks in the consensus of Scandinavian society”, and Arnaldur Indridason, in Arctic Chill, examines Iceland’s demography and immigration – racial issues and crimes against immigrants, immigrant children who refuse to integrate; he makes “a heartfelt, humane effort” to understand a changing country.  Andrea Camilleri offers a rich picture of Sicily’s human landscape, ranging from “adroitly amoral politicians” to peasants abused by the police, immigrant victims of human trafficking and African street pedlars.

Closer to home, there is the urban violence in John Harvey’s Nottingham, in which territorial violence is (in Cold in Hand) “fuelled by the rivalry between young people living on different estates”, or, in Last Rites, by the rivalries of an escalating drug trade; and there is the way in which Declan Hughes “uses the settings of the fictional suburbs of Bayview, Castlehill and Seafield to investigate the consequences that generations of wealth have had on the moral, spiritual and psychological fibre of the affluent families of south County Dublin.”

The organisation of Following the Detectives is not that of systematic analysis or comparison.  Entries are neither chronologically nor geographically ordered.  Instead, there is the sense of surprise and discovery, as each new location and detective appears – a sense of dipping in and out of old favourites and of being tempted by new crime writing pleasures.  We wander through a fascinating global phenomenon that will, as Jakubowski says “encourage you to read mystery writers you might previously have overlooked or even provoke you to go out of your way and explore the real world behind the stories during the course of your travels.”


Copyright © 2011 by Lee Horsley