Tag Archives: detective fiction

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes – A Detective Varg Novel (1)” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel (1) (Detective Varg Series)

This is McCall Smith’s first novel set in Sweden, introducing a new protagonist, detective Ulf Varg. Why Sweden? McCall Smith has so many other irons in the fire! In books like the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, the reader feels like he knows his territory (as well as his characters) so intimately. You can’t help but love Mma Ramotswe and Botswana. Does McCall Smith really know Sweden equally well? Or has he found a formula he plans to extend to new countries at random?

Indulge me while I ponder the matter of cultural appropriation. Again, why Sweden? Admittedly, McCall Smith’s novels deal with the interior life – the thoughts, feelings, joys and sorrows of his characters. So maybe it doesn’t matter where they are set. But will Swedes find his portrayal of their country sympathetic? Or condescending? Possibly stereotypical? And (getting down to the tiniest detail…) whence came the umlaut (double dot) over the “A” in McCall Smith’s name (see cover above). Sorry, Sir, you can’t just help yourself to an umlaut! That’s linguistic appropriation. Stay in your own lane, as we say in the USA. (This may prove that I have NO sense of humor.)

The plot deals with a series of criminal investigations, and with the interactions between a group of co-workers (and one “outsider”). Also included is Ulf Varg’s psychoanalyst, who conveniently illuminates the disorder afflicting a person targeted in one investigation, clinical lycanthropy. In other words, the overwhelming that delusion that one is, in fact, a werewolf. Clinical lycanthropy is NOT a crime.

I enjoyed the end  of this book (when a romance emerges) more than the beginning, so perhaps I will continue to read about Detective Varg. He and the other characters may grow on me.

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“Full Dark House” and “The Water Room” by Christopher Fowler

These are the first two books in the series about the fictional London “Peculiar Crimes Unit”, also known as the Bryant and May mysteries after the two protagonists.

These are first class mysteries, full of atmosphere and detail.

Full Dark House takes place during the Blitz, and reflects the anguish of a country at war. A German invasion is expected. Civil order is stressed near the breaking point. Deaths in a popular theater need to be solved. Bryant and May are young and inexperienced – the War forces people into jobs for which they are unprepared.

The Water Room takes place decades later, when Bryant and May are past retirement age and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is threatened with dissolution. Crime strikes a neighbor balanced uncertainly between slum status and upward mobility.

Bryant and May represent two different approaches to crime. Bryant is an intuitive and “non-linear” thinker, likely to propose mythical or psychological explanations for human behavior. He cultivates a wide acquaintance among London’s fortune tellers, psychics, witches, cultists and oddballs, sometimes using them to aid his investigations. May represents the “conventional” approach to crime – interview witnesses, seek motives and connections, repeat as necessary. Together, they solve seemingly impossible conundrums.

These books force the reader to confront the question, which am I, logical or intuitive? Given that “logical” is now (at least in theory) mainstream and dominant, how do I incorporate the intuitive into my mental processes? When do I rely on my “intuition”? Important questions! When does intuition slide into prejudice?

I have good friends on both sides of the line. I come down on the “rational” side… mostly. If I was a crime victim and the investigating detective decided to consult a psychic, I wouldn’t be pleased. How about you?

Wikipedia points out that the city of London itself can be considered a “separate character” in the Peculiar Crimes novels. This is especially true in The Water Room. London is built over ancient structures, including enclosed rivers and underground chambers. This historical framework adds a wonderful dimension to Fowler’s writing.

I plan to keep a novel or two from Fowler on my Kindle, against a rainy day or travel delay. Fowler is a very prolific writer. I won’t run out soon!

The Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte Mysteries by Arthur Upfield

I’ve been on a re-reading jag, and this series, published between 1930 and 1963, was a pleasure to revisit. If you are a mystery fan, check out Arthur Upfield. His novels will also appeal to those who love

  • Anthropology
  • Geography/geology/ecology
  • Travel (Australia)

The books I re-read were

  • The Mountains Have a Secret
  • Sinister Stones
  • The Bushman Who Came Back

What is a man named Napoleon Bonaparte doing in Australia? Upfield’s detective hero is (in the words of his time), a half breed, son of an aboriginal woman and a European father, raised and educated to take full advantage of the wisdom of two highly divergent cultures. The capstone of his education was a three year period when he “went bush”, living off the land and becoming an initiated member of his mother’s tribe.

The interactions between these two cultures sets the framework for Upfield’s plots. The stunning, strange Australian landscape provides the background. And Upfield creates wonderful, eccentric characters.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte always gets his man. (If he created a female criminal, I’ve missed her.) Along the way, he breaks rules, takes chances and uses mysterious aboriginal wisdom.

If you want to get happily and completely lost in a book, try Upfield. But I’m warning you, the urge to max out your credit card and travel to Australia RIGHT NOW may be overwhelming!

“The Handsome Man’s Delux Cafe: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series” by Alexander McCall Smith

Everybody loves Alexander McCall Smith! I started by reading The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, stayed with that series for a while, and then branched out. I think I’ve read at least one book from each of his five series. Sometimes I’ve listened to his novels in the car. Perfect for long trips!

Is there anything new in The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe? Not really… just the pleasure of familiar characters in new situations.

Parts of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series were made into a BBC series for television. The quality was wonderful! How did someone find so many talented character actors? Too bad only six episodes were produced. However, 27 episodes for radio were broadcast by BBC Radio 4. I hope to track them down.

I feel lucky to have McCall Smith to give me an insider’s view of Africa. I don’t know whether I will ever travel to Africa, but if I do, Botswana will be on my list of destinations.

Having pondered McCall Smith’s extensive oeuvre, I’ve decided to read the Isabel Dalhousie series in its proper order. With that in my Kindle, I will be ready for anything – travel delays, doctors’ offices, you name it. If you feel stressed, read McCall Smith. He will take you “away” and warm your heart.