RARA-AVIS: Re:Social Studies

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 01 Feb 2008


Re your comments below:

"Well, that [my comments about 'police procedurals,' by their nature, being the most likely to find a social portrait of aparticular place at a particular time] might depend on how generously or strictly you define police procedural. If it's to include everything from Charlie Chan, Dell Shannon and Helen McCloy to anything where a cop (or cops) is the central character (Ellroy?), it may be a very hard slog indeed."

The term "police procedural," quite obviously and clearly, excludes any story, even if a cop is the central character, in which police procedure is not presented with accuracy, or at least with the appearance of accuracy. The whole point of the sub-genre is technical accuracy, not only about police work, but about anything else that impinges on the story, from the religious beliefs of a given Indian tribe, to the political structure of a given city.

Hence, Charlie Chan, Inspector Alleyn, etc., (and probably Helen McCloy, though I've never read her and can't really say) are clearly NOT police procedurals, because there's no effort at technical accuracy, nor even any effort (as with Elizabeth Linnington and her various 'nyms) to APPEAR as though there's been an effort at technical accuracy.

That's obvious on its face, and let's not have any of malarkey about how "the term has advanced and changed since Anthony Boucher first coined it in 1956."

That said, the term, while narrow in that respect, is nevertheless broad enough to include the concrete canyons of New York (McBain, Uhnak, and a host of others), the wide open Southwestern spaces of the Navajo Reservation (Hillerman, the Thurlos), the drab grayness of Stockholm (the Wahloos), the despair of Soviet-era Moscow (Neznansky), the racial divide of Apartheid-era South Africa (McClure), the working class ethos of West Yorkshire (Wainwright), etc. And precisely because accuracy is the whole point, you're more likely to see the kind of social observation that marks the work of a writer like K.C. Constantine.

Now, whether you think Block's depiction of NYC is more sharply observed than McBain's, whether Connelly's or Crais's LA is less fevered than Ellroy's, or whether Hillerman or the Thurlos give a more authentic depiction of life on the Big Rez, is ultimately a matter of taste and opinion. You say
"potato." Another might say "po-tah-to."

But, just as there's no arguing that a potato, however you pronounce it, is a rooty vegetable dug out of the ground, there's really no arguing that the police procedural is, by its nature, the most naturalistic of mystery genres, and, in consequence, the sub-genre where the kind of social observation alluded to in the comment about Constantine is most likely to be found.

Whether such observation is well-done or not is a matter of opinion and must, of course, be judged on a case-by-case basis.


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