Tag Archives: police procedural

The Vault by Ruth Rendell

While I am a self-acknowledged fan of Ruth Rendell’s psychological stand-alone novels, I have also read and enjoyed a number of Inspector Wexford mysteries. The Vault, Rendell’s latest, and one of the best I’ve read in the Wexford series, finds Chief Inspector Wexford now retired and with his wife Dora, splitting his time between Kingsmarkham and London. 

 Rendell’s long acquaintance with Wexford’s character proves to be a worthy journey in The Vault, and through the smoothness of the narrative along with the details of Wexford’s inner life, there’s the sense that the author and her long-standing character are old, familiar friends.

A rather nasty police case finds Wexford, not unwillingly, back involved in police work. Wexford runs into Detective Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met.–a chance meeting, but it results in the rather circumspect Ede asking Wexford if he’d be interested in acting as an “expert advisor” in the Orcadia Place case. Wexford, who’s been trying to read Booker prize-winning novels in order to pass his time in a meaningful way, is excited by the prospect, and so he agrees.

The Orcadia Place case is both notorious and a bit of a puzzle. The Rokebys, the owners of Orcadia Cottage (“a sizable detached house” in an expensive neighbourhood) discovered a manhole cover on the grounds on their home. Rokeby had previously had a number of architects and workmen out to his property to assess the viability of building an underground room. Planning permission was refused, so Rokeby’s plans came to nought, but when Rokeby spied the manhole cover (previously covered with a planter), he opened it and looked inside. He saw a small coal room, and inside the room were four bodies. As Ede explains to Wexford:

The manhole cover wasn’t heavy. He lifted it off, and instead of the drain or drainpipe he expected, leading away into the mews, he found himself looking down into a black hole. At the bottom was something he couldn’t properly see apart from a kind of shininess that seemed to be a sheet of plastic. That was covering a multitude of sins, but he didn’t know it then.

Now before he did anything more, he went into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them looked down into the darkness and at the shiny thing and what looked–he said they could just about see it–like a woman’s shoe.

Enter the police. The biggest mystery about the four bodies is that it’s clear, from the decomposition, that the four people were not killed at the same time. Three of the bodies–an older woman, an older man, and a young man, appear to have been dead, according to the pathologist, for somewhere between 11-13 years. The fourth body in “the vault” as Wexford calls the coal room, has been there for only about 2 years. To top off the mystery, there’s about 40,000 in jewelry with the bodies. How can four people go missing and no one notice? Did the same killer kill all 4 victims and use the coal room as a tomb? How can the Rokebys, who were apparently in residence during the last murder, not know anything? And what about all the teams of architects and builders that poked around? 

There’s a lot here for Wexford to mull over, and he’s more or less left to his own devices to investigate. Since he is no longer a policeman, he’s occasionally lent a young PC to accompany him with his hunt for information. During the course of his investigation, Wexford learns how to use the internet for research and he also sends his first e-mail. 

Since this is a series character, there are also considerable developments in Wexford’s private life. Tragedy strikes and then the limits of family tolerance are strained when Wexford’s divorced daughter Sylvia shows a disappointing lack of acknowledged responsibility, remorse and sensitivity for the events that takes place.  Wexford reevaluates his role as a parent:

Dora had been right and he had been wrong, he thought. Keeping aloof from all this, taking no stand, avoiding judgment, that was all wrong. A parent should speak out, no matter what age his child was, no matter what reputation he had achieved as a tolerant and never moralistic arbiter.

Wexford also discovers that he’s not fond of some aspects of Ede’s character, and this makes him miss Burden, his old sidekick from Kingsmarkham. Ede is fond of using clichés and while this makes Wexford wince at first, he discovers the usefulness of clichés as the story spins out. 

Possibly the most enjoyable aspects of this Wexford novel are the characters he runs into through the course of the investigation. Orcadia Cottage is in a rather swanky area, and Wexford must question some of the neighbours–one of whom– is a repulsively snobby woman, Mildred Jones, also known as Old Mildreadful. Mildred employs a string of illegal girls at sub-wages, and then fires them when she returns to S. Africa. At one point, she even tells  Wexford off for thanking her latest domestic slave for making him a cup of tea. According to Mildred, “It doesn’t do to talk to them like you knew her socially. Do it just once and they start taking advantage.” The fact that Mildred pays a pittance and takes advantage of the fact that illegals have little recourse, escapes this crass, mean-spirited, snob:

Just because I live here–in a whole house, I mean, in St. John’s Wood–and because I got to South Africa every year, people think I’m rolling in money. Let me tell you, I got this flat under our divorce settlement, and that was all I got. Colin got our place in the country and I never had a penny out of him. He sold that house and got enough from it to buy a place on Clapham Common. I have to live on my investments, and you know what that means in a recession. It was all I could do to afford the air fare to Cape Town and then I couldn’t afford first class.

In typical Rendell fashion, the journey to the solution of the crime is one of the best aspects of the tale, and this is manifested in the way Wexford enters people’s lives. Through his eyes we see a range of living arrangements, some happy, some chaotic, and many extremely unhappy. Wexford walks away depressed from some encounters and alternately, he’s happy when he finds a genuinely content couple.

The Vault is actually a sequel to the 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter (and may actually have been a good thing) that I didn’t read the earlier book. It apparently ends with bodies in the coal cellar.

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Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Something didn’t add up-a beautiful blonde girl dead on the doorstep of an African professor. A suicide or an accidental overdose on a stranger’s front porch? No, it was too random to be random.”

If I’m going to read an international crime novel, I expect (or rather I hope), that the novel will take me outside of my environment. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I expect an international crime novel to show how crime and/or crime detection is different in that particular country.

With those ideas in mind, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi delivers big-time.

The novel begins with Madison, Wisconsin police detective, Ishmael on a flight to Kenya. That’s a long way to solve a crime that happened in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is a predominantly white state with african-americans running at about 6% of the population. Detective Ishmael is one of the 6%, and he’s called out one night to a potentially politically explosive murder scene at Maple Bluff, the richest suburb in the state. A young white, blonde woman has been found dead from an apparent overdose, and her corpse is sprawled out on the steps of a home occupied by a university employee. But the employee isn’t just any employee–he’s Joshua Hakiziman–an international celebrity for his brave role in saving hundreds of people during the Rwandan genocide. Thanks to his fame, Hakiziman now teaches “genocide and testimony” at the university.

Hakiziman due to his humanitarian halo is, in some ways, untouchable. He claims he spent an evening enjoying cocktails with friends and came home to the body of an unknown woman on his doorstep. Detective Ishmael can’t discover any connection, but he’s troubled by the case and aware of its racial implications. Maple Bluff isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime:

On the face of it, it looked like an overdose or a suicide but not a murder. This was Maple Bluff after all–a cat up the tree, stolen stop signs, an occasional drunk and unruly grandmother visiting from upcountry perhaps, but not murder.

While Joshua appears to have nothing to hide, his calm detachment bothers Detective Ishmael:

But as I was typing little details began to bother me. The walls of the house, for example, had been empty–no paintings, no photographs. It had been like being in one huge hotel room, impersonal yet inhabited. How could he live in that house without leaving a trace of himself? But that wasn’t a crime.

Meanwhile the beautiful dead blonde goes unidentified, and pressure builds to solve the case. Then Ishmael receives an anonymous phone call urging him to come to Nairobi if he wants to discover the truth. He’s given two weeks by his police chief, and then flies to Kenya.

Nairobi is a culture shock for Ishmael. He’s teamed up with Nairobi detective David O, and Ishmael quickly learns that he’s viewed by locals (and insulted) as a white man–his ethnicity which separated him from the white detectives and the community back in Madison means nothing in Kenya. Here, life is cheap, and when it comes to ‘law enforcement,’ it’s a whole other game. Crimes take place in broad daylight with very few consequences, some areas are virtually impenetrable due to private mercenary armies or criminal gangs, and then if you’re backed into a corner and end up shooting a bunch of locals, there’s no inquiry, no investigation, and it’s back to business as usual.

On the way to uncovering the truth, Ishmael finds himself in a complex web of corruption and lies. While he’s shocked by the day-to-day lawlessness of Kenya, oddly he begins to feel that he fits in. He makes fast friends with David O and his wife and even picks up a love interest along the way to solving the Wisconsin murder. Clearly this is the beginning of a series character, and for those who like their crime set in foreign locales, Nairobi Heat is an excellent read. While Kenya’s apparent lawlessness seems to blur the lines of good and evil, in reality, Ishmael discovers that the distinction is sharp and clear.

My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my Kindle.

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Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski

“How unfair it is that we only have one life,” mused Szacki, “and that it so quickly bores us.”

 

I am less-than-thrilled with the recent flood of Scandinavian crime fiction. While I’m pleased to see publishers taking chances on books in translation (I read somewhere that a very small % of published books in N. America are translations), the latest offerings haven’t really interested me. Admittedly I haven’t read many–only a handful, and perhaps I read the ‘wrong ones’ but they’ve been bleak and anemic.

This brings me to another issue in crime fiction. I am getting bored with the overworked police detective who’s drinking himself into oblivion (a subject that recently came up at Whispering Gums). Classic noir fiction seemed to handle this character type perfectly–or perhaps it was just the times when a three Martini lunch wasn’t something that raised eyebrows. These days I can’t help but suspect that if you show up for roll-call with a whiff of booze, you’d be on leave and signing into rehab before you could grab your nightstick.

Anyway, this is a long preamble but it leads me to Entanglement an excellent POLISH crime novel from Bitter Lemon Press. This is one of the best police procedurals I’ve read in some time. My reaction may partly be explained by the fact that Poland seems exotic or at least fresh when it comes to crime locales. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:

“This is flinty, quirky crime writing from Poland with a pungent sense of locale and a nicely jaded protagonist in Szacki, the past-his-sell-date prosecutor energised by the case.” (Crime Time).

That’s so good, I wish I’d written it. Now to the book….

Warsaw State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki isn’t pleased when he’s told to investigate the murder of middle-aged businessman, Henryk Telak. The case just adds to the stack of work he already has, and compared to some of the other nasty cases he’s dealing with Telak’s murder doesn’t stand out in any notable way. But as Szacki starts asking questions, the case, which initially seemed to be the result of a burglary gone wrong, strangely becomes less transparent. The murder took place in a secure former Warsaw monastery now used for religious retreats. Telak was a participant at a weekend of intense Family Constellation Therapy, and the seminar was also attended by the therapist and four of his patients.  Libidinous policeman Oleg Kuzniecow sums it up in one sentence: “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do.”

Szacki begins to be intrigued by the case as it’s a “nice change after all those run-of-the-mill city murders.”  The crime should be fairly easy to address: either one of the other people attending the seminar murdered Telak, or it’s a case of a murder committed during a random break-in. But the murder proves difficult to solve, and while there’s pressure to designate Telak’s death as an unsolved crime, Szacki isn’t ready to give up. There are troubling details about the crime that gnaw away at Szacki, and as he begins devoting time to the case and is gradually sucked in to its solution, it’s very easy for the reader to go along for the ride. 

Szacki initially dismisses Family Constellation Therapy as quackery, and possibly explosive quackery at that, but as the plot develops, Szacki finds himself thinking in psycho-babble metaphors, and in another cold case, a tip from a clairvoyant may lead to a murderer. Szacki begins softening to the notion of therapy as a useful tool while he questions his own domestic situation and just what Family Constellation Therapy would reveal about his intimate relationships. 

Part of the novel’s success can be attributed to Szacki. He isn’t the train-wreck-shell-of-a-man detective from, let’s say Raymond’s Factory series, but there’s definitely a self-destructive streak there under his flawed, all-too human surface. Szacki is a realistic character plagued with the trivia of everyday existence. For example, he limits himself to three cigarettes a day and then bargains about how soon to smoke them. He also worries about whether or not he can afford lunch in a cafe. For the first few pages, I assumed that Szacki was in his 50s (there are references to his white hair), but later it’s revealed that he’s in his 30s. He’s at the point in his career and in his marriage where he can see the future mapped out, and it’s hardly reassuring.  He’s a man who could slowly slide into a life of bad habits, and this is underscored by the idea that Szacki is beginning to think that there’s something missing in his life which may very well be fixed with an adulterous romp with a young, attractive reporter. As the story develops, Entanglement could easily refer to the Telak murder, Szacki’s increasingly complicated personal life, or even the depths of Poland’s murky political past.

As Szacki hunts for the truth, he interviews, meets and questions a range of crisply drawn characters, and it’s these intense quirky characterisations–usually a few sentences with a concluding zinger–that really make the book so entertaining. Here’s Szacki about to question one of the women who attended the therapy session with the murder victim:

Hanna Kwiatkowska had a pretty, intelligent face and her slighty hooked nose gave her a surly appeal and a certain aristocratic charm. In twenty years she’d look like a pre-war countess. Her smooth, mousy hair came down to her shoulders, and its ends curled outwards. And although no fashion house would have offered her a job advertising underwear on the catwalk, plenty of men would have been happy to take a good look at her well-proportioned, attractive body. It was quite another matter how many of them would be scared off by the restless look in her eyes. Szacki for sure.

There’s also a couple of state pathologists (Szacki calls them “necrophiliacs“)  who spice up their work hours with their morbid sense of humour, policeman Oleg Kuzniecow who won’t stop talking about sex, and Szacki’s boss, District Prosecutor for Warsaw City Centre, Janina Chorko–a tired, bitter, dried-up woman who makes him feel very uncomfortable: 

She was several years older than Szacki: her grey suit blended with her grey hair and nicotine-grey face. Always a bit sulky, with a wrinkled brow, she gave the lie to the theory that there aren’t any ugly women. Janina Chorko was ugly, was perfectly aware of the fact and did not try to cover up her defects with clothes or make-up. Quite the opposite-she consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor.

While Szacki admires Janina Chorko’s intelligence and integrity, he lives in mortal fear of any hint that her obvious loneliness may one day spill over to a sexual proposition, and so any conference between Szacki and his boss is fraught with tension:

Szacki nodded in silence. She was right, but he was afraid that if he started agreeing with her to eagerly, she’d think she’d found a fraternal soul in him and would suggest he drop in at her place for a glass of wine and a nice little chat about the sad lot of the prosecutor in the Polish Republic. He waited a while out of courtesy, thanked the boss, muttered something about a huge pile of paperwork and went out, leaving Janina Chorko surrounded by unhappy thoughts, the stink of cigarettes and the smell of her imitation leather chair.

Glimpses of Szacki’s home life surface throughout the novel. Szacki’s marriage to Weronika isn’t bad, but their sex life has stagnated, and their daily life has dissolved down to a series of petty details.  He’s genuinely confused when Oleg Kuzniecow makes a crack about Weronika’s attractiveness and wonders if Oleg sees something he doesn’t, if he’s being sarcastic, or if Oleg salivates over every female.  Szacki finds it surprisingly easy to lie to his wife but then his job has taught him a great deal about deception.

Szacki also deals with the inflated ego of an idiosyncratic therapist and an amateur historian who specializes in the covert actions of the SB (Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa), Poland’s secret police whose brutal speciality was political suppression. The novel’s depth and creeping air of menace is accentuated by an unidentified character (subject to his own domestic tyranny) who tracks Szacki’s investigation in case he gets too close. Entanglement blends just the right amount of crime, sly humour and despair, and it’s a novel I recommend to anyone who reads crime fiction.

Notes at the front of the book mention that the author is working on a screenplay for Entanglement and is also writing a sequel.

Entanglement is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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