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Trends in Police Procedurals

by Barry Trott

*This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of RA News.*

Crime fiction fans have been enjoying police procedurals since the subgenre really took off after World War II. These stories appeal to readers for a variety of reasons. For some, it is the in-depth look into the methods of policing that fascinates, for others the interactions of the police team are the focus, and for still others it is the lives of the police officers outside the workplace that resonates. Whatever the appeal, police procedurals flourished through the 1990s, but for a while it seemed that they had been eclipsed by a deluge of private investigators and amateur sleuths. With a Renaissance in procedural mysteries, there are a host of new series that you should be aware of when working with readers.

The authors listed below represent a mix of the best police procedurals, old and new. There's value to keeping older crime titles available in the collection; that way, readers' advisors can suggest midlist and backlist titles when a favorite author's books are all checked out.  Also, as we build ebook collections, we  have the opportunity to reintroduce readers to older titles without the worry of shelf space. 

Female Protagonists

One trend in contemporary police procedurals is stories featuring female protagonists. For a long time the police procedural was the realm of the male officers, but recent series reflect the issues and concerns faced by women especially as they move into positions of authority on the force. Sally Spencer's series featuring Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Monika Paniatowski is an excellent place to start, with a strong, English sense of place, a complicated main character, and compelling plots. Readers who enjoy this series might consider Spencer's earlier Charlie Woodend series that features DCI Paniatowski as a secondary character and follows the progress of her career. Crime novelist Helene Tursten should definitely be better known on this side of the Atlantic. Her Detective Inspector Huss series, set in Göteborg, Sweden, deftly blends Huss's police and family lives into a rich story. The DCI Louisa Smith series by Elizabeth Haynes, set in a small English town, offers readers dark, suspenseful plots -- often dealing with social issues -- and detailed settings and is a great addition to the police procedural genre.  

Regional Settings

The popularity of police stories set in Scandinavia continues to flourish, and there are several writers whose work expands on that of popular writers such as Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø. Arnaldur Indriðason's moody and dark series set in Reykjavîk and featuring Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is a great starting point. Mons Kallentoft's Malin Fors series is bleak and violent, but has a strong sense of place and atmospheric writing that should appeal to Scandinavian crime fiction fans. Kallentoft's protagonist is a female police inspector who struggles with family and drinking issues. Also check out Kjell Eriksson, whose Inspector Ann Lindell series captures the challenges of police work in a demographically changing Sweden. If these titles are out, don't forget the foundational series in Nordic police procedurals, the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. These Stockholm-based stories set the stage for later crime novels with their focus on the lives of the police officers beyond the precinct house.

Beyond the frozen lands of Scandinavia, there are many excellent police procedurals set across the globe. As in other police-centered crime novels, the interest here is both in the daily lives of the officers and their families and in the details of policing in other countries. Here are some writers to be aware of. Philippe Georget's Gilles Sebag novels feature a French Mediterranean setting, lyrical writing, and a compelling police protagonist. Michael Genelin's quartet of mysteries set in post-Soviet Slovakia and starring Commander Jana Matinova capture both the elation and disappointment that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the Inspector Chen Cao novels by Qui Xiaolong offer fascinating insight into contemporary China, with a strong sense of place, particularly Shanghai, and clear understanding of the tensions involved as China moves to a more open society.

An older series whose author is still writing great stories that deserve recognition is Barbara Nadel's Inspector Ikmen novels. The Turkish setting is unusual, the characters appealing, and the Istanbul murder squad is a fascinating addition to the list of fictional police forces. Another series with a Mediterranean setting is Jeffrey Siger's Greek mysteries set in various Greek locales and featuring a clever mix of politics, fast-paced action, with occasional elements of humor. The series stars Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis of the Greek Police's Special Crimes Division. The Irish Troubles of the 1980s form the backdrop for Adrian McKinty's powerful series whose main character is a Catholic inspector in the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. The politics of policing are at the center of these gritty stories. For a somewhat lighter tone, where humor leavens the often grim atmosphere of police work, Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbano mysteries set in a fictional Sicilian village offer interesting plots, lots of food, and a richly developed lead character.

Character Duos

Pairing two (seemingly) diametrical opposite officers who need to work closely together to solve the crime is another trend that continues in the police procedural subgenre. Brenda Chapman's series teams up a First Nations police recruit (Officer Kala) with a seasoned detective (Jacques Rouleau) with the added appeal of a Canadian setting (sure to find favor with Louise Penny fans). Another great team series set in present-day Germany is Nele Neuhaus's Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff novels. Neuhaus works three stories simultaneously -- the mystery, where Kirchhoff and her boss Bodenstein work closely together, and their two completely separate personal lives. Readers may also enjoy an older team-centered series Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries set in England and flipping the usual dynamic by featuring a gruff, boorish commanding officer and his more cultured lieutenant who nonetheless make a superb team. An American trilogy that takes the same approach is Michael Malone's Cuddy Mangum and Justin Savile mysteries set in the North Carolina Piedmont.

A Dash of History

Historical mystery fans also benefit from this trend, with a bounty of police procedurals to enjoy. Anne Perry fans may want to try Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands mysteries set in both India and London just after the First World War. Also set in the 1920s, Charles Todd's novels feature Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge who is more of a lone wolf than you find in most police procedurals, but these stories are rich in description, character, and setting. Edward Marston is an old hand at historical mysteries. His Railway Detective series set in late 19th century England offers a detailed look at police work in the Victorian era as well as lots of railway details for trainspotters. Readers intrigued by exotic locales should try Michael Pearce's Seymour of Special Branch series set across the Mediterranean and North Africa just prior to WWI. For an early look at policing, the late Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding novels offer an 18th century London setting and excellent plots focusing on the Bow Street Court and its proto-police force, the Bow Street Runners.

With a bounty of titles to choose from, both old and new, libraries have lots to offer fans of police procedurals. To locate additional series to suggest to readers, search NoveList for the phrase “police procedurals” to find over 150 series listed.

PRO TIP

"Police Procedurals is a NoveList genre heading! To find your favorites, just type into the search box:

GN police procedurals

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Barry Trott is Special Projects Director at Williamsburg Regional Library, editor of RUSQ, RUSA's peer-reviewed journal, and Past President of RUSA.