commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels


The detective-inspector novel is a common, specific genre of the crime novel, usually taking the form of a series of novels with recurring casts of characters. The focal character is a police detective. Organizational charts define the genre. In the detective-inspector novel, our hero (or heroine) works as part of a team. He or she leads subordinates; he or she reports to superiors, sometimes to quite a hierarchy of superiors (who in turn report to other superiors).

The detective-inspector genre forms a subset of the police procedural, though not all procedurals are necessarily detective-inspector novels. In the detective-inspector novel, a police commissioner (inspector, detective lieutenant, or some other similar rank) leads a team of police detectives in the investigation of various crimes. Usually murders, but sometimes one finds organized crime, rings of thieves, drug dealing, white-collar, or other crimes, even verging occasionally into espionage and other international political affairs.

In the early history of the genre, the detective-inspector is almost always a man. Increasingly, in the 21st century, women characters fill all ranks in the casts of these novels: starting as supervisors and subordinates in series centered on men, but more and more playing central roles. The detective-inspector may often share the stage with subordinates who become as important in a given novel as their boss. Sometimes the hero or heroine will withdraw and leave an entire novel to one of these subordinates. But a detective-inspector is always the keystone of the team and anchors the reader's interest, providing a "brand" for the publisher.

The detective-inspector novel places its central character in a position that many of its readers occupy. The detective-inspector is essentially a middle manager, a surrogate for middle managers in many other lines of work where hierarchies are similar to those in fictional police departments. The detective-inspector novel appeals to mid-life workers in offices, organizations, and professions. The inspector, like us, occupies a box on a diagram.

Of course, we don't always want to read about heroes as constrained as we are. There are many other kinds of crime fiction, some that overlap to some extent with detective-inspector stories, and thereby help define the genre by contrast. In some ways it's easier to say what the "inspector" genre isn't than to say what it is. It isn't a private-eye story. It isn't a rogue-cop story. It isn't a legal thriller. It isn't a story of a civilian finding themselves inside a mystery story (and then making a habit of it, as writers, lawyers, doctors, rabbis, medieval nuns, and other amateurs do in so many detective series).

Some procedurals can offer a cop who is too much of a lonely hero to qualify as a "detective-inspector." I think of TV shows like Columbo and Monk. In the former, the hero is a police lieutenant; in the latter, he's an ex-cop who consults on police investigations. Cops populate both shows, but neither one is really about the reality, or even the fictional formulas, of police work.

As Columbo expert extraordinaire Ray DiPerna tells me, Columbo occasionally interacts with superiors – usually when the suspect he's already twigged to attempts to get him taken off the case. But for the most part Columbo works alone, neither directing nor taking direction. He's like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot – or like the earliest such consulting detective, Émile Gaboriau's père Tabaret. Such detectives can work alongside, or sometimes against police, but they are never professionally bound into the system. Despite the LAPD signing his paycheck, Columbo seems an independent agent, like his brilliant master-detective forbears.

The fictional world I explore in these pages is greyer and offers less scope for mercurial feats of deduction. The detective-inspector and his colleagues work in a civil-service system. They are constrained by laws, budgets, politics, and the culture of their workplace. The cases they take on are sometimes not really mysteries. Their perpetrators are either obvious, or have a contingent, even random connection to their victims. A relatively low percentage of detective-inspector-novel murders belong to the classic puzzle type, with its well-defined set of stock-character suspects in a limited setting.

For the detective-inspector and his team, murder is part of the social fabric, a problem to be confronted with bureaucratic means of regulation. (Or occasionally, to be set right in defiance of bureaucratic means of regulation, but never out of their shadow.) Police procedure may or may not be accurately depicted, and these novels may at times make only the most perfunctory of gestures toward realism.

It matters less that the methods of police departments are shown, than that the psychology and sociology of organizations are represented. The detective-inspector novel is beholden not to the way actual detectives work, but to the way that detectives have worked in previous detective-inspector novels. Detective-inspector novels are "realistic," but their depictions of reality are conventional, and never stray too far from literary models.

Detective-inspector novels are often defined by inertia. No matter how many murders they solve, new murders will arise. There are no happy endings because there are no endings, just files moving from one filing cabinet to another. As a result, the detective-inspector is typically depressed. He or she may be divorced, widowed, long single, in a difficult or unfulfilling relationship if partnered at all. They frequently have kids, but are estranged or indifferent. A detective-inspector eats poorly. Alcoholism is not inevitable, but it's quite common; marijuana is a frequent alternative. The detective-inspector doesn't communicate well. He's in stereotypical midlife crisis. His job just worsens his crisis, but since his job is all he has, all that defines him, he can't detach himself from it to deal with his problems.

All these features of the genre are generalizations, and odds are that any single detective-inspector will present an exception to one or another of them. Georges Simenon's Maigret, the most famous of all commissaires, is happily married, and his home life is of exceptional stability. Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano eats exceptionally well. (Though even in those cases, Maigret spends little time at home, and drinks to excess when he's not home. Montalbano eats way too much.)

Bureaucracy is the commissaire's inescapable condition. Andrea Camilleri epitomizes bureaucracy in the never-decreasing stack of papers to be signed that always populates Montalbano's desk. The papers mean nothing; signing them serves no earthly purpose. But it must be done; though there is no reward for doing so, there is a punishment for not doing so. We get to have a realistic institutional setting; but we also get to have our hero and his or her angst-ridden anomie.

In detective-novel series, time expands like an accordion. It can be beaten to infinite thinness; it can be stretched like Silly Putty, except it never snaps. At the extremes of the accordion-time phenomenon, a given team of detectives in a given office can continue to solve cases indefinitely, never growing older, never leaving, never changing. Or more weirdly, continuing to change with new technologies and external developments, but never altering their characters, the internal dynamics of the team, or the course of their lives outside the office.

Edward Giobbi, artist and food writer, tells of an old family saying: "Dopo un buon' pranzo, c'è sempre posto per due o tre chili di pesce": after a good dinner you always have room for five or six pounds of fish. The saying might be adapted to detective-inspector series: between any two mysteries, there's always time to solve another three or four mysteries. Fair warning, perhaps: start your detective off young, or he will remain inexplicably ageless. Though what readers have ever cared that their favorite character is ageless?

The office is one of the axes of the detective-inspector novel; the city is another. The city is necessary in order to furnish a ready supply of new cases. When the detective-inspector investigates a new urban case, he or she must go through two layers of mystery: the reconstruction of the crime, and the surrounding context of people who have till now been strangers to him or her. A surprising number of detective-inspector novels are set in fairly small communities. When such small cities are also real places, authors use a sort of accordion-like spatial process to make them more metropolitan, larger, more anonymous. This spatial process is an analogue to the "accordion time" that allows detective series to keep inspectors perpetually middle-aged, solving more mysteries in their fiftieth year than most police forces encounter in a decade. Such cities are both infinite and fractally expandable. There are no limits to their population or development. In between landmarks and boundaries, one can cram an ever-growing number of streets, alleys, residences, and crime scenes.

Perhaps the most significant features of the detective-inspector novel are its adaptability to circumstance, its ubiquity, its inexhaustibility. Most popular in Europe, the detective-inspector novel can be found on every continent. The murders solved by the world's fictional detective-inspectors in a given year certainly exceed the number of murders in any given locale, and probably exceed the number of truly mysterious murders (those not banally related to gang activities or domestic violence) in the entire world. The detective-inspector novel is a way of looking at the world, and at just about anything in that world. One writes and reads (and watches) detective-inspector fictions not just to enjoy mystery puzzles or get a splash of hard-boiled dialogue. One experiences them in order to understand the world.

Critic Katrín Jakobsdóttir (as of 2018, Prime Minister of Iceland) says that "crime fiction forms a microcosm of a broader social reality through which readers can sharpen their understanding of society" (47). I would agree, and elaborate the claim: crime fiction is of many types, each of which forms a microcosm of part of a society, or a dynamic within society. With its inherently social and organizational setting, detective-inspector fiction sharpens understandings of – and projects wishes onto – representations of work, bureaucracy, the legal system, and the relation of individuals to groups. Such understandings are powerful, significant, and circulate widely within, and increasingly across, national literatures and international readerships.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir. "Meaningless Icelanders: Icelandic Crime Fiction and Nationality." In Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, eds., Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011. 46-61.