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The City and Its Watchmen- Crime Fiction and Sin Cities

Does any genre honour its location more than detective fiction?

A gumshoe may meet many a saucy dames, but his true love remains his city. We look at some famous sleuths and their relationships with their places of birth

More than any other genre, it is the detectives who rely most on their cities to add colour to their stories. Can you really think of 19th century London without remembering Sherlock and his network of Baker Street irregulars traversing the neighbourhood on little errands? And could Feluda and his genteel but long winded ways of deduction have survived anywhere else but in Kolkata? It must be said though, that we refuse to believe that Scandinavia is a hot bed of serial killers and sadistic murderers, whatever Stieg Larsson and his ilk tell us. Here then are five detectives who are as much a product of their city as their creators’ fetid imaginations.

John Rebus of Edinburgh

It seemed to him a very Edinburgh thing. Welcoming, but not very

How can one be from Edinburgh and not have a ‘wee’ bit of drinking problem? Like the city of his vocation,  Ian Rankin’s Rebus is contemptuous of authority, bloody minded, and just a little bit rumpled. He has the Scot’s distrust of institutions or of anything remotely new, a morbid sense of humour and an enormous sense of ease with his place in life. He is also very much a product of the mid-century Scottish economy, when industry declined to slowly make way for a more modern service-driven workforce (jobs that Rebus can’t quite bring himself to trust), and, although his religion is never made explicit, he shares his city’s near-Calvinistic attitude about right and wrong and divine retribution.

Hieronymous Bosch and the City of LA

Los Angeles was the kind of place where everybody was from somewhere else and nobody really droppped anchor. It was a transient place. People drawn by the dream, people running from the nightmare. Twelve million people and all of them ready to make a break for it if necessary. Figuratively, literally, metaphorically — any way you want to look at it — everbody in L.A. keeps a bag packed. Just in case

Of course Michael Connelly’s Bosch loves rare jazz recordings. Of course he is tortured by his history as the son of a prostitute and a prominent public figure – reflective in some way of the bright lights/dark soul dichotomy of his city of birth. Of course he has a heart cynical but not immune to feeling, in a city that’s almost numb with ecstasy and a surfeit of light. Of course his half-brother looks like Mathew Mcconnaughey. Of course the only woman he ever loved had a gambling addiction that forced her to leave him. Because whatever else the City of Angels’ wily charms, it cannot compete with the excesses of Las Vegas!

Sarah Lund in Copenhagen

Could the first season of The Killing have taken place anywhere else but in the relentless rain and shadows of Copenhagen? (The American version tried to substitute the city with Seattle, but just like everything about the series, the location felt a bit ersatz ). Where else would Sarah Lund wear those comfortable looking jumpers day in and day out, or where else would minor transgressions weigh in on politicians’ minds? (Not in a thriller set in Lucknow, I can tell you). Where else could interiors be suffused with minimalistic furnitures and a surgical coldness, and still look tres chic ? And where else would the beautiful Pentecost Woods make such a surreal and stark backdrop for a murder?

Sam Vimes in Ankh Morpork

Ankh Morpork had overtaken cunning a thousand years ago, had sped past devious, had left artful far behind, and had now, by a roundabout route, arrived at straightforward

By now, Ankh Morpork is as – if not more- real to the thousands of Terry Pratchett acolytes than many actual metropolises. And in Samuel Vimes, Ankh Morpork has the hero and a detective it deserves – a bit disreputable, stubbornly dogged, and with just enough cunning in him to survive the murderous streets of the city (just ask any one from the Assassin’s Guild sent to get rid of him).  Like the city of his birth he can occasionally be a specist but is also the first to recognize the fundamental goodness in a person regardless of whether he is a golem or werewolf or dwarf (no vampires though, never ever a vampire).  And no one knows the city as well as him. Legend has it that Vimes can tell which part of Ankh Morpork he is in just by the feel and sound of the cobblestones under his feet. That’s the kind of protector every real city needs.

Sartaj Singh and Mumbai

Mumbai may be the commercial capital of India; but it’s heart is not quite in the money, non? It wants to be the city with the sea, the city with the jazz clubs, the city with literary figures and with the Prithvi theater and  with a constant narrative of redemption and resurrection. Bollywood- that’s just a side show!  Vikram Chandra realizes this so well- both in his masterful book of short stories and in his giant hyperkinetic Sacred Games.  In Sartaj Singh’s struggle to balance the romance of detection with the every day compromises required to augment a meagre policeman’s salary, in his quiet and instant connect with people of all regions and social silos, Chandra writes the perfect Mumbai everyman. And in his ability to stare down the barrel of terror, and emerge (nominally) unscathed, he creates the image of Mumbai that the media loves to taunt us with. Please let him stay on with us in other books, Mr. Chandra. Mumbai has countless more stories to tell!

Photo Credit: Kaptain Kobold via Compfight cc

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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