Death Demands an Audience, by Helen Reilly (1940)

Death Demands an Audience, by Helen Reilly (1940)


Author: Helen Reilly is a Golden Age mystery writer who produced nearly 40 novels between 1930 and 1962. She is, strangely enough, a member of a very small sub-group of good writers; she has no Wikipedia page. Someone should rectify that, even if only as a stub. Ms. Reilly was apparently born in 1891 and died in 1962, came of a literary family, and her brother (James Kieran) and two of her daughters (Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen) are also mystery writers. I have a handful of books by both her daughters and neither of them has a Wikipedia page either. Is this a plot? Or did Wikipedia have to sacrifice pages to make room for more exhaustive descriptions of Pokemon characters? 😉

Publication Data: First edition 1940, Doubleday Doran of New York under its Crime Club imprint. First paper Popular Library #7, 1943, with a cover by H. Lawrence Hoffman.

According to Stop, You’re Killing Me! (an excellent and useful resource that gives chronological lists of mystery writers’ books for people with my kind of OCD who are too lazy to walk across the room and plough through Hubin) this is Reilly’s tenth Inspector McKee novel. The “cheap edition” in hardcover was Sun Dial, 1940. A couple of paperback editions exist and they are significantly ugly LOL, which somehow makes them more collectible. Someone on the Internet is today offering a Bantam edition which I’m fairly sure doesn’t exist, and Mike Grost of MysteryFile agrees with me (and he knows more than I do about nearly everything); other than the Popular Library first paper, I’m only aware of Macfadden (1967) and Manor (1974) editions. I used the Macfadden edition (#60-473) to prepare this post and so, as is my habit, I used it at the head of this article. The reader should be aware that there are no ghosts or graveyards in the book and I have no idea what the cover is intended to represent.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

2196716366The action begins at a department store in New York at 47th and Fifth (today, I believe, known as the Diamond District, although I remember the area as the home of the much-missed Gotham Book Mart). Early in a January evening, a small crowd is waiting outside a display window for Garth and Campbell to raise their latest display window into position. When it rises from the depths of the basement, the window contains a mannequin of a beautiful girl and also contains a man’s corpse. A passing police officer, Todhunter, attached to Inspector McKee’s homicide squad, notices that a young woman in the audience bears a striking resemblance to the mannequin. She sees someone, has a strong emotional reaction, and decides to leave in a hurry; Todhunter follows her for the next hour, apparently convinced that she has something to do with the murder.

The corpse is a window designer named Franklin Borrow, and the vanishing young mannequin-lookalike is Judith Barrow, who will later attest that her father told her that if anything happened to him, she should hightail it to his home and get the contents of a mysterious green dispatch box. Todhunter follows her home and both are bopped unconscious by someone who apparently wanted the contents of the box, which is now missing, and got there first.

Meanwhile, Inspector McKee is investigating the staff and working environment of Garth and Campbell. He soon learns that the victim had an appointment with Luke Cambridge later that day; Luke had sent his brother Gregory to drive to the store to pick him up, since the Cambridge estate is hard to find. Not only Gregory, but his wife Irene, and their daughter Ellen (soon to be married to young Toby Newell) were all in the neighbourhood of Garth and Campbell near the time of the murder. Luke claims to have never met the victim, or to know what was on his mind. Subsequently, however, Luke invites Judith Barrow over for a chat; before he can reveal what, if anything, is on his mind, he’s murdered.

There is much further investigation and another murder attempt (someone tries to set fire to the hotel where both McKee and Judith Borrow are staying). McKee and his staff learn that there is a long-ago connection between Luke Cambridge and Franklin Borrow, who were both at a Colorado hotel in 1912. A creepy subordinate of Borrow employed at Garth and Campbell is murdered. Eventually, McKee realizes the nature of the connection between Cambridge and Borrow, and a crucial relationship (which is both completely secret and highly shocking) that underlies all the subsequent criminal events is finally revealed, which solves all the murders.

UnknownWhy is this book worth your time?

Recently in this blog I published an essay about the origins of the police procedural, found here, which collected further comment from some very well-read individuals who had read both this post and an earlier one on the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, found here, where this inquiry into the police procedural began. I foolishly asseverated that the origin of the police procedural was considered to be Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, from 1952; many of my commenters disagreed and pointed me at, among other things, the Inspector McKee novels of Helen Reilly. So when I happened across a copy of this volume in my library, I thought it would be worth my time to re-read it and comment with the police procedural form in mind.

What I found was something like a police procedural, to be sure. If I hadn’t been sensitive to the boundaries of the procedural, I wouldn’t necessarily have automatically assigned this novel to that category; to me, this is more like a very early form of a “woman in jeopardy” aka “femjep” novel, and is a style of mystery I think of as a “brownstone mystery”. To me, a “brownstone mystery” is set among the urban wealthy classes, is addressed primarily to a female reader, and is meant to display the everyday household arrangements of the wealthy class (furnishings, clothing, lifestyle) against a plot background which demonstrates to the reader that wealthy people are not more moral than other classes, and usually considerably less so. Helen Reilly, Frances Crane, and a number of other women writers of this period specialized in this form and made a fairly good thing out of it. (I think of them as “brownstones” because that, to me, is where wealthy people live in Manhattan — and a great number of brownstone mysteries are set in Manhattan.)

As best I can tell, people who assign the McKee novels to the police procedural category are impressed by Reilly’s story structure, where the investigation of the murders at the heart of the plot is carried out not by McKee alone, but by a group of police officers under his command, one of whom is the long-suffering Todhunter. I agree that this brings them exceptionally close to the procedural form (the term “police procedural” would not be invented for a number of years).  To me they don’t “feel” like procedurals; let’s say I’m dubious. The other police officers don’t seem to me to have individual personalities (neither, really, does McKee) — this is not the 87th Precinct, to be sure. I have had it suggested that this series places a reliance upon showing the interaction between police officers and scientific investigators. Well, that may well be true in other volumes; I didn’t notice it particularly in this one. I’m willing to be polite and say they remind me of police procedurals … what they really make me think of is “detective stories” based around the work of a single detective, McKee, directing the work of his subordinates but solving the crime with the effort of his own mind. Kind of like Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French. And, as I said, with a healthy helping of the point of view and stylistic touches of what I call the brownstone mystery.

Men reading this novel (at least upon its first publication, I suggest) would miss or skim over quite a bit of material that is there to interest women readers. Like the works of Frances Crane, to my mind another brownstone practitioner, there’s an awful lot of information about clothes here. It starts with the mannequin in the window cradling the corpse. “Trailing draperies of sea-green chiffon, yards and yards of it, set off the slender long-limbed figure … One white hand, on which a magnificent star sapphire flashed, emerged from ruffles of duchesse point …” (Although why she’s wearing a blue ring with sea-green chiffon is beyond me.) And then a paragraph later, a line that made me chuckle. “Someone else said, ‘My dear — what a negligee! Look at those lines.'” Are you impelled to look up the definition of duchesse point? Try Wikipedia, here; it’s a kind of Brussels lace. I was forced back to reference materials during the extended description of Ellen Cambridge’s wedding dress, to define moyen-âge. Apparently the wedding dress has a kind of “Middle Ages” look about it. Similar attention to clothing abounds. When we learn from a department store salesperson that one of the suspects was shopping for blouses close to the time of the first murder, we also learn that she wants them for a southern climate (what we today call “resort season”, I believe) and we get a brief description of what she liked, and even what it would have meant to the salesgirl to sell them to her.

“Miss Eberhardt said, indicating Ellen: ‘That dame walks up and she’s all smiles. She says, “I want some blouses suitable for Southern wear.” I show her the classics and she picks three of those, white, tan and pimpernel, and then I show her a new French number and a military jacket in silver cloth and she likes them both, and I’m getting down a size sixteen from the shelf — just for a moment I turn my back — and what happens? She’s off. “Thanks very much,” she says, picking up her purse and gloves. “Another time.” And with that she walks away. Absolutely. Leaving me with the stuff I thought she was going to take spread out on the counter.'”

“Pimpernel”, incidentally, seems to be a shade of scarlet. And since Ellen is described by a vendeuse as a little bit wide through the hips, I’m going to suggest that a size sixteen might be appropriate, but it seems very large to my 2014 sensibility in a day when at least one of my female friends wears a size zero. Apparently young brides weren’t slimming down in 1940 to get into their moyen-âge wedding gowns. The point is, though, that the reader is meant to know that Ellen wears a size 16, that she intends to go south on her imminent honeymoon, and that she can afford to buy five garments without worrying about the cost, which I think would not have been the case for most of Reilly’s female readers. (Ellen was her wealthy uncle’s favourite and expected to inherit his wealth.) The fact that Ellen wears gloves on a shopping trip is not unusual for 1940, but it certainly would be for 2014. Overall, there is a lot of information about what women are wearing; note that Reilly is sure that her audience knows what the classics are for resort wear without explaining them.

I really do think that this book was written for a female audience for more reasons than the clothes, though. Quite a bit of that suspicion is based on a central romantic relationship of the novel. I’ve chosen not to be precise about it here, but I found it rather shocking for 1940. And I went back and looked at the initial description of one of the participants in that romantic relationship as that person is introduced. I truly believe that a woman would get something different from the description than a man, as it occurred to me upon re-reading; quite a bit from the description of clothing that is indicative of personality. It’s hard to say anything further without spoiling the surprise, but if and when you read this novel, go back and look at the characters’ introductory moments and try to imagine what you are being told about their personalities from their clothing — and by whom you are being misled. The revelation of this romantic relationship, by the way, was a complete surprise to me, and that’s not a good thing. There was no sense that any kind of romantic relationship existed that would underlie or motivate some of the events in the book; there doesn’t seem to be any natural affinity between the two characters that is displayed in any way, and really I think it’s just been made-up in order to make some of the actions of the book more believable.

There’s another curious point to this novel where I’m not on as firm ground; the geography. Certainly in the opening chapters of the book you can follow the progress of some of the characters on very specific subway lines, and I attest that they do go where they are said to go. Less solid is the geography of the homes of the extended Cambridge family; as near as I can tell, it’s meant to be a kind of pocket that hasn’t yet been developed, but that today must be completely swallowed by urbanity. We see the house clearly, and the neighbourhood is sketched in. But Reilly goes into a great deal of detail about who goes where and precisely how they get there … to me, this is a more “masculine” style. I’m not solid on this idea, but I thought I’d put it out there to see if anyone else had noticed that Reilly goes into this kind of detail in other books.

There is a great deal of detail throughout the novel, and some of it certainly contributes to the idea that this series of novels is an early example of what would later become the police procedural. McKee is constantly getting reports from his subordinates about the activities of suspects; where they go, what they do, and there is even informative detail about why they’re probably doing it. For instance, one character is trailed to three banks where he fails to get a loan for $2,500, and the officer observes disdainfully that he next goes to a loan shark known for extortionate interest rates; apparently the officer knows this from previous cases. (I’m sure the police wish it was still 1940; privacy legislation today would have kept the loan applications entirely in the dark until much later in the case, I’m sure.) But there are some crucial elements of this novel that are not detailed in any respect at all, it seems. We are told second-hand about the events of 1912 at that Colorado hotel, and we are given nothing at all to make the unexpected romantic relationship to which I’ve referred above even remotely believable. (Unless you count a moment when the characters greet each other and one of them smiles in a friendly way.)

One big issue in this novel is the identity of the murderer, and I’m not going to try to defend Reilly’s choices here. There is very little sense to the activities of the murderer in this book, especially when you consider that person’s lack of knowledge about some crucial facts. This is merely an example of the author pulling a motivation out of her ass to tie off the book at the end. Yes, the identity of the murderer is pretty much a complete surprise. But no, it’s not foreshadowed, it’s not well-clued, and it makes very little psychological sense. There are at least two other people who actually could have a better motive to commit the criminal acts; either of them would have been more believable as a murderer. But the choice of this particular murderer makes a strongly ironic point at the end of the novel, and perhaps that’s Reilly’s only reason for arranging things this way. If the murderer had only sat tight, they would have benefited much more than they actually did by committing murder; and the final pages of the book are a mass of had-I-but-knowns. (“He [McKee] said, ‘Queer, isn’t it, to think that a little thing like this, if what it really says had been known, would have prevented three murders?'” That’s a HIBK if I ever heard one.)

I’m sorry to say that there’s a big logical hole in the plot, at least from my point of view. The book is full of police officers who can come up with information about who was where at what time (for instance, Miss Eberhardt at the blouse counter testifies about Ellen’s whereabouts and activities; another character is trailed on a path through three banks and his loan applications are immediately revealed). But at the very beginning of the novel, when we are shocked by the corpse in the display window, we are also told that Judith Barrow recognizes the body of her father and immediately takes off for his house in a taxi in order to get hold of the green dispatch box — followed by Todhunter. They take public transportation to the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park Station) whereupon they transfer to taxicabs. And there’s a line that piqued my attention: “Intent on the chase, Todhunter didn’t notice the third cab creeping along in the rear.” (A classic HIBK phrase, by the way.) This would be the murderer, who is about to hit both Judith and Todhunter over the head when they arrive at the victim’s house and remove the box of documents. How did the murderer’s taxi get there first? Why doesn’t Todhunter notice the murderer’s footprints in the snow? And even after these events, why do the police completely ignore the possibility that the murderer took a taxi and try to trace people’s movements? Nobody seemingly goes out questioning dog-walkers and neighbours for someone who’s seen a person carrying a green dispatch case, although that seems to be something that would be remembered. And I can’t think of why the murderer didn’t merely remove the contents of the box without taking the box away; we learn later that it’s been opened with the key, so the murderer takes the chance that someone will notice the box as it’s being carried away and it’s entirely unnecessary. Of course, if the police had paid attention to this part of the case, the book would possibly have ended about page 75, so I can see that that’s a blind spot that’s necessary to the story. (And honestly, there is no real reason for Todhunter to take off after Judith Barrow when there is a fresh corpse sitting in front of his eyes that could use his professional attention.) Really what it makes me think is that Reilly came up with the story hook of the body in the display window rising out of the floor and then had to deform the logical activities of the murderer, police, and other characters in order to make it work. And that’s a little unfair.

All things considered, though, I did enjoy this novel; perhaps not for the reason that it’s a difficult puzzle-mystery. In fact it’s not really possible to solve this mystery upon first reading unless you make a huge logical leap and infer a romantic relationship between two characters who have not given you any reason to think they are involved. And as I’ve said, the murderer is pretty much the Least Likely Suspect; I don’t mind that, I just don’t think it’s a very interesting way to end the book without giving much in the way of a hint that the murderer is the kind of person who might do these things. But I liked the writing. I liked the accretion of detail so that it became difficult to separate actual clues from mere background. I liked the characterization where there was any, particularly of the icy Judith Borrow. And I particularly liked the details of everyday life in the New York of 1940, with all the masses of information about what women were wearing. I don’t really mind that the book is a hybrid of a proto-procedural and a “brownstone”; I like both those genres. I liked the inexorability of the plot; one really does feel that McKee and his large staff of minions will succeed no matter what. And I would certainly like to go back and read the remainder of the series, so Reilly has enough skill to hook me. And if you’re relatively uncritical (and especially if you’re interested in women’s clothes) you will enjoy this novel too, I think.

Popular Library 7

Notes for the Collector:

As of today, a Pennsylvania bookseller wants $525 (plus $45 shipping!) for a VG first edition in a repaired dust jacket, and a Californian dealer wants $250 for a VG+ first in VG+ jacket. But a Texan bookseller wants a mere $30 for a VG first in a Good+ jacket. Even making allowances for the difference in states, at least one of these prices has to be somehow wonky. I think the Californian is closest to reality at $250. But my candidate for most interesting copy of this book is Popular Library #7, from 1943, pictured here (the skull behind a little house behind a long row of fenceposts). I see a copy available for $17 plus shipping and that seems about right for this very early number from a significant paperback publisher. I wish I could have seen the cover in 1943 when the ink was fresh and bright; all PL titles of this vintage have washed out to some extent and the few copies I’ve seen of this particular title have not held up well. My own volume is a beaten-up reading copy that looks like it went through a lot of hands, and it might be worth $5 as a placeholder in a Popular Library collection.

The first edition seems to be the only jacket that actually shows a scene from the book (although the corpse is placed incorrectly). PL #7 shows a farmhouse that implies a rustic aspect to this book which is entirely lacking, and the ugly MacFadden Bartell paperback from 1969 that I used to write this appears to show a phosphorescent ghost in a graveyard — and makes a significant error about the contents of the novel on the back cover. “The third [victim] breathed his last in a crowd of people coming out of a theatre.” Well, um, no, that doesn’t happen in this book. I’m pretty sure it’s a different Helen Reilly novel, but the title is maddeningly escaping me.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1940 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “N”, “Read one book set in the U.S.,” which in this book is New York City and its environs. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.


Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.


I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.