Monday, 24 September 2012

At Last The Truth! What Do You Mean I Don't Get a Bulk Discount?

I never intended this series of posts to be so long but the more I thought about the influences on Rivers of London the more I found. So relax, this is possibly the second from last in the Now At Last! series... unless I think of new stuff or just decide to ramble on indefinitely.

Making the World Work
The 87th Precinct Stories
Ed McBain's novels of the detectives of an imaginary precinct of an imaginary city serves as the elephant in the room for Peter Grant, Nightingale and all the other London flat-foots that populated my books. Not only to the blind men who take away different impressions of the beast but also because you just can't get that fridge door to close properly when he's in there.

In an essay at the start of my old edition of Cop Hater Ed McBain explains why he chose police detectives over lawyers, private eyes or little old lady amateur sleuths: Disbelief must be overcome, first by the author himself, then by the reader. This isn't the case with a police detective. He is supposed to investigate murders. 

It's also clear, from the same essay that the fictional city is as a lovingly wrought secondary world creation as any that has graced the pages of a three volume epic fantasy. The police procedure used by McBain's cops is closely modelled on actual American procedures (of the time) explaining why the city maintains a sense of reality despite being entirely imaginary.

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold was careful to create a completely consistent theology to underpin this brilliant fantasy novel. The book itself can be read, if your feeling suddenly come over all English teacher, as an examination of what it would be like to be a saint in a universe where the gods were real and yet strangely powerless in the face of free will. 

What's impressive is the amount of effort Bujold has taken to think through the consequences of her world building and the subtle way she shows the separation between the practicalities of everyday religion, the rarefied theories of the professional theologians and the hard grind, uncertainty and stark existential terror of trying to do your god's bidding.

Heroes who work for a living
The Sweeney
Or the series that launched a thousand 'guvs'. When a police officer calls his senior officer 'guv' it is as likely to be because he grew up watching The Sweeney as to any long tradition in the Metropolitan Police.

The Sweeney, created by Ian Kennedy Martin, not only invented the 'guv' it was the first British policier which gloried in the working class culture of the police. Dixon had always been annoying differential and the boys in the Z-Cars knew their place but give Reagan and Carter some lip and it didn't matter who you thought you were - you was in trouble. There's more than a hint of Regan and Carter in Peter Grant, some of hidden under a respectable 21st Century vaneer and some of it proudly displayed. Because you're going to make something of that? Are you? Are you? Didn't think so?

The Ipcress File
The thing I've always liked about Len Deighton's heroes is their air of understated competence. Even when they do something extraordinary, such as snatch a threatening gun out of the hands of an opponent it's described in the same tones that a professional blacksmith would apply to bending metal. I'm probably misquoting but I remember a sequence that goes:- he was standing too close to me, within the range where it becomes possible to take weapon out of someone's hands before they can fire. The clue is the name given to the skill-set required by a professional spy - trade-craft.

It's by making the extraordinary skills of a spy ordinary that Deighton highlights what we often overlook - how extraordinarily skilled many of the people around us our. Not just the obvious candidates, the doctors, nurses, electricians but the less obvious geniuses like crane drivers and health inspectors. I wanted Peter to be like a Deighton spy, competent (most of the time) in an understated way.

Honourable Mentions
There are still a couple of influences that have as yet gone unlisted. Because there has to be a finite limit even to my capacity to waffle I thought I'd give them a quick mention before moving on to the final part of At Last The Truth! They Wrote What?

London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
The role of this book must be fairly self explanatory.

Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased
Created by Dennis Spooner this was one of a number of supernatural/SF shows of the late 1960s early 1970s, Jason King and UFO being two others, that I grew up watching live or in later repeats.

Widows and Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante
Lynda La Plante redefined the British crime thriller in the 1980s by taking it away from the boys (mostly the Kennedy Martin brothers) and letting the women step up to their rightful place in the genre. 

In Widows those belligerent but cowed working class women, previously only seen timidly opening the front door to the policeman de jour, finally get out of the kitchen to seize the plot, the moment and the loot. 

Prime Suspect gave UK TV its first credible female murder detective as the fallible yet determined DCI Tennison got the job sorted in the teeth of institutional sexism.


LauraJ said...

I trained as a professional theologian (we all make mistakes) and I love The Curse of Chalion as well. (And the attitudes toward women must be a bit different when one of the gods is a bastard, don't you think).

BTW - an early bit of hype for Whispers suggested your American wd be a hot-blooded evangelical with a thing against magic -- I've never been so glad to have my expectations foiled.

Mark said...

Big fan of McBain and Deighton. And you too ;)