The joy of reading formulaic detection

Published: 09th July 2016 04:53 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th July 2016 04:53 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: Anyone who remembers solving mathematics problems in school will be familiar with the pleasurable experience of seeing a formula work. Applying a consistent method to solve a series of problems gives a warm comfort, something akin to a feeling of leisure.

So, as much as we revere the new and original and daunting, we have a unique pleasure reserved for the formulaic, something sticking to a tacit code and delivering familiar joys. Detective stories and police procedurals are one of the formulaic genres in literature, where a basic structure is used to set up the scene, create suspense and deliver the solution. This is not to suggest that there is not, or cannot be, any innovation in such stories. The characters, the pacing, the sequence of events, the escalation in tension, et cetera, are all elements where the writer of one police procedural may use her ingenuity to differentiate herself from the others; yet it remains clear that these elements operate inside a more or less definite framework.

Tanuj.jpgThe joy of the formulaic increases with repetition, and that explains why writers of detective novels often write a series of them using the same detective as the central crime-solver. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series is an example, so is Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi. For me, though, the joys I talk of were not encountered through these two famous names. I came to it through developing an interest in Nordic crime fiction.

The appellation Nordic is used for the Scandinavia, Finland, and Iceland. The winter weather in these northern European countries provides a gloomy atmosphere for the conjured crimes — I hope that suffices as an explanation for the quantity and quality of crime fiction that comes from these countries, for there is not much else to account for what is certainly a literary movement that has went on for decades now. One of the major writers is the Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason, who has written more than ten books with the detective Erlendur Sveinsson at the helm of investigations. It is through Erlendur Sveinsson that I reaped the joys of familiarity and repetition.

A stable formula is at work in each book here: the first chapter provides the crime scene, always a murder; then the slow police investigation begins, picking up multiple threads through the conversations that Erlendur Sveinsson and his colleagues pick up with those connected to the crime scene; the forensic report always provides something crucial; the investigation itself is interlaced with multiple things right till the very end — Erlendur’s conversations with his difficult daughter Eva Lind, flashbacks into the lives of those connected to the crime, flashbacks into Erlendur’s personal life, and so on.

What is perhaps different in the series is the writer ensuring that we get not just the murder mystery, but a feeling of continuation with the recurring characters. I’ve actually become more interested in the detective’s personal life now than in any of the mysteries he solves.

(The writer will publish his first novel, Neon Noon, in July 2016)

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