Crime, Place and Justice

Any Twitter follower of Ian Rankin (@beathhigh) will know he is now at work on his new novel following the success of The Impossible Dead, itself the second in his post-John Rebus series following Inspector Malcolm Fox of the “Complaints” division at the Lothian and Borders police, the unpopular cops who check the cops.  Rankin is renowned as the first in a string of “tartan noir” writers setting their crime fiction in Scotland and, in his case, Edinburgh.  The broader impact of this crime and place writing is impossible to miss.  In Edinburgh now, on any given day of the year a string of fans may be found looking for Fleshmarket Close or the Grassmarket or some other site of a Rankin novel and, of course, the Oxford bar which was the spiritual and almost only home of the marvellous Rebus.  And, yes, there is an “app” for that ( ).

Terrible things happen in Rankin books yet they are understated when compared with, say, the sheer brutality of the Stuart McBride stories set in a depressingly down at heel Aberdeen.  Rankin’s Edinburgh is almost an historical one – yes, Rebus and Fox both do not like tourists but that is a theme common to many of Scotland’s writers, and to many much further afield geographically.  Rankin explores the side alleys, certainly, but the Royal Mile and George Street and the Old and the New town predominate with a sense of satisfaction that suits the standard version of Edinburgh.

Tony Black upsets that view.  (     His protagonist is Gus Drury, a fallen, alcoholic journo whose life is a profound disaster zone, aggravated by his violent streak and an even more profound hatred of the better off classes in areas like the Grange.  Drury lives in a broken down world of no-go zone suburbs and areas of an Edinburgh no tourist ever sees, an evocation of the worst of the old Edinburgh slums like Niddrie and Muirhouse that have gone theoretically but still exist in some form or other, especially as the Eurozone and UK downturns deepen in tandem.  Rankin’s characters go “uptown”, Tony Black’s reluctantly and with animus.

Crime and place novels now abound, and perhaps nowhere more so than Italy where the “place” is inevitably paralleled by a sense of the national justice (or lack of it) system.  There are a wide range of “takes”: Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti is a good man in Venice who does good things   ( )   ; Andrea Camilleri’s marvellous Salvo Montalbano keeps his part of Sicily in order and supports the restaurants (crime, food and place are now also ubiquitous) ( ) ; Michael Dibdin’s troubled Aurelio Zen travelled to the dark heart ( )  while a string of other homegrown writers, some of them former prosecutors or cops, produce even greater nuance and colour: Luigi Guicciardi, Massimo Carlotto, Gianrico Carofiglio to name three.

Whatever the level of description, crime fiction is naturally just that, fiction that distances violence in some respects where a victim or victims provide the means by which a clever or dogged resolution emerges with a clear sense of justice, moral or judicial determined.

Life, of course, is not like that and, occasionally, the fictional world spills uneasily into the real one.

Through this week I happen to have been reading Grace Brophy’s Last Enemy ( )   in which Commissario Alessandro (Alex) Cenni of the Perugia police investigates a death in nearby Assisi: an American niece of a formerly aristocratic family desperately trying to keep up the old ways turns up dead in the family crypt.  The book, Brophy’s debut novel in the series, does a nice job of capturing the confines of Assisi and the broad traditional areas as well as the newer sprawl ones of Perugia, even if the story is sometimes overly detailed.

The real problem, though, is that I read Last Enemy at exactly the same time as two real life events unfolded to remind us all too realistically that these things do happen, that there are real victims, and that justice is frequently hard to find.  The first event was the announcement that authorities in Perugia announced they were appealing the October 2011 court decision that overturned the conviction for murder passed on American student Amanda Knox in 2009 for her part in the 2007 death of British student Meredith Kercher.   ( )    (Eerily, Last Enemy appeared in 2007 around the time that Meredith Kercher died). Meredith Kercher was a bright Londoner studying at Leeds University for a degree in European Studies, and was at the University of Perugia, long a destination for international exchange students, as an Erasmus scholar as part of her program.  Leeds University later awarded her degree posthumously.

The story was a sensation, handled in a sensationalist way by the weaker ends of the Italian and British press.  The storied surrounds of Perugia captured by writers like Brophy ran hard up against a grittier reality: rougher parts of town, drifters, seedy bars, wild party scenes, sex and violence.  Meredith Kercher was allegedly stabbed during a group sex session gone wrong involving her flatmate Amanda Knox and Knox’s local boyfriend.  They denied that, in turn accusing an immigrant barman, and another itinerant was also later implicated.  Knox, more or less demonized by much of the local press, was convicted to the outrage of the American public ( )  but also, it must be said, some local legal authorities, all bothered by the probity of the police procedures, long the stuff of the crime novels of course.  It was the question of the soundness of the evidence that helped overturn the verdict, and in turn led to the new appeal announced last week.

News of the appeal appeared coincidentally with the Random House publishers’ announcement they were to pay Amanda Knox $4 million for her version of the story. ( )  There is something distinctly uncomfortable about this: Meredith Kercher is dead, someone who was associated with that directly or indirectly, innocent or otherwise is now set to make a massive profit.  Amanda Knox and her family have undoubtedly undergone a great period of stress and difficulty, but with the best will in the world it has to have been far less than that endured by Meredith Kercher’s friends and family.  If there is to be any profit or payout from such a dreadful episode, it should surely be to the Kercher family.  Unlike in Rankin or Leon or Camilleri et. al, justice seems much harder to come by in the real world.

In Last Enemy, naturally, Grace Brophy has justice prevail in a reasonable form.  However, though her book has Alex Cenni coming to admire the victim, that victim still has the prime purpose of setting up the story.  There is far too much of that as a parallel with Meredith Kercher, the real victim who is now the sideshow in a main act that is about justice for Amanda Knox and the substantial payout she is to get as part of that.  ( )  As a small test, check the numbers of photos available on the web for Amanda Knox compared to those for Meredith Kercher.  At a time when students are travelling the world in their millions, their parents worrying incessantly while thankful for the great experiences and opportunities those children have, the Meredith Kercher part of this story needs to be heard much more.  Travel well and stay safe, sons and daughters, because crime fiction is just that, you are in the real world.

2 Responses to “Crime, Place and Justice”
  1. Max Walsh says:

    Marvellous blog Brian.

    I have come to enjoy the Crime-Place-Food “genre” to which you introduced me vis a vis Guido Brunetti and Salvo Montelbano. I am steadily working my way through the full series of titles.

    Now to branch into the “tartan noir” (Ian Rankin) as per your recommendation.

  2. Many thanks Max for the kind comment: for more Italian you might look at Conor Fitgerald’s Commisario Blume, an American who ends up in the Rome cops. That is not bad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: