Friday, November 07, 2008

Evolution (Sandra Ruttan)

Odds are that many people reading this post nourish a lingering fondness for Hill Street Blues, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels or both. McBain's novels and, later, Steven Bochco's TV series pioneered the ensemble approach to the police procedural, with liberal doses of the characters' personal lives thrown into the mix on an unprecedented scale.

But be honest. As momentous as both are in the history of crime fiction, don't they feel a bit if not dated, then at least like products of times different from today? Don't the domestic vignettes, as memorable as they are (Steve Carella's tender relationship with his deaf wife, Teddy, in the books; Furillo and Davenport's pillow talk on the show) seem somewhat grafted onto rather than organically integrated into the stories?

The next stage in ensemble procedurals is here, and Sandra Ruttan is in its vanguard. What Burns Within offers three protagonists and a host of significant secondary characters. These characters' personal problems, while not extravagantly and theatrically complicated, are intense, and they are present at all times, whether the officers are investigating arsons, murders or a string of child abductions, or dealing with vicious office politics. Equally, the cases are on the characters' minds even in those moments that Bochco or McBain might have reserved for homely domestic vignettes.

The strands of investigation – into child abductions, rapes, arsons and murders – intersect and overlap while somehow managing to pick up speed toward a violent climax. The density and complexity build when one of the officers becomes a victim. And Ruttan manages to keep the suspense going even during the denouement, when things are supposed to be winding down.

There's a lot going on in this novel, and I may post more about it later. For now, I'll say that the book takes up at least two especially sensitive crimes, rape and child abduction, and deals with each in ways that are surprising and that subvert easy judgments. And I'll add that I can think of no other crime novel so dense with incident and yet so fast-moving. Highly recommended.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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24 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Hmm. Sounds interesting.

Elizabeth Linington's Luis Mendoza books written as Dell Shannon were also ensemble procedurals, set in the LAPD. She romanticized the cops, which would make them really dated now after the Ramparts scandal and the OJ trial.

She also wrote another series of procedurals under her real name, set in Glendale, Ca.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ha! The Hawai'i State Library has this one, so I requested it. It's the only one of Ms. Ruttan's books the system has, though, so if I want to read others I'll have to agitate somehow (which won't work in this period of budget crisis).

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good to see you back commenting after what may have been a bit of celebration Tuesday night.

You're probably more up to date on the state of the ensemble police procedural than I am. It would be interesting to compare examples from the sub-genre's creation until today. Perhaps that gap in my reading throws Ruttan's book into sharper relief, since all I have to compare it to is early examples.

In fact, the comparison that occurred to me is from Italian Renaissance art, where Piero della Francesca was one of the first to bring scientific spatial perspective to his paintings in the middle of the fifteenth century, but his objects are not fully integrated into the convincing depth he paints. That had to wait until Raphael, early in the sixteenth, who not only painted objects convincingly and not only created a convincing illusion of space, but integrated the two beautifully.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's actually not a shock that the library is low on her work. She's pretty new. Give her (and Hawai'i) a bit of time.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Eh. Linington/Shannon's books were all 60s-80s. Can't find 'em in libraries anymore, either. De-acquisition is a horrid but necessary practice. It's an ugly word, too. ;)

The only current ensemble procedural I know of is JD Robb's futuristic "in Death" series. I like those for the same reason I liked "Hill Street" and Mendoza: the characters are interesting. In fact, the plots of those are fairly weak (or very similar to one another), but since Robb is a pseudonym for the world's champion romance writer Nora Roberts I give her some slack on mysteries. It's not what she knows. They're actually more thrillers than mysteries -- will the sociopathic killer be caught before he gets another victim?

I went and looked at Ms. Ruttan's website, and yeah, WbW seems to be the first in the series, so I won't be too far behind if I like her books.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Neither Mom nor I have had a drink in about eight years, but we wished we had some champagne Tuesday. The election results are the best birthday gift I've ever gotten.

November 07, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Linkmeister,you had birthday last tuesday? Me too.
I knew you wee a Nora Roberts fan-you outed yourself on your Library Thing page.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

In the cause of making sure credit doesn't go where it's not due, I have to say that whatever Hill Street Blues may have pioneered, it was not the ensemble procedural, not even on television. Evan Hunter/Ed McBain said in an interview that he was flattered to find that other writers have been inspired by his approach, but then he said, "I really don't think Hill Street Blues was an homage to Ed McBain, I think it was a rip-off. Without even a tip of the hat -- had the creators said somewhere that it was inspired by Ed McBain I'd feel a little better about it. We are all inspired by what has gone before...but to use the 87th Precinct books as such a clear blueprint goes beyond inspiration." And so far as television goes, the 1961-62 87th Precinct series with Robert Lancing and Gena Rowlands was superb and remarkably true to the books. It is decades since I saw it, but I can still remember the portrayals of Meyer and Kling as well as I can those of Carella and his wife. McBain thought about suing and I rather think he should have done so -- this sort of thing is always tricky, as television and film producers are happily aware, but what might have helped McBain considerably was that in Britain and France, where his popularity has always been immense, there was initially a simple assumption that HSB was based on the 87th Precinct. In France, the series was promoted with the slogan "Ed McBain Comes to Television". One difference, though, was that in McBain's books I never felt the domestic scenes were tacked on, but I certainly did with HSB. That, I think, was because in the latter they were really just used in large part as an excuse to show Furillo and Davenport in bed, for such is the way of television.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

What a great title ...

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I knew McBain was not happy with Hill Street Blues' failure to acknowledge his books. I also had read that he once considered suing over this issue. I've only read about three of the 87th Precinct novels, and I have not made a study of Hill Street Blues, but I remember guessing that such a suit might have a difficult time succeeding. As I understand U.S. copyright law, one cannot copyright an idea, and "ensemble cast of police officers" would seem to fit that bill. At the same time, the prospect of an author suing a television producer and winning ought to gladden hearts.

As I've said, my sampling of the 87th Precinct novels is small. But based on my recollections, which include the superb Nocturne, the domestic concerns seemed not so much tacked on, but rather like interludes. There is nothing wrong with this, and my recollections may be nonsense. In any case, my point was not to point up a shortcoming of those books as much as to highlight a feature of Ruttan's.

I found out about that 1961-62 87th Precinct series only last night when assembling this post. I wonder what, if any, influence it had on television in the years before Hill Street Blues. Gena Rowlands' presence in the cast is impressive.

In re HSB, the Furillo-Davenport scenes were enjoyable set pieces and perhaps a step along way to the sort of fuller integration of personal and professional concerns that I discussed here. After all, I think Joyce and Frank would start out talking about work. But sure, the scenes were excuses to show off Veronica Hamel's back and, in at least one much-ballyhooed instance, the curve of a shapely buttock.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, "What Burns Within" is the first in the Tain/Nolan/Hart series, and it was published just last year. The second book, "The Frailty of Flesh," is brand new, released just this month. Check Wednesday's post on this blog for information about how you can be a character in the third book.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, "What Burns Within" may be even more appropriate a title than I hinted at in my post. I got so wrapped up in my maunderings about ensemble casts that I neglected to mention the special prominence of arson in the novel. This takes the form both of suspenseful and credible investigation scenes at arson sites, and of a clever riff on the theme of tension between various investigating agencies. In this novel, tensions occasionally appears between police and firefighters over rights of access to a burned-out and therefore dangerous building. That's a clever, effective and highly plausible plot twist that I had not heard of before.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and happy birthday to Marco and Linkmeister. May you both post on this blog for a hundred years!

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, thanks for sharing your thoughts. And I always find the comment discussions interesting as well.

Just want to respond to what you said about police and firefighters fighting over access. I got the idea for WBW because my (soon to be ex) husband is a firefighter and trained arson investigator. It was him who told me that an arson investigator has final authority on a scene, and that if they declare the building unsafe they can have it destroyed without ever letting RCMP on the scene.

Their priority is safety, but you can begin to understand why arson is such a difficult crime to get a conviction on, because evidence is often destroyed by either the fire, or by water and foam from the firefighters, and then the scene is often not accessible. In reality, what Ashlyn did in the book... I've never heard of a cop doing it. That doesn't mean they haven't, but I had to go for selling believability instead of strict reality.

I won't talk here about other real incidents that inspired the book, because they'd be spoilers, but I will admit I got the idea one night when Kevin went out on a call and I was lying in bed thinking about the things that could happen...

November 07, 2008  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Peter --

You just sold me two books. I opened a second window and bought both the Chang and the Ruttan at Amazon. I'd come to your site more often, but I can't afford it. You're too damn persuasive.

By the way, I remember a McBain book in which two of the characters talk about "Hill Street Blues" and how much it reminds them of their own lives.

What else should I be reading right now?

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, we who have been raised on police news stories and books and TV shows have grown up with the idea that evidence is sacrosanct and that no taboo is stronger than that against tampering with it. So the idea that an opposing principle can be just as strong is a highly powerful source of potential conflict. I can imagine many more ways authors could use this.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Timothy, thanks for doing your bit to stimulate America's flagging retail sector.

Do you remember which McBain book contained that reference? That sounds like a delightful dig and the best outlet I can think of for frustration like that McBain must have felt.

What should you be reading? Whatever your budget will bear. I found Arnaldur Indridason's "The Draining Lake" intriguing for some reasons I've discussed here and for others that I'll discuss in a full-fledged review later. There's also a Northern Ireland crime writer named Garbhan Downey who writes about post-Troubles Ireland with a creative, wry and funny eye. There's lot of good stuff coming out of Ireland north and south these days, actually.

November 07, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter, the Mcbain book Timothy is referring to is Lightning, in which Ollie Weeks mentions "...the way Hill Street Blues looks like us".

November 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. That reference ought to make many readers smile. I'll take a look.

Your answer could be a helpful starting point, too. McBain offers a staggeringly large choice for readers who have read little or none of his work.

November 08, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

Yes, Peter, fifty-five 87th Precinct novels -- phew! I'd be inclined myself to start with the first, Cop Hater, and move forward from there. Lightning is, I should say, an average entry, which is no bad thing, but ones that come to mind (among many possibles) I would suggest to those new to the series are Ten Plus One; Sadie When She Died; Long Time No See; The Last Dance; Nocturne; or the one McBain himself thought the best, and which was nominated for an Edgar, Money, Money, Money.

November 08, 2008  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Peter --

Thanks for the recommendations. Am back to Amazon for "The Draining Lake" and Garbhan Downey. For an Irishman, I've read shamefully few Irish crime writers.

And thanks to Philip for spotting the Hill Street Blues reference. Leave it to McBain to give something like that to, of all people, Fat Ollie.

I miss McBain.

November 08, 2008  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

PS -- Thanks for the ideas about programming the Obama gala. Now the question is, how to do it cheaply? This is no time for a million-dollar party.

November 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Though I've read few of the 87th Precinct novels, "Nocturne" is one of the highlights of my crime-fiction career: superbly paced, plot strands brought together nicely. It reminded me of a symphony.

I've read at least one of the other McBain books, which I remember for the abominably sloppy typesetting: duplicated words, missing lines and so on. I don' even remember the novel's title.

November 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Timothy, you might go directly to the Web site of the publisher, Guildhall Press, for Garbhan Downey.

When Obama's people get back to me for programming advice, I'll add Jimmy Bosch, Marcus Roberts and Sonny Rollins to the bill. Country music deserves a spot, but almost all the listenable country artists are dead. So we'll go with Emmylou Harris. As for most of the country stars popular today, Secret Service men will be given orders to shoot on sight if any of them get within fifty miles.

November 08, 2008  

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