"What the detective story is about is not murder, but the restoration of order."
P.D. James said that. Her astute observation resonates through the works of two authors of detective stories that have much in common, but whose protagonists couldn't be more different.
Both authors offer their readers an unerring sense of place in their descriptions of the cities in which their books are set, and in which they themselves live. The cities are ancient places, one in cold Scotland, the other in Italy, with complex political and cultural histories that have placed them on the cutting edge of world events many times. They are cities built for walking, and the detectives do a lot of walking, coming into daily physical contact with the ancient stones and cobbles, with the bars and restaurants and pubs and theaters, and with the people. Readers have been drawn so deeply into the cities by the books that many visit just to walk the same streets as their fictional heroes.
Both authors have dedicated much of their writing careers to their protagonists, producing book after book in which the detectives struggle to do what James described: restore order to their beloved and much beleaguered cities. But while their goals may be similar (catch the crook, solve the mystery, maintain integrity, restore order) the two protagonists exist in orbits that would never intersect.
One detective is a hard man of Edinburgh, made rough by years of dealing with the underbelly of his city and culture. Edinburgh often mirrors one of its greatest author's books: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The city suffers from a split personality, all arts and culture and gorgeous architecture on the surface; a sometimes dark and murderous heart hidden beneath. The dark wynds and closes, broad Georgian streets, Greek-columned art museums, opera houses, theaters and pubs provide Ian Rankin with the perfect setting for his detective, the acerbic and solitary John Rebus. One wishes often for a map to follow Rebus as he ponders his current case while wandering along the Royal Mile, down dark Fleshmarket Close, past the Waverly Station, through Princes Street Gardens and into the New Town for a solitary pie and a pint at The Ox, his slightly seedy local, where no one would dare to bother him. A cynical loner, Rebus is definitely not a team player, but a stoic warrior in what he sees as the battle to maintain balance in the city he clearly loves, and to maintain his own stability and integrity. His actions and words provide a running commentary on life, and of course death most bloody; on politics and its henchmen, hypocricy and corruption; on the city and its history; all underscored by the counterpoint commentary provided by the blues and rock music he loves. He drinks single malt Scotch alone, he struggles with cigarettes alone, he goes to the pub, mostly alone.
Police Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice operates on another plane altogether. A family man, Brunetti has a loving and outspokenly feminist wife, a professoressa, and two bright, articulate teenage children. The relationships with his extended family provide a great deal of the framework upon which he relies as he deals with life and death, most bloody, or, in many cases most watery; the politics, hypocricy and corruption in his own historic city. Leon knows her city and her readers so well that she provides a map in the inside front and back covers of the hardbacks. It doubles the reader's pleasure and stirs the senses to follow Brunetti along the calles and piazzas as he walks to and from work, or toward a case, stopping in a neighborhood bar for a cichetti, or snack, of sardines or octopus, tomato or cheese on toasted bread, fried artichokes, along with a small glass of wine called an ombra, a shadow, because it's only a shadow of the full glass of wine he'll have with dinner. Brunetti never drinks alone. His family, friends and colleagues are always happy to sip and eat and savor the bounty of city and sea along with him.
Brunetti does not sit alone at night, as Rebus does, drinking single malt, staring at the lighted castle that looms above the city, contemplating his solitary, often fruitless battle against the dark. Instead Brunetti lies wrapped in the arms of a loving wife, safe in the warm haven of his home and family. But he, too, often lies awake in the wee hours, contemplating his own often fruitless battle against the dark.
Perhaps these men are not so different as one would at first assume.
Leon and Rankin provide a deeply satisfying experience for the reader, in characters who are complex and flawed but honorable men; in settings that provide endless unexpected beauty, without avoiding the gritty corners of these magnificent, human cities; and in delicious narrative writing that is clear, engrossing and ultimately, delightfully, entertaining.