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Arriving at the Proper Procedure.

A ‘procedural’ is an example of a genre in mystery fiction which follows a police officer or officers, or a detective or a detective squad, over the course of a criminal investigation.

Usually the identity of the perpetrator is revealed at the end which is the traditional storytelling mode, but on occasion the identity of, say, a killer is known at the beginning of the tale and the focus is on the how and the why.

Some say that Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is the earliest example of a procedural, as Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard is investigating the theft of a diamond. First published in 1868, in this book Collins definitely introduced elements which became staples of mystery and detective fiction, including:

~The English country home

~The Locked Room

~The red herring and the ‘least likely suspect.’

~Reconstruction of the Crime

~Plot twist at the end


But others cite V As In Victim by Lawrence Treat, from 1945, as the first true procedural. Treat's work recalls Ed McBain, as it covers a group of detectives, complete with personal lives/problems. Another milestone in the genre was Last Seen Hilary Waugh from 1952, in which a coed goes missing from her college and gives a detailed chronicle of the investigation. It's written in real time, so to speak, and at every turn the reader knows exactly as much as the investigators.  It’s a very early example of a procedural and it is also acclaimed as one of the best, even given all that has gone since.

Even earlier, two former detectives, Richard Enright, late of the NYPD, and Leslie White, of Southern California, wrote novels based on their experiences, while Basil Thomson, formerly of the Yard, was doing the same in the UK in the 1930s.

But the procedural genre really got its start after World War II when hard-boiled and noir films set the tone. (See All Things Mysterious Volume Three for a look at hard boiled and noir mysteries! Just scroll down...) Some of these films dramatized actual crimes and took pains to depict the actual procedures undertaken to solve the crime, often with the cooperation of local law enforcement.

The term ‘police procedural’ was coined by New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in the mid-fifties just as the genre was gaining in popularity thanks in large part to the success of Dragnet.  Series creator and star Jack Webb got the idea when appearing in the semidocumentary He Walked By Night (1948) and was fortunate to have obtained the cooperation of the LAPD in creating the radio show and the two television versions overseen by Webb.

Some of the giants of the genre:

Ed McBain aka Evan Hunter, well known for his 87th Precinct Series, which features the detective squad of the city of Isola, based on NYC. 'Cop Hater' is the first in the series; why not start at the beginning?


John Creasey/J.J. Marric, well known for numerous series characters, including Commander George Gideon (written as Marric), Dr. Palfrey, Department Z, The Toff, The Baron, and lots more. Mr. Creasey wrote hundreds of books so it's hard to know where to begin, but try the Toff:

  Or perhaps one of the marvelous Gideon books, written by Creasey as J.J. Marric, or his charming non-fiction title about going round the world with his wife:

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo wrote a series of ten novels with the detective Martin Beck, and were the first Scandinavian procedurals, before Larsson, before Nesbo, before them all!  'Roseanna' is the first of the series, eventually numbering ten, why not start at the beginning?


Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, the French detective who appeared in no fewer than seventy-five novels. Maigret doesn't change much from story to story; they're all good, so why not start with 'The Yellow Dog?'

Joseph Wambaugh, an LAPD officer from 1960 to 1974, wrote realistic procedurals, most set in Los Angeles, based on his own career, which saw him rise from patrolman to detective sergeant.  Fun fact: Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame was an LAPD motorcycle cop before he started writing for television.


There are quite a few contemporary writers writing excellent procedurals today, including but not limited to:

Arnaldur Indridason, DI Sveinsson,  set in Reykjavik, Iceland.


A.C. Baantjer, DI DeKok, set in Amsterdam.

Christopher Fowler, Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. How could anyone not like the Peculiar Crimes Unit?



Jo Nesbo, Harry Hole, detective in Oslo, Norway. A worthy author to take up the mantle of Scandinavian Crime Fiction (among many others--just ask us!).  Redbreast is a good place to start, and Midnight Sun is the newest title in English and is a standalone story NOT featuring Harry Hole.


Michael Stanley, David Bengu, assistant police superintendent in Botswana, known as ‘Kubu’ (hippopotamus) because of his size.

Here’s the latest:


And many more!  Come by, write, or call and let us find you a corking good mystery!  Puzzle along with the cops and try to identify the perpetrator!

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Written by Ian Kern — March 14, 2016

Specializing in Mystery Fiction and all its subgenres, including Detective, Crime, Hardboiled, Thrillers, Espionage, and Suspense.

Located at 58 Warren St in New York City, we are open Monday-Saturday from 11am-7pm. 212.587.1011

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