Ed James’ novels on his police detective character Scott Cullen can’t help but be compared to a more famous series about an Edinburgh detective, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus. And the books have some commonalities – gritty, urban crime settings, and tough, grim main characters. But James adds his own twists, and I found his stories pretty satisfying.
Scott Cullen is a new, inexperienced detective constable, but he’s still the smartest guy in the room – not because he’s a genius, but because his colleagues are generally pretty ineffectual – loafers and drunks (except for the female officers, who, in line with contemporary standards, are more or less exemplary one and all). Cullen’s worst trial is his superior, Inspector Bain, whose approach to any crime is to rush in, identify the most likely suspect, then turn all his (and his subordinates’) energy to building a case against that individual – even when there are other possibilities.
And yet… and yet, what I liked best about the books is that these characters, who could so easily have been caricatures, turn out to be more complex than they appear. Even Bain, when compelled to face the evidence, is capable of real police work, and even a measure of graciousness. Inconsistently, but now and then. In other words, he acts like a real human being. And Cullen has his own flaws, especially in his drinking and relationships with women.
I read the first two books in the Cullen series. Ghost in the Machine involves a missing person case which turns into a murder investigation, involving people who meet each other on a social networking site called “Schoolbook.” In Devil in the Detail Cullen and his colleagues are called out to a smaller town, where they investigate the disappearance of a mentally challenged girl. This story involves allegations of child abuse by a priest, but author James softens the possible offense but setting that abuse in a syncretist cult rather than a Christian church.
Well-written and tech-savvy, the Scott Cullen books are timely works in an old tradition. Cautions for language (the British police seem to have solved the problem of male language in female company by teaching the female officers to swear like the guys) and adult themes.