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Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross

The pleasing thing about writing is that the process is flexible. The better authors can develop their own styles, matching the prose to the content as needed. Some will go for dense text, full of detail and sophisticated ideas. Others will strip down the prose with very short paragraphs, sometimes no more than a single sentence. The choices will vary depending on the writer’s intention, fitting the style to the mood or setting the desired narrative pace. Short and punchy sentences propel the plot forward with the maximum effect. Detail is introduced to add depth to the reading experience. This can set the scene, build atmosphere, give insights into the thinking of the active participants, and so on. Then we get into the vocabulary choices and sentence construction, some writers preferring simple language, communicating meaning efficiently and often with deceptive ease — it’s actually not always easy capture complicated situations without resorting to more specialist terminology — others use more specific word choices as shorthand to match the dictates of a genre and deliver the expected scenarios with the minimum of fuss to those familiar with the jargon.

Luther on television is up for four awards in the 2012 Primetime Emmys which is an indication of quality with an excellent performance from Idris Elba as the London-based detective in this modern inverted crime format show. Those of you who enjoy looking back will hopefully have read R Austen Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke, and Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends, stories which show how the detectives catch the criminals. The interest lies in the processes of investigation and suspense builds by showing whether the criminals are able to divert suspicion. In this, I suppose the Columbo television series will remain the best loved with Peter Falk’s performance consistently interesting. It’s also a fascinating commentary on the class divide in American culture. Here’s this working-class, apparently humble man who looks as though he got dressed in the dark and, most of the time, he’s out to trap a killer from the wealthy strata of society. Because of their arrogance, these more socially powerful murderers consistently underestimate the battered specimen of humanity that keeps intruding into their space.

Neil Cross, screenwriter and author of the Luther series

Luther is also a social commentary in that this is a Detective Chief Inspector from a “minority” racial group. In the real world, few non-white officers manage to gain promotion to the higher ranks (or hold on to them once there). The British Police force is institutionally racist, both within its own ranks and in its posture to the community it’s supposed to serve and protect. From the outset, therefore, the television series is exploring difficult territory because, of necessity, this detective must hold his position within the ranks and interact with the public (including the suspects) in a way that elicits the maximum amount of information from which to determine who committed the crimes under investigation. This is an obsessive but brilliant man, prone to violence and frequently under pressure. When you add in the nature of the crimes he’s given to investigate, it confirms a generally dark nature to the proceedings. Unlike Columbo which always had a sly sense of humour, this series is hard-hitting and psychologically interesting. Although this is not a review of the television series, it’s worth watching — albeit somewhat formulaic, it improves as the characters develop.

As we come closer to the expected third series of original television stories charting the investigations run by Luther, we have a treat in the form of Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster, 2012). This won the New Zealand Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel and was listed for the British Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. This is the origin story or prequel to the television series as the screenwriter writes the novel to describe the case that pushed Luther closer to the edge of a breakdown. From the outset, we get an insight into the way in which the crimes are committed although it takes quite some time before Luther can begin to put a name to the killer. As we might expect, the crime under investigation is horrific. Someone has carefully entered a quiet suburban home while the couple are asleep, butchered the man and killed the pregnant wife but stealing the baby, potentially alive.

With his marriage in serious trouble and his loyal sidekick Ian Reed in hospital, the victim of a punishment beating by a local criminal, Luther must navigate the difficult emotions with the minimum of support. That he does so by bending, if not ignoring, the rules is what we expect of our flawed heroes. Although there’s little here which adds anything new to the police procedural genre, all the elements are presented in such a fluent and elegant stripped-down prose that you can’t help but zip along, not caring whether the plot is predictable. In fact, it does prove a challenging puzzle to solve and, albeit not in the best circumstances, Luther does succeed in reuniting families. So The Calling is one of the best of the police procedural bunch so far this year. If you enjoy violence both from the criminals and the detectives who’s task it is to track them down, this is a must-read.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For a review of the television series, see
Luther: Season 1, episode 1 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 2 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 3 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 4 (2010)
Luther: Season 1, episode 5 (2010)
Luther: Season 1 episode 6 (2010)
Luther: Season 2, episode 1 (2011)
Luther: Season 2, episode 2 (2011).

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