Barry Maitland Essay - Critical Essays


As a writer of police procedurals, Barry Maitland is no iconoclast. He works within the classical limitations of the genre. David Brock and Kathy Kolla are both brilliant but fallible and, thus, are realistic practitioners of police detection. Maitland’s realism is also evident in his depiction of how the modern police detective is dependent on teams of forensic, medical, ballistics, and computer specialists. The methodical and painstaking gathering of evidence is always given its due in these novels, yet Maitland never allows his stories to become bogged down in scientific or technical detail.

In the police procedural’s most commonly employed plot structure, a murder is committed in an early chapter, investigators are called to the scene of the crime, and the ensuing investigation leading to a solution constitutes the whole of the story’s plot. Thus far in his career, Maitland has relied exclusively on this classic structure. Its chief advantage is that, at each step of the way, the readers know no more than do the investigators and must piece together the evidence, sort through the clues, and eliminate false trails without any prior knowledge of the relationships between victims and perpetrators. Although Maitland’s plots are not in this respect innovative, they are nonetheless distinguished by their multilayered intricacy. For example, in All My Enemies (1996), Brock’s team investigates a murder that appears to be tied to a number of previously unsolved killings of young women. Although the main line of investigation focuses on a middle-aged amateur photographer who is believed to stalk his victims on the London subways, Kolla pursues a much less promising trail that leads to her involvement in a London theater company. What begins as a subplot ends by absorbing the primary plot in a final solution that is at once elegant and shocking.

One of the weaknesses of crime fiction as a genre, and especially of the police procedural, is that it traditionally allows little room for development of character, which is generally dominated by the exigencies of plot. Maitland addresses this weakness, first of all, in a manner typical of modern police procedurals. He allows conflict to develop between his detectives’ personal lives and their police careers. Given the psychological demands of the crime investigator’s job, the long hours, and the brutal realm in which he or she must operate, it is almost inevitable that familial or romantic relationships will be difficult to maintain. Maitland is adept at weaving such conflicts into his novels, especially in his exploration of Kolla’s troubled family history and her repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to establish stable relationships. However, Maitland is also aware that the development of his detectives as fully three-dimensional characters must remain subordinate to the demands of plot. Unlike many other modern writers of crime fiction, he does not allow the personal conflicts of his detectives to lapse into melodrama or to deflate the suspense that a satisfying work of crime fiction demands. As for Maitland’s perpetrators and suspects, they are almost never mere psychological “types,” but complex and realistically motivated characters.

Maitland’s greatest strength, however, is his ability consistently to place his characters in settings of striking originality. This feature of Maitland’s writing is already evident in the first novel, The Marx Sisters, in which an all but forgotten street in the heart of London, virtually unchanged since the nineteenth century, is threatened by modern development. Equally impressive in this regard are several of the later novels, including Silvermeadow (2000), in which a glittering new suburban shopping mall becomes not only a setting for murder but also a symbolic device for reflection on the alienated social conditions of modern consumerism; The Verge Practice (2003), in which the ultramodern corporate headquarters of an architectural firm becomes symbolically resonant of its founder’s egomania; and No Trace (2004), in which an urban colony of postmodern artists becomes a staging ground for murder masquerading as performance art.


In Silvermeadow, after the horribly crushed and shrink-wrapped body of a teenage girl is found in a trash compactor at an industrial waste disposal site, investigators have reason to believe that the girl was killed at a nearby shopping mall, called Silvermeadow. After Brock and Kolla become involved, the investigation is temporarily headquartered at Silvermeadow during the height of the Christmas shopping season. Initially, the investigation centers...

(The entire section is 1922 words.)