Monday, September 14, 2009

Call the Police!

The police play a role in most mystery novels. After all, the police investigate crime. It wouldn't be realistic to have a mystery/crime novel without them. What's interesting is the role the police play in crime/mystery novels, and how the author portrays them.

In Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Inspector Lestrade was portrayed as somewhat vain, sometimes foolish, and quite often threatened by Holmes' deductive abilities. He often saw himself in competition with Holmes. Conan Doyle seemed to take pleasure in having his sleuth get the better of the official police.

The police play quite a different role in Agatha Christie's work. Miss Marple has a good relationship with Chief Inspector Craddock, whom she helps in more than one case. She and Craddock have a mtual respect. Craddock appears in such novels as 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw!), The Mirror Crack'd and A Murder is Announced. In these novels, Craddock is portrayed as painstaking, intelligent and detail-oriented, but a man who gets to the bottom of the case at hand. Christie's other most popular sleuth, Hercule Poirot, also has a good relationship with most of the police force. He works most commonly with Chief Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp, who thinks Poiort has "a tortuous mind," and likes to make things difficult, but who does respect Poirot's abilities. Japp himself is portrayed as highly capable and efficient, and Poirot, in his turn, respects Japp. However, it's clear in most of the novels that Japp is usually one step behind Poirot. Still, the two work collegially. Japp appears in numerous short stories and novels. Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgeware Dies), The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds) and Peril at End House are just a few of them. Poirot also has respect for Superintendent Spence, who appears in Elephants can Remember, Hallowe'en Party, Mrs. McGinty's Dead and There is a Tide (AKA Taken at the Flood). Spence is portrayed as an honest, ethical police officer who may not be as quick as Poirot, but who "gets his man" in the end.

Rita Mae Brown's Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen gets along very well with Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Sheriff Cynthia Cooper. In fact, Harry and "Coop" often get together for commisseration and Chinese take-out. Both Shaw and "Coop" respect Harry and certainly appreciate her insights, but they get exasperated at her insatiable curiousity and her habit of taking too many risks when her curiousity is aroused. Still, in this series, too, the sleuth and the police have a fairly good relationship. Brown portrays both the sheriff and his deputy as smart, capable, hard-working police officers.

Not all sleuths have such a good working relationship with the police. Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis often locks horns with the local police. She's an amateur who can't seem to stay out of trouble, and that leads to conflict sometimes. Still, Berenson doesn't portray the police as stupid or inept, and Melanie Travis doesn't seem to take any pleasure in "scoring off of the cops." Even Hercule Poirot, who normally works well with the police, finds himself in conflict with Inspector Giraud in The Murder on the Links. To be fair, that's not because Giraud is a police offier; it's a personality clash.

Of course, in many mystery novels, a police officer is the sleuth. Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn and Kevin Hughes's Toby Jenkins fall into this category. So do K.C. Constantine's Mario Balzic and Donna Leon's Comisario Guido Brunetti. In these series, we get a completely different perspective on the police, since they are the main characters. We get to see the police detective as the protagonist, instead of as an obstacle or even a "sidekick" or ally.

In my own Joel Wililams series, I try to portray the police in a postive way. Williams is a former police officer, so his relationship with the local police is a good one. He trusts and respects their ability, and they work well with him, too. In fact, he's still friends with the local precinct captain. This is important to me, because I don't want the police portrayed as bullies or buffoons; yet, WIlliams is the sleuth. He finds the key clues and makes sense of them. That balancing act is at times delicate, but I think it's realistic.

What do you think of the way the police are portrayed in your favorite series? Is it fair? Are the police portrayed accurately?


  1. Good post Margot. I think it changes in every series, usually due to the needs of the story. If your hero is a policeman, then usually they'll be shown in a good light, but their colleagues will be mixed (helps create conflict)... if the hero is a PI or amateur, then the police may be shown in a bad light, b/c the hero has to be 'up against it', and in that case the police can be part of the 'it'...

    you see the same in stories about the FBI etc... in some they are the obstructors of the heros (who may be local police), in some they are the heros obstructed by the local police. It's all about drama and conflict... and real life probably encompasses many of the variations shown in novels (if perhaps in not such a dramatic or escalated way)

  2. You've got a very good point, Craig. As real-life PI's, police and the FBI go about their business, they probably do run into each other, so it's realistic and believable that it would happen in a crime novel, too. And, as you say, it heightens the drama.

  3. I wonder if you might care to contribute a review of a book to my Friday Forgotten Books project, which has been going on for 18 months. You can see previous reviews every Friday on my website as well as links to other contributors. I would love to include you some Friday in October if you can make the time. The review does not have to be long. Thanks, Patti Abbott

  4. Hello, Patti,
    Thanks for your kind invitation! I would love to do a review : ). Just let me know which Friday in October works for you, and I'll be glad to get something ready. What an honor! :)

  5. I am honored at your acceptance. How about October 29th? Just send me your review with a short bio. I will reference your blog, too. Any book, any genre, any length. I am very open to whatever moves you. Thanks so much!

  6. How exciting, Patti! Thank you : ). October 29th will work very well for me. I look forward to doing a review and sending it to you.