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?