Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inner Workings...

When a murder is committed, very often one of the first things that happens is that the police are called in to investigate. They collect the evidence, interview witnesses and gather all of the information that’s needed to make a case. Since the police are so much a part of real-life murder investigations, it makes sense that they are also a crucial part of crime fiction. When we get an “inside look” at the police and the way they go about their job, this adds an important dimension of interest to a mystery novel whether or not that novel is, strictly speaking, a police procedural.

Some mystery novels tell the reader about these inner workings by following the day-to-day routine of police investigation. For example, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels frequently include descriptions of witness/suspect interviews, the gathering of evidence, and the other details of solving murders. In The Riddle of the Third Mile, for instance, Morse and Lewis are investigating the disappearance and presumed death of Professor Oliver Browne-Smith, Oxford don and one of Morse’s former professors. Several scenes in the novel take place at the police station where Morse and Lewis are based, and throughout the novel, Dexter shares the routine of coroner’s reports, identification, interviews and some of the other aspects of police work. The same is true of The Dead of Jericho, in which Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of Anne Scott, a woman living in an Oxford neighborhood called Jericho. It turns out that Morse knows Scott; they met at a party, and only the fact of Morse’s being called away on another case kept them from spending that night together. In that novel, we see the police station give-and-take between Morse and Lewis, as well as the way in which each of them goes about collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses. We also get an “inside look” at police bureaucracy as Morse’s superior asks him to take over the case from Inspector Bell, who’s originally assigned to it. At first, Morse is reluctant to do so; he has no wish to be involved in the case or to antagonize Bell. However, he accepts the assignment. What’s interesting about Dexter’s novels is that they give the reader an “inside look” at the way the police think; many of the stories are told (at least in part) from Morse and Lewis’ perspectives, which helps the reader understand how they think.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also gives the reader a look at the inner workings of a police unit. One of the protagonists in that series is DCI Hannah Scarlett, who’s been named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In The Cipher Garden, for instance, there’s an early scene where Scarlett is briefing her team. In that scene, we get to see the way a briefing works, and Edwards gives us a sense of some of the pressures the police face. One of the points of discussion in the briefing is the public’s feeling about the number of cases solved, and the competitive nature of crime-solving among police units. There’s also a sense of the inter-relationships among the different members of the team.

We also see the inter-relationships among police officers in novels where partners work a case together. That’s what happens in Warren Adler’s American Quartet, the first of his Fiona FitzGerald series. The novel begins with Fiona, who’s a Washington, D.C. homicide detective, and her police partner, Teddy, enjoying a cup of coffee and talking about each of their plans for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Their conversation is interrupted by a police radio report of a shooting at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Two other killings follow and soon, Fiona realizes that the killings are related, and that there’s going to be a fourth killing – of the President of the United States – unless she can catch the killer.

In my own Joel Williams series, I also show the workings of teams of detectives. Since Williams is a former police detective, he stays in contact with the Tilton, Pennsylvania, police force, and their investigations are important threads through the novels. In Publish or Perish, Detectives Lloyd Simmons and Donna Crandall are paired up to work on the murder of graduate student Nick Merrill. In B-Very Flat, Detectives Alex Logan and Dan Foster work as a team on the case of Serena Brinkman, an undergraduate violin virtuosa who dies suddenly on the night of an important music competition. In both novels, we see the interactions of the detectives with each other, their boss, Captain Bert Schneider, and the witnesses and suspects they interview.

Caroline Graham also shows the reader some of the inner workings of police investigations. In her Inspector Barnaby series, there are frequent scenes that take place at the Causton police station, where Barnaby and Sergeant Troy serve. In one of Graham’s novels, A Ghost in the Machine, we see the workings of a busy police station through the eyes of a civilian. In that novel, wealthy Carey Lawson dies a natural death, and her fortune passes to her nephew, Mallory Lawson, and his family. Part of the deal is that they must move into Carey’s mansion and take on her former companion, Benny Frayle. When Carey Lawson’s executor, Dennis Brinkley, is found dead underneath one of the antique torture devices he collects, Benny is convinced his death was a murder. She tries to speak to a Chief Inspector, but is blocked by the bureaucracy. Finally, she bluffs her way in and manages to speak to Inspector Barnaby. At first, he doesn’t agree that Brinkley’s death was murder, although he does Benny the courtesy of looking through the official police report. After another death, though, he begins to see that Benny was right.

Even in novels that wouldn’t be classified as police procedurals, it’s interesting when the reader gets an “inside look” at a police investigation. We see that in several Agatha Christie novels. For example, in Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young woman in a hostel for students. It turns out that her death is connected to a larger conspiracy, and we follow the police investigation of that conspiracy. In one scene, for instance, Sergeant Cobb and Detective Constable McCrae are looking for some key evidence in the private office of the co-owner of a beauty salon. It’s a very interesting look at how police work together. That’s also true of a scene in Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Poirot investigates the murder of a teenage girl at an outdoor fĂȘte. In several scenes in the novel, Detective Inspector Bland works with PC Robert Hoskins to interview the various witnesses. As they talk to each one, the reader gets a look at the way an interview is handled, the way the two detectives interact and the way each thinks about the investigation.

Space doesn’t permit me to discuss the whole issue of conflict in police investigations; that's for another post : ). Space also doesn't allow for a discussion of all of the other fine series in which we get to see how the police operate, and the inner workings of investigations; I’ll just mention a few examples. One is Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers series. Another is Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series. There’s also Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series and Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury series. All of them let the reader “behind the scenes” of police investigations, and they combine that “inside look” with strong mystery plots and well-developed characters.

What’s your view? Do you like to “follow the police around” as they do their work? Do you think those details take away from the plot?


  1. Sometimes I just *have* to read a police procedural. I love following along with the investigation. And they're my favorite type of mysteries to *watch*--I'm less interested in watching cozies on TV.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - I'd rather watch procedurals than cozies on television, too. Like you, I read cozie and procedurals, and enjoy both; they really balance each other out, I think.

  3. A very good blog subject. I like police procedurals along with most other types of mysteries. The only problem, for me, with plodding along with the police is that I have to witness the gruesome things that they see. I've read many Elizabeth George novels and I enjoy the conflict between Havers and Lynley but sometimes the crimes are too well-detailed for me. Nightmare inducing, in fact.
    I can't wait to read about Joel Williams! Already have Publish or Perish on my wish list and hope to be reading about Williams and Detectives Simmons and Crandall by Christmas!
    Thanks for this!

  4. Bobbi - Thanks for the kind words - I do hope you'll enjoy the novel : ). I have to agree with you about some of the more gruesome crimes in police procedurals. I wouldn't say I'm overly squeamish, but I have to admit I'm not a fan of real gore. Still, as far as Elizabeth George goes, the Lynley and Havers characters are well-written and I do like the way we get to see them do their jobs. The mysteries are compelling, aren't they?

  5. Of course I have to add my voice to the praising of Elizabeth George! I've never felt her descriptions were too lurid. Some murders are gruesome and sugar-coating the details is the wrong decision (in my opinion). As for watching mysteries on TV, I've always enjoyed Midsomer Murders and Morse. Jonathan Creek is also fun. I don't watch any of the CSI shows; mainly because I find the writing (and some of the actors) rather painful!


  6. Well-wrought police procedurals are my absolute favourites!

    Ruth Rendell is very high on my list of authors who handles the balance between police routine and excitement to perfection.

  7. Elspeth - It's funny you would mention CSI; I've never really liked that show's writing or acting, either. Some of the stories are implausible, too!

    You make an interesting point that some murders really are gruesome. It takes away from the reality of that if they're sugar-coated. There is a very, very fine balance between making the details realistic (thus adding to the quality of a mystery), and being too lurid (which, to me, takes away from it). For each of us, I think that balance is a little different. For me, the real question is whether whatever gore is described is gratuitous; I have to admit that grauitous gore puts me off.

    Dorte - I'm glad you mentioned Ruth Rendell - I agree that her Wexfords series is an excellent example of a police procedural series that balances pacing and the nitty-gritty details of investigation.