Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I Shot the Sheriff...*

When police investigate a crime, they never know how dangerous their situation will be. Because the police are so often faced with dangerous situations, it’s no surprise that sadly, police officers die in the course of their duties. That happens in crime fiction, too. It’s especially emotional when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, and the investigations into these deaths are pursued with a special intensity. That intensity not only adds to the drama of a story, but it also adds realism to a crime novel.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t usually center on the death of a police officer or other law enforcement officer, but occasionally, that kind of death takes place. For instance, in The Clocks, we meet Colin Lamb, a member of Special Services. He’s involved in a case because of the murder of another agent. Lamb is following up a lead on a spy ring that he got from that agent, but the other agent was killed before he could report everything he’d found. However, Lamb found one clue that proves to be useful as he tracks down the spy ring and its operatives. That clue leads him to Wilbraham Crescent, a quiet neighborhood in the town of Crowdean. He’s looking for what he hopes will be the right home when a young woman runs out of one of the houses, screaming that there’s a man is in the house. He and Inspector Dick Hardcastle look into the case with help from Hercule Poirot, who’s a friend of Lamb’s father. In the end, the murdered man turns out to have an unexpected relationship with the sp case Lamb’s working on, so he and Poirot are able to solve both cases.

We see some of the bitterness and anger that a police officer’s death can cause among other officers in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits. Delbert Nez, an officer with the Navajo Tribal Police, is investigating vandalism to some local outcroppings of rocks. He’s in radio contact with his friend and fellow officer, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths. When Chee loses contact with his friend, he immediately rushes to the area where Nez was conducting his investigation. He’s too late, though. Nez has been shot, and his body burned in his car to hide the shooting. Chee is furious at the murder of his close friend, and when he finds a likely suspect, he’s only too happy to call the crime solved. That suspect is Ashie Pinto, a former storyteller who’s turned to alcohol and is now a shadow of what he used to be. When Chee finds Pinto, Pinto’s got the gun that was used to kill Nez. Pinto’s ever-present bottle seems to Chee the perfect fuel for the car fire, so Chee is certain he’s got his man. Then, Janet Pete, a Bureau of Indian Affairs lawyer, is sent in to defend Pinto. She’s not convinced of his guilt. Neither are some relatives of Pinto’s, who visit Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Despite his rage at his friend’s death, Chee doesn’t want the wrong man to be “railroaded” through the justice system, so he reluctantly agrees to investigate. What he finds is that Nez’ death was more than just a drunken shooting.

Two of Peter Robinson’s novels deal with the murder of a police officer. In A Necessary End, the town of Eastvale gears up for an antinuclear demonstration. During the demonstration, tempers flare and things get out of hand. Several arrests are made. Amidst the chaos, PC Edwin Gill is stabbed to death. At first, Superintendent Richard “Dirty Dick” Burgess blames the murder on the demonstrators and their group, and seems to have a personal vendetta against them. DCI Alan Banks isn’t so sure. So he begins to investigate Gill’s murder more closely. What he finds is that the murder has less to do with the demonstrators than it does with what’s been going on in Eastvale, and with Gill’s own history. Now, Banks has to work quickly to find out who really killed Gill if he’s going to prevent an out-and-out war between the police and a local sixties-style commune.

In Aftermath, Banks is working on a task force that’s trying to solve the case of the “Chameleon Killer” who, it seems, has been responsible for the disappearance and murder of five teenaged girls. Then one day, a concerned neighbor calls the police to the home of Terence Payne, a local biology teacher. It seems the neighbor is concerned about a possible domestic dispute. When Probationary PC Janet Taylor and PC Dennis Morrisey get to the Payne home, they make the grisly discovery of the missing teenaged girls’ bodies. As they’re searching the home, Morrissey is attacked and killed. Taylor reacts almost instinctually to save her partner, but it’s too late. At first, it seems that the Chameleon killer case is solved. As Banks soon finds out, though, it’s not that simple. As Banks looks into Taylor’s past and that of his wife, Lucy, as well as their marriage, he soon finds that there’s more to this case than he thought.

Donna Leon’s About Face also deals with the murder of a police officer, this time a Carabinieri. Felippe Guarino is investigating the illegal transportation of toxic waste. One of the people involved in the trucking has recently died, and Guarino thinks it’s murder. He visits the Questura because he hopes that some of the local police will be able to help him make headway in the case. At first, he and Commissario Brunetti are somewhat at odds, but as they begin to work together, they also begin to piece together a complicated plot to move illegal toxic waste into a dump in Venice. One night, Guarini is murdered. Brunetti is sure that the murder is related to the case he was working on, and he and Ispettore Vianello and their team investigate. In the end, they find that the murder, the illegal transportation and the toxic waste dumping are all tied in with a somewhat mysterious woman whom Brunetti met at a party.

In Carol O’Connell’s Mallory’s Oracle, we meet Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory, who was taken in as a child by Louis Markowitz, a New York Police officer. Mallory’s had a very tragic early childhood, and by the time Markowitz finds her at age eleven, she’s living on the streets. Markowitz raises Mallory, more or less, and she follows in his footsteps and becomes a police officer herself. She’s just started in her career when Markowitz is tragically murdered. He’s investigating a group of deaths of older, wealthy women; since his body is found near the third of the victims, Mallory believes his murder is related to the case. With help from Markowitz’ partner, Sergeant Riker, Mallory determines to solve the case herself.

One of the most engrossing stories of police officers being killed in the line of duty is Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. In that novel, Harry Hole and his partner, Ellen Gjelten, are investigating a possible arms trafficking ring. Hole believes the ring is tied in with a neo-Nazi group that he’s been monitoring. That group, in turn, has ties to an ex-convict who’s just missed being jailed again. As Hole and Gjelten begin to put these disparate pieces together, they start to get too close to the truth about the smuggling. Then, the killer strikes devastatingly close to home, so to speak, and there's even more at stake in the case.

The murder of a police officer is especially tragic for other police officers, and they often make extra efforts to solve those cases. That may be why that plot point can add such a layer of suspense and intensity to a crime story. What do you think? Have you read novels that focused on the murder of a police officer? Which ones have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Marley song.


  1. I don't know if this falls into the same category, but the first thing that popped in my mind was The Killing Fields by Joseph Wambaugh. Officers killed in that definitely effect a lot. It has been a long time since I read that so I really don't remember all the details.

    Coyote Waits is a very good example and a great read. I enjoy all of Tony Hillerman's books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thanks for bringing up Joseph Wambaugh. His novels certainly show the gritty side of police life, and his nonfiction books like The Onion Field do, too. The death of a police officer really can have searing effects on the surviving partner and you're right; that's explored in real depth in that book.

    ...and I'm a Hillerman fan, too. He is missed...

  3. The only stories I've read lately about murdered officers are in a couple that I'm editing. I think it adds a great deal more tension because the officers work harder and feel more.


  4. Clarissa - Exactly! That's one of the things that can add real tension and suspense to a story. When "one of your own" is killed, that makes the investigation all the more intense.

  5. I very much enjoyed Aftermath, though for some reason have only read a couple of other books by this author despite having five more of them on my shelf! Re The Readbreast - that death you describe is a bit of a spoiler, I suggest - it was the worst "out of order" translation of all time, I think - quite infamous for it. I was wondering if there were some other way to phrase that bit of the post so it does not give it away?

    I agree that police shootings can make very good plots. This happened to Harry Bosch (maybe more than once even?) when one of his female partners was shot - but I won't say more than that ;-)

  6. I don't know if I've read any books dealing with this type of murder, but it certainly adds another layer to the plot. Being a member of the police is like being in a family, so when a family member is murdered the case becomes personal. Thanks for giving me some new ideas to explore, Margot!

  7. Maxine - Isn't it interesting how one can read (and enjoy) a book by an author, and even intend to read another, and not end up reading another? I've done that with more than one author, actually.

    About The Redbreast, you do have a point about the spoiler, which, as you know, I do try to avoid. I'll go in and fix that, and thanks for pointing it out.

    And yes, that does happen to Bosch, too, but I'm not saying in which novels ; ).

    Elspeth - Oh, don't thank me; you are often my inspiration : ). And yes, police, I think, do feel quite a lot like a family, so it does make sense that when one of theirs is killed, it's especially searing. That's why I think it can add so much to the plot.

  8. Oh, but you have said it yourself, Margot:

    "One of the most engrossing stories of police officers being killed in the line of duty is Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast."

  9. I was pleased to read the Redbreast/Nemesis/Devil's Star trio out of order because at least I knew what happened, and could read the others with the knowledge that justice was done. No the publication order was completely nuts!
    Aftermath was a brilliant story and I lent it to a policeman friend, who never reads crime fiction he saw too much at work, and he loved it.

  10. Dorte - Isn't that a poweful story? The Redbreast is absolutely engrossing. Nesbø is one of those authors whose work I can savor even though on the surface, you wouldn't think it would be my personal taste. He's that good.

    Norman - I'n glad your friend liked Aftermath. It is a well-written and really engrossing story. As for the order of the translation/English-language release of the Nesbø books? It made no sense to me, either. I have no idea why publishers decide to do the things they do, sometimes...