Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Thin Blue Line...

The police are an integral part of any criminal investigation. They collect evidence, interview witnesses, make arrests and work closely with the court system to pursue convictions, among other things. Because the police are so important to criminal justice, we also see lots of members of the police force in crime fiction. In fact, there’s arguably very little crime fiction in which the police play no role at all, and what’s interesting is that there doesn’t seem to be a “typical” police “type” in crime fiction. Police detectives are as varied in crime fiction as they are in real life. That said, though, crime fiction does offer some interesting examples of different kinds of police officers, and different ways of portraying them. Here are just a few examples:

The Incompetent

Very often (although of course, not always), police are portrayed this way when the sleuth is a private investigator. In this sort of novel, the private investigator is called in because the police have the wrong suspect, or because the police can’t find the solution to a case. One example is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. He’s not portrayed as stupid so much as perhaps unobservant. Certainly he doesn’t make the right deductions from the evidence at hand, although he is portrayed as hard-working and dedicated. For instance, in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Lestrade investigates the murder of Charles McCarthy, an Australian émigré who’s killed one day shortly after he’s overheard arguing bitterly with his son, James McCarthy. Partly on the basis of that evidence, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder and bound over for trial. Young McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, doesn’t believe that her fiancé is guilty and goes to Inspector Lestrade to plead his case. By this time in the Holmes adventures, Lestrade is very much aware of Sherlock Holmes’ gift for deduction, so he invites Holmes to look into the case. Holmes soon finds that Lestrade has misinterpreted an important piece of evidence, and overlooked other evidence. On the strength of what Holmes has found, McCarthy’s name is cleared and the real culprit is found out.

In general, the police in Agatha Christie’s novels are portrayed with a fair amount of respect (and I’ll return to that point in a moment). However, there is at least one interesting exception. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Candian émigré to France. One of the officers who’s put on the case is Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté. Poirot tries to work with Giraud at first, but Giraud pays attention to the wrong evidence, misinterprets clues, and has neither interest in nor respect for anything Poirot might suggest. Poirot’s nickname for Giraud is “The Human Foxhound.” It’s not just his incompetence but also his arrogance that put Poirot off. In fact, the two develop such an acrimonious relationship that they make a wager on who will find Renauld’s killer. Not surprisingly, Poirot wins the bet. In an amusing twist to the story, Poirot uses his winnings to buy a small statuette of a foxhound that he calls “Giraud.”

The Hardworking, Competent Police Officer

Except for Giraud, the police detectives that Agatha Christie describes are, in general, honest, hardworking police officers who are good at gathering evidence and who are neither stupid nor lazy. In fact, in several Christie novels, Hercule Poirot mentions that the police are good at gathering evidence and finding out information. He also credits them with intelligence and competence, too. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot gets a visit from Superintendent Spence, whom he’s come to respect. Spence wants to talk to Poirot about the case of Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman who was murdered several months previously. Her lodger, James Bentley was arrested and convicted of the crime and is due to be executed. Spence collected the evidence, which all seems to point to Bentley. However, he’s come to believe that Bentley isn’t guilty. So he asks Poirot to look over the evidence again, and Poirot agrees. Poirot pays a visit to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder occurred. In the end, Poirot finds that more than one person might have wanted to kill Mrs. McGinty, and that Spence was right in his doubts about James Bentley. Throughout this novel, Christie portrays the police as ethical, hardworking, honest and intelligent.

I tend to do the same thing in my own Joel Williams novels. In part, that’s because my sleuth is a former police officer. He left the police force not because of any conflict, but because he wanted to pursue a career in higher education. So he’s got respect for the local police force. In fact, he’s reluctant to investigate crimes on his own, as he knows that the police are basically good at what they do.

The Maverick

Another very successful “cop type” is the “rulebreaker” who’s far less concerned with departmental policy than with solving cases. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch are both clear examples of this kind of cop. You could argue that Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee could also fit into this category. This kind of police officer has little patience for the niceties of departmental politics, and doesn’t mind going out on a proverbial limb to find the answers when s/he’s investigating.

I haven’t been in law enforcement myself, so I don’t know from experience just how common this sort of police officer is in real life. But in crime fiction, such a cop can make for a fascinating character with a lot to add to a story.

The Eccentric

This police “type” is also common in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Eccentricity can be really interesting, and if those eccentricities are drawn in a believable way, readers can really learn to enjoy the cop who’s slightly different. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope are two examples of this sort of police officer. They more or less follow departmental policy, but they think creatively, have real intuitions about suspects, victims and murderers, and often arrive at the right answer in an unusual way.

The World-Weary, Jaded Cop

This sort of police officer has often been on the force for quite a while. Cops like this have seen a lifetime of violence and aren’t shocked by very much. Sometimes they’re disillusioned, but they don’t give up. They know that if they do, the “bad guys” win, and they don’t want that. Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is an example of this kind of police officer. He’s weary of police work, and sometimes thinks of leaving the force. But Wallander also knows that if he and his team let go of a case, killers get away.

The “Regular Guy”

“Regular Guy” cops are certainly competent and capable. But they’re far from highbrow. They’re no-nonsense types with little patience for airs and graces. Very often, they prefer a beer to a liqueur, and a steak or burger to fine dining. They not be “from the better class,” but they get the job done. Agatha Christie’s Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp and Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel are examples of this kind of detective. We love them in part because they get straight to the point, they don’t waste a lot of words, and they work hard.

There are other police officer “types,” too, that space doesn’t permit me to mention. And, of course, there are plenty of fictional cops who could fit into more than one category. Well-written police officer characters are often not easy to categorize with one description, anyway. But whatever type of officer we’re talking about, the police are the “thin blue line” that keep the rest of us safe and take a lot of risks to make sure we stay that way. What’s your favorite type of fictional cop?


  1. When thinking of police officers in books the first two that come to mind for me are Jim Chee and Eve Dallas. Both are great cops. I'd say in some ways they are the same, both want justice. They are different, of course, because of their settings and that one is female and one male. It is interesting to see the various types of police officer featured in books. Another great post to make me ponder.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. I love the eccentric types - like Morse. He comes to every case with his own phobias and issues but his intelligence allows him to look at the mystery sideways.

    My favourite incompetent policeman? I know it's not a book, but I adored Stephen Fry's portrayal of the policeman in Gosford Park. It is a wonderful example of an investigator so blinded by his own pre-conceived ideas that he can't look beyond the end of his nose.

  3. Mason - I hadn't thought of the similarities between Jim Chee and Eve Dallas, but I see what you mean. They are, indeed similar in that they both want to see "the good guys" win. They are also both unique - not "run of the mill" cops (if there is such a thing). Thanks for making me think of a new, unique idea.

    Elspeth - Thanks for mentioning Gosford Park. It's not everyone's cuppa, but you are right about Stephen Fry. He did a great job of going by his assumptions and pre-conceived ideas instead of the evidence. Great example! Thanks.

  4. Another cool thought-provoking post, Margot. As you mentioned in your opening, the pervasive nature of the police in crime fiction afforded you only several examples. You probably could have doubled the size of the article and still have exclusions. The "cop-type" that first came to my mind was the bad (dirty) cop.

  5. I am sort of tired of the angry, depressed, hard-drinking cop with women problems. And Monk made me tired of eccentrics. Give me the ordinary Joe doing his job.

  6. Bob - Thank you : ). As you say, there are so, so many other "cop types" I could have discussed, but the post would have been three weeks long. I agree that there are plenty of good examples of the "dirty cop" in crime fiction. I deliberately didn't want to mention that type because there are just too many examples and besides, I have little personal respect for "dirty" cops. I guess it's my bias seeping through...

    Patti - Oh I know just what you mean! It's too easy to bring out the cliched cop who's got so many personal demons and drinks too much, etc... Some writers do it brilliantly; they really do. But too many create hackneyed stereotypes that just don't hold my interest. A "regular cop" who's doing a job and does it well? That's a fait accompli.

  7. Although I tend not to be keen on incompetent cops, one pleasing exception is Joyce Porter's Dover. In his early appearances, at least, he was an excellent anti-sleuth and the stories were fun.

  8. Martin - Thanks; incompetent cops aren't usually my first choice, either. But as you say, there are always some exceptions. Thanks for reminding us of one of them : ).

  9. I agree with Martin, I would have to say Dover is the most incompetent, infuriating cop ever. For anyone who wants to try reading Dover, It's Murder with Dover is a good example, and Dover: The Collected Short Cases is a wonderful collection.

  10. Richard - Thanks for those excellent suggestions : ). Incompetent and infuriating can also be a well-written character; thanks for sharing these examples of how it can be done.

  11. I love mixing inspectors up. Have an eccentric with an observant hardworking. Usually I pick a team of two. It's fascinates me when the offices don't get along. I'm liking that Hannah doesn't get on with her new partner in Edward Martin's Serpent Pool.


  12. Clarissa - I know exactly what you mean about disparate detectives : ). That's part of the appeal of Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers. And thanks for mentioning Hannah and her new partner in Martin Edwards' The Serpent Pool; that is a good example of a pair of cops who seem mismatched. I actually like Hannah Scarlett very much, too; she does her job and does it well. No heroics, really, and no superpowers; she's competent, passionate about her work and intuitive. A good mix.

  13. There's a new cop show on TNT this year that has captured my interest. Memphis Beat stars Jason Lee ("My Name is Earl"). His character is a bit of a rule breaker, but he has an unusual insight into human nature so he "catches on" to a situation real fast. Probably my favorite non-TV cop these days is Craig Johnson's Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. I love those cowboys cops who do things their own way.

  14. Patricia - I haven't seen Memphis Beat, but I always think it's more realistic if a cop is able to catch on to a situation quickly. It's just not as realistic if a cop is thick-headed. And thanks for mentioning Walt Longmire. I know what you mean about the appeal of cops who have their own way of doing things. That's part of what I like so much about cops like Morse, Vera Stanhope and others. They aren't necessarily what you'd call rebels, but they are very independent thinkers.

  15. I prefer competent policemen. Not infallible, just smart enough to be worth following. I read a Danish debut today, good book in many ways, but the police made a couple of stupid mistakes. I don´t even think the writer did it on purpose, it seems as if she did not realize that any intelligent investigator would compare the cases immediately if two women were killed in the same spot (even though the second crime took place 20 years later).

  16. Dorte - I know exactly what you mean; I, too, like the police to be competent and able to make reasonable deductions. Otherwise the reader (well, this one, anyway) finds it harder to believe the plot. I like your example, too: a smart investigator would pay attention if two cases occurred in the same place, and I like it when authors give police credit for that intelligence.