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:
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.
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.
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?