Friday, September 14, 2012

Police in Fiction and Real Life

A couple of friends of mine, Gray Cavender and Nancy Jurik, fellow social scientists, have written a book.  Their announcement that Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect is now available got me thinking about police procedural novels and the radio programs, films, and television shows based on them.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that receiving the e-mail announcement about their book got me thinking again about police procedural novels. Since I have recently finished writing one, I'd certainly been thinking about the subgenre and how it differs from the mystery novels that I've been writing for over a decade. I'd been thinking about why the first-person narration that I use in my amateur sleuth series was a non-starter for my police procedural novel. I'd been thinking of how my strong instinct to create a well-plotted mystery solved at the end of the book aligns with the police procedural in which it is acceptable, although certainly not required, to reveal the culprit early on and have him or her engage the police detectives in a game of cat and mouse. I'd been thinking about how character development and relationship conflict – elements that I have focused on in my amateur sleuth series – should be handled in a police procedural novel when readers are interested in watching cops go through the process of solving a crime (including details about crime scene forensics, autopsies, and legal issues).

I'd also been thinking about police procedurals because an in-class survey revealed that my students in an undergrad class know some recent cop shows (particularly Law and Order and CSI) but generally have not been exposed to the golden oldies and late 20th century classics. I sent them off to watch the first episode of High Street Blues (that two-part first episode that stunned viewers with the violent cliff-hanger at the end of Part I). I haven't asked them yet to watch Dragnet, Highway Patrol, T.J. Hooker, Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O (the original), The Rookies, Barney Miller, McCloud, Columbo, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, or Homicide. I haven't explained to them yet why Police Woman, Get Christie Love, and Cagney and Lacey were ground-breaking shows for women (and don't forget Emma Peel on the other side of the pond -- although technically The Avengers wasn't a cop show, but what female in the viewing audience didn't want to be that cool and competent, not to mention stylish?)

Of course, before the television shows, there were the police procedural novels, often dated from Lawrence Treat's V as in Victim. Among the most enduring and beloved of the police procedural series, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series was set in a city a lot like New York. I thought of Ed McBain when I was putting together the ensemble cast of cops for my own police procedural. But it was to Hill Street Blues that I turned when I was visually a bustling urban police precinct.

It's not that I've never been in a real police station or talked to real cops. I've done ride-alongs, too, and I know that -- although there are moments when policing can be adrenaline-rushing and dangerous -- much about patrol work is more "protecting and serving" than "crime-solving." This would explain why many of the books about cops feature detectives rather than patrol officers.

Fictional police detectives can be brilliant, moody, eccentric, angst-ridden, compassionate, funny, drunken, and/or relentless in their search for truth and justice -- all the things that PIs and amateur sleuths can be. But the police detectives don't need an excuse for getting involved in solving a crime. They get to walk right in and examine the crime scene, talk to the forensics team, go to the autopsy, and ask anyone they'd like any questions that occur to them. Of course, the person being questioned can refuse to answer, but then the fictional police detective can play hard ball (handcuffs, jail, yes, you have the right to call your attorney). No amateur sleuth has that kind of power. Not even private eyes or prosecutors have that kind of power. Well, may be a fictional prosecutor can get a character arrested. But the police detective has a gun and is authorized to use it.

Power to enter a crime scene, power to question suspects, power to make an arrest, and power to shoot to kill when needed – that solves a lot of problems for a writer. No need to deal with the sleuth's motivation and how he or she can obtain evidence and get witnesses to cooperate in his or her inquiry.

But the writer does need to know how the job is done. Research and observation are required if the writer has never been a cop.

And, if the author is writing a book that is true to life, the police detectives in his or her cast of characters must deal with the same issues that real-life detectives deal with -- stress related to the physical, psychological, and ethical demands of the job, stress related to the police bureaucracy, stress related to the police subculture (traditionally white and male), stress related to police-community relations, and stress related to the impact of the job on relationships with spouses, lovers, friends, and relatives.

I'm looking forward to finding out what Cavender and Jurik have discovered about police work as performed by the female detective in Prime Suspect. I'm also looking forward to trying to capture the flavor of real police work in my own fiction.

And, as Sergeant Esterhaus used to say, "Hey, let's be careful out there."


LD Masterson said...

I enjoyed this post, especially being reminded of so many of my old favorite cop shows. I didn't need reminding on Hill Street - I've got the first couple seasons on DVD. (And I grew up idolizing Emma Peel, although I'm not sure realism applies there.)

Hannah Dennison said...

I LOVED Emma Peel too! Yes, great post!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Belated response -- I was on the road yesterday . . . glad you enjoyed the post.