Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Canadian crime myths busted too

Rick's post gets to the heart of why we write crime fiction. We are creating a tale of human struggle, pain, and ultimately justice, using the device of the mystery novel. But in order to tell that tale so that it feels real and draws the reader into the struggle, most of us try to create a somewhat real world.

There are pitfalls. I can relate to Aline's experience with the cops and lawyers at the CWA conference. Real crime investigation is nothing like our fictional creations. In our defence, TV portrayals are worse. I don't know how many times I've yelled at the TV that the detectives shouldn't be traipsing all over the crime scene, picking up evidence and stepping over blood spatter. And that pathologists and coroners shouldn't hover over the body with their long blond locks trailing. And that DNA results don't come back from the lab in the blink of an eye.

When I was writing my first Inspector Green novel, Do or Die, I made up all the police and crime investigation stuff, basing it largely on both US and UK novels and shows I knew. When to my surprise a publisher bought it, I realized I'd better fix it up if I didn't want to look like a rank amateur, so I asked the Ottawa Police if someone on the force would be willing to read it. That was a stroke of excellent fortune. The police officer who read it was a crime fiction fan and he subsequently read all ten books in the series, as well as connecting me with specialists if I needed them. He was a priceless asset.

His first comment was just as Aline said. Inspectors don't investigate crime, they don't even oversee the investigation or direct resources to it. They are higher-level managers of an overall department which includes Major Crimes. My inspector should have the rank of detective. The person overseeing the case would be a Sergeant, and the person overseeing all the cases currently being investigated by Major Crimes would be a Staff Sergeant.

I was crushed. "Detective Green" did not roll off the tongue. It had no mystique. So I exercised a writer's prerogative and made him an inspector anyway, but one who was not happy to be out of the trenches and behind a desk. This allowed for a great deal of dramatic tension over the series as he tried to meddle and second-guess the sergeant who was actually running the case. It was not realistic but that was a small nod to realism.

One area where I do try to be more realistic is in crime scene analysis. Years ago I took a full-term police course in forensics and crime scene analysis so that I could use it effectively without causing SOCO investigators to hurl the book at the wall. My books do not deal with the minutiae of forensics, because the lifeblood of good fiction is human interaction and conflict, not fingerprint and fibre analysis. Most of my books focus on old fashioned interviewing and background investigation of suspects, family, friends, etc. It was very helpful to know how forensics works, however. For example, the coroner and the SOCO are in charge of the crime scene and do not allow anyone inside until they have finished processing it. That can be days.

So no detectives traipsing around picking up clues. Instead, they are given very detailed photos, diagrams, and reports of every aspect of the scene and the body. This is another potential source of tension as detectives chafe on the outskirts. And those forensics results obtained on the spot? Forget it. Evidence is packed up, stored in fridges if needed, and sent to the lab, and the whole thing can take weeks. Even months depending on priorities. But that delay is also useful, since it means that my detectives can get on with interviewing and solving the case while they wait.

Interviewing, etc. is one more area where we writers bend the rules a lot. Forget two or three dogged detectives doing all the legwork. Normally in a homicide case a whole lot of officers are deployed in the initial stages to conduct house-to-house interviews, follow up on tips from the public, watch videos and CCTV, and trace last known activities. But following sixty characters does not work in fiction. Readers' minds glaze over once you introduce the eighth constable. Hence the fiction of two or three main detectives and a supporting cast of perhaps another five. All other reports are funnelled through them.

One last point. It's true that most criminals are not too bright, and they often have to improvise and cover up on the fly, which does not go well. But dumb villains are no fun in fiction. They are not worthy adversaries and do not evade capture for 300 pages. So we invent the likes of Moriarty.


Thomas Burns said...

I'm all for realism, to a point. But who says we have to write about the world we're in? Maybe there's a parallel universe where Jessica Fletcher investigates a murder every week, or Inspectors go out into the trenches. Preston and Child's FBI agent Pendergast is a millionaire and rides around in a Rolls, and Holmes and Watson have investigated cases from Victorian times to the present day. Isn't the whole point of writing fiction to make stuff up?

Donna S said...

I am not a writer but I am a reader and a reader of mysteries. I do not really want realism in my books. I do not care if it is an inspector or a police constable who interviews me if I were a witness. Real life murder and crime have touched me in real life and believe me, it is not fun. Almost had to sit on a jury in a murder trial - got down to the last 24 people and it scared me to death. In the end they did not pick me thank goodness. Seeing the accused sitting in the box at the front of the courtroom was enough to give me the heebie jeebies. And a person my husband and I knew (or thought we knew)in real life, lost it. Went home, got a gun and went back to the bar and shot and killed an undercover police officer, dead. Being investigated by detectives was not a walk in the park and they ask the same questions over and over and ask to use the washroom in your home so they can get a glimpse of other rooms in your house which gives them an idea of who you are I guess. No thanks - give me Poirot or Holmes any day.