Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Cops in crime fiction

Last week my daughter told me that TV shows and stories about cops are out. The recent protests about police brutality have cast police in a very different light; not as heroes pursuing justice and saving lives, as portrayed on TV and in novels, but as brutal thugs supporting a corrupt and discriminatory way of life. Even in Canada a harsh light has been cast in the dark corners of police interaction with the Black and Indigenous community.

Since I am currently writing my eleventh Inspector Green novel, my daughter's pronouncement gave me pause. My fictional police officers are flawed but, at their core, mostly good guys. I do not write about police corruption, discrimination, or the morally murky world where organized crime and police enforcement meet. My stories are about ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary crisis, and Inspector Green himself, as the son of Holocaust survivors, is passionate about bringing bad guys to account, pursuing justice for victims and supporting the marginalized in society.

Like most of my fellow writers of police procedural novels, I've never pretended my stories were about how policing operates in the real world, not because I want to whitewash the flaws and portray a fantasy ideal, but because most real-life murders and the minutiae of police investigations don't make good storytelling. And that's what mysteries are all about. It's not about the police per se, but about the struggles of people facing their darkest hour, the choices they make, and the fallout from those.

In most mysteries, the murder is merely a dramatic device around which the story revolves. Whether the writer splatters blood all over the page or hides it discreetly offstage, the resulting story is about the interactions, relationships, and conflicts of the characters, both within themselves and between each other. It's about the unravelling of those relationships and the quest for justice for those involved. The protagonist, whether it's an amateur sleuth, an investigating journalist, or a professional police officer, is just the agent in that search, and not the main focus of the story. I think readers love mysteries because of that fundamental theme of searching for justice and righting a wrong.

That said, there is certainly room to inject some reality into this idealized fictional scenario. The atmosphere in the police squad room, the inclusiveness, and the biases can and should be addressed. When I wrote my very first Inspector Green novel, back in the mists of time, I included no female police officers (because that was the reality of the day), but I have slowly been adding them and addressing their unique struggles in later books. Still later I began to think about racial inclusiveness, and in this latest book I have tried to take this one step further.

There has been much written recently about how white the crime fiction world is, both in terms of who is writing it and who is reading it. There has been talk about how to increase diversity and inclusion. I won't go into that further here, but I think all of us writers should be taking a look at the stories we tell and the characters we create. We are always looking for new, compelling themes to wrap a good story around, and the insights emerging from the recent soul-searching on racism can only enrich them as well as making them more relevant to more people's lives. 

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

It is a very narrow track to tread. It seems as if real life is hitting us from the left and right these days. Unless a writer chooses to ignore it, things are going to have to change. In this case, unless the plot specifically focusses on racial prejudice in law enforcement, you can't do much more than throw something in obliquely and move on or it can just be ignored. (I don't think that's a particularly good choice.)

So now those who write police procedurals have another to juggle -- just when you thought you had the pandemic angle sorted out.

Sheesh! What's next? An alien invasion?