One of the advantages that local police have over, say, the Met, the FBI, the RCMP or the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is that they tend to know the communities they serve. Sometimes, they also know the people who live in those communities. That can be especially helpful during a criminal investigation, so it’s nearly always a very good idea to link up with the local police. Of course, that doesn’t work if the police are corrupt, or in other ways not to be trusted. But in the main, local police often have a lot of helpful information to offer an investigation.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for a charity fête to be held at Nasse House, Nassecomb. While she’s there, Mrs. Oliver gets the feeling that there’s more to this than just creating an activity. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nassecomb and investigate, and he agrees. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker (who’s playing the part of the Victim in the Murder Hunt) is found dead. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is. Bland knows that he isn’t overly familiar with all of the people who live in the area, so he depends on his assistant, Constable Robert Hoskins, for background information and likely suspects. He even asks at one point, ‘Who did it, Hoskins?’ Hoskins has his own personal prejudices and faults and would like nothing better than to discover that the crime was committed by ‘some foreigner.’ Still, he has solid insights on the locals, and Bland knows that’s useful.
We also see those insights in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy. The stories feature Fabio Montale, a local police officer who grew up in the area he now serves. In some ways, it’s difficult for him to be there, because he’s got his own personal ghosts and tragic memories. But he has some real advantages as a local. He knows the families, he knows the local culture, and he knows how to get things done and who’s likely to know what. He also feels a strong bond with the community, and he understands it. For instance, in Total Chaos, he has a couple of local street kids mind his car while he takes care of some things. They know him; he knows them. So, he knows his car will be safe, and they know he’ll pay them what he promised. Also, people are sometimes more willing to talk to him than they might be if he were not ‘one of us.’
One of M.C. Beaton’s protagonists, Constable Hamish Macbeth, serves the people of Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He is a part of the community, and the local people accept him as such. He has a lot of knowledge of what goes on in town, and very often, his policing involves a conversation here and there, a ‘word to the wise,’ or even just being present. He’d rather do that than follow the letter of the law and possibly damage the relationships he’s built with everyone. And in any case, he doesn’t exactly champ at the bit to do a lot of policing, anyway. He does his job well, but he’d rather go fishing or spend time with his dog than chase down ‘bad guys.’ Unfortunately for Hamish, though, his boss, Inspector Blair, has no patience for Lochdubh or Hamish. Because of his feelings, Blair undermines Hamish whenever he can, and doesn’t always include him in official investigations. By doing that, though, he misses out on Hamish’s deep knowledge of the area, its people, and so on.
Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin is also a local. He serves in Lifford, which is very close to the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. He knows the people, the local culture, and the history of the place, so his insight’s very useful when outside agencies need information or are investigating a case. The local people know Devlin, and they know that he can be trusted. In fact, he’s more likely to have a quiet word with someone if there’s a problem than he is to rush in and make an arrest, especially if it’s not a life-or-death emergency. Because of his status as both ‘one of us’ and a garda, he’s sometimes tapped when there’s a larger investigation that impacts his area. He serves as liaison and does the ‘legwork’ for his jurisdiction. And the national authorities learn much more than they likely would if they didn’t include someone who’s part of the local social fabric.
And then there’s Abir Mukharjee’s Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee of the Indian Police Force. He’s based in Kolkata/Calcutta during the last years of the British Raj. As the series begins, Banerjee gets a new boss, Captain Sam Wyndham. Wyndham is English, but he’s moved to India to start a new life and start to heal from the death of his wife. Very shortly after Wyndham’s arrival, he and Banerjee get involved in the investigation of the murder of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. It’s a difficult, complicated case with serious political consequences, so Wyndham and Banerjee will have to move carefully. As the series goes on, we see how Wyndham gets to know his sergeant, and sees that he’s got lots of understanding of the area and its people – insights that Wyndham doesn’t have. Wyndham has his share of faults – more than one, to say the least. But he doesn’t make the mistake of ignoring what Banerjee has to say, or of treating him in a dismissive way. And that makes an important difference, both in the success of their investigations, and in their teamwork.
Sleuths who are local often do have a sense of the area and its people that others don’t always have. So, it’s often best for an investigation if their voices are heard and their opinions considered. They have important insights to offer.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Color the Band