Call The Police*

For most of us, the police are a fixture in our lives. We depend on the police for our security, we watch out for them if we happen to be speeding, and they’re the ones we call when something terrible happens. But really, modern police forces have only been around for 191 years, when Sir Robert Peel formed the London Metropolitan Police Force. Other police forces were founded in the next decades, and they soon became an important part of crime prevention and detection.

It’s interesting to see how the police have been portrayed in crime fiction as police forces have evolved, and as modern technology has developed. For instance, Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was written less than twenty years after the Metropolitan Police Force was founded. In the story, a ‘gentleman detective,’ C. Auguste Dupin, solves the strange murders of two Parisian women. The police are involved, and there are reports of what they’re doing to solve the case, but, as Dupin puts it,

‘The Paris police work hard and often get good results; but there is no real method in what they do.’

The police aren’t stupid, but they don’t really have the intuition and skills that they need. And as police forces began, they didn’t have the equipment and support they needed.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes feels similarly about the police. There are some, such as Tobias Gregson, who’ve earned Holmes’ good will. In general, though, the police are portrayed as perhaps well-meaning, but at times narrow-minded, and not good at using evidence and making logical deductions.

Books written at and about that time also sometimes show that police weren’t generally highly regarded by ‘the better classes.’ For instance, Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger introduces William Monk, a Victorian-Era London police detective. In the novel, Monk solves the murder of the ‘well-born’ Joscelin Grey. As part of his investigation, he interviews Grey’s family, and soon finds that they are not going to be helpful. For one thing, he’s ‘only’ a policeman, not much different to a grubby tradesman. For another, the family – especially its matriarch – won’t consider the possibility that ‘people like us’ would be involved in such sordid doings. It’s a difficult case, and it’s made even harder by the family’s attitude towards Monk. In the end, though, he finds out who killed Grey and why.

By the time Agatha Christie began her writing career, less than one hundred years after the Metropolitan Police were founded, the police had more resources at their disposal, and were better trained and equipped. In general, Christie’s novels portray the police as fairly competent, if not always brilliant. Her major sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, have working relationships with the police. In fact, more than once, Poirot suggests to a client that the police be called in. He points out that they have resources he doesn’t and can get access to information he can’t. Of course, that doesn’t mean he respects all police officers (right, fans of The Murder on the Links?). It’s true that some of the police who encounter Miss Marple are inclined to dismiss her at first. But she also has what you might call a following on the force, and even the police who don’t respect her at first learn that she is ignored at their peril. And the law enforcement branches that work with the Beresfords have come to depend on them for all sorts of special information and good results.

In her Lord Peter Wimsey series, Dorothy L. Sayers also portrays the police in a generally positive way. Her Inspector Parker, who eventually becomes Wimsey’s brother-in-law, is a smart, dedicated police officer. Wimsey respects him, works with him, and considers him a friend. Certainly, he doesn’t worry that his sister Mary has married ‘beneath herself.’ There are many other examples in Golden Age crime fiction of the growing professionalism and resources of police forces as time went on, and of the sometimes quite cordial relations between the sleuth and the police (right, Ellery Queen fans?).

Of course, that wasn’t always the case. For instance, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin often butt heads with Inspector Cramer and other police officers. They do collaborate, and Cramer knows that Wolfe is a brilliant detective. But Wolfe’s sometimes-arrogant manner gets to Cramer, and so does Archie’s smart-mouthed attitude. For their part, Wolfe and Archie know that Cramer is a dedicated cop who is determined to do his job well. It’s a complicated relationship, but it does show that Cramer is part of a professional, trained police force.

In more recent decades, the police procedural has become a major sub-genre of crime fiction. There are many series that feature police protagonists – far, far too many for me to mention here. They vary from light, ‘easy’ novels to the darkest, bleak noir, and include all sorts of police characters. What they all have in common, though, is that they show that police work has become more complex and sophisticated. There are also many more laws governing what the police may and may not do, and how they are expected to go about their work. And today’s crime novels explore the modern police force, warts and all, as the saying goes.

And that’s one of the things about crime fiction. Reading crime fiction lets the reader see all sorts of changes over time, including changes in policing. We’ve come a long, long way since Sir Robert Peele…

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thin Lizzy.


18 thoughts on “Call The Police*

  1. Very enjoyable post! Police have changed, grown, and become really useful characters in crime novels for many reasons not all of them good. Forensics and tech opened the world up when it comes to solving crime, makes it more fun!

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    1. Thanks, Cat – glad you enjoyed the post. There’s no doubt that there’s a whole lot more to policing than there was, and the force is more diverse than ever. That does make for interesting character development. You also have a well-taken point about the development of the forensics and tech aspect of police work. It’s a whole new world of detection out there, and, yes, it can make for fun writing!

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  2. We have, haven’t we Margot? And the police procedural is definitely here to stay – I’m a fan of many, especial the Martin Becks and the 87th Precinct books. I find it interesting, though, that the biggest names of GA fiction seem to feature independent sleuths – although it’s clear from the British Library reprints that there were plenty of authors featuring police detectives!

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    1. That’s actually something I like about the BL reprints, KBR. I think they let us see a broader picture of what was being written at the time, and as you say, there were plenty of fictional police detectives out there! You’ve two excellent series, too. Both the Martin Beck series and the 87th Precinct series portray policing in a realistic way, and let readers get to know the characters well. The stories – the main plots themselves – are done well, too, in my opinion.

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  3. Such an interesting post. I haven’t read Perry’s Monk series but I have read three or four of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt books. I seem to recall in that first book the family didn’t even want to have Pitt in the house, suggesting he was bringing disgrace on the household just by being there. I hadn’t previously been aware of that attitude back then. I find it funny that in some books you can be firmly on the side of the investigating police and in others completely on the side of say, Miss Marple, who is being sneered at and ignored by the police.

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    1. I’m glad you’ve read some of the Thomas and Pitt books, Cath. I think Perry’s got a good sense of the era, and the depicts it effectively. If you try the Monk series I hope you’ll enjoy it. Funny, isn’t it, how families so often felt that having the police in was a disgrace. I remember that sort of view from Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, where one of the housemaids is taken to task for speaking to the police about the murder that takes place. She’s told in no uncertain terms how ‘common’ it is to be mixed up with the police. As you say, there are such different views of the police depending on the point of view of the book – that’s quite interesting, isn’t it?

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      1. Oh yes, I remember the maid doing that in The Hollow, now you mention it. And, checking on FF, I see that book was from 1946 so that attitude was still around even then. Wow. And talking of different views of the police, a favourite fantasy/crime series of mine is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Night Watch’ series which feature Sam Vimes. There are eight books but because they’re also Discworld books the Night Watch sometimes feature in other standalone books. And boy do you get a different view of them when the Night Watch characters are not on the side of the hero of whatever book you’re reading. There I am getting angry with characters I usually love and it’s really disconcerting!

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      2. I know what you mean, Cath, about getting angry with characters. I’ve done that, too, and I think it says something about how realistic they are. Thanks, too, for mentioning the ‘Night Watch’ series. That’s a good example of the different ways in which the police can be seen, and it’s interesting how that’s impacted by which side they’re on, so to speak.

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  4. Interesting post, Margot. I do enjoy a police procedural though it isn’t my favourite sub-genre within the crime and mystery canon. I think I should try and read more in this category.

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    1. Police procedurals aren’t everyone’s cuppa, but I think some are really outstanding, Col. And I find it interesting to see the changes in the way police are portrayed as time’s gone by.

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  5. That was so interesting, Margot. The evolution of police officers in fiction isn’t something I would have noticed on my own. You’re right that these days there’s tons of variety and opportunities for creativity and complexity. Thanks for sharing this fascinating look into crime fiction..

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, D. Wallace. It is interesting to think about how the police and policing have evolved in the last hundred or so years. And I do like the way that crime fiction has followed that evolution!

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  6. I am fond of police procedural series, and have long preferred them to books with amateur sleuths. Sometimes the police procedurals in more recent years get a bit too gritty and sometimes unrealistic for me, though.

    I do like Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins in the Nero Wolfe series, and the competition they have with Wolfe for solving the crimes.

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    1. I like that competition between Cramer/Stebbins and Wolfe/Goodwin, too, Tracy. I think it makes all of the characters seem a little more human, if that’s the way to put it. You make an interesting point, too, about modern police procedurals. Some of them really are gritty – far grittier than we see in Golden Age novels. And you’re not the only one who thinks they can get too gritty.

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  7. The police have certainly been treated differently over the years, haven’t they? They used to be almost universally portrayed as decent upright types, even if they were also often showed as not being as bright as the amateur detective. Then we went through a long spate of them being shown as violent and corrupt – where they often seemed worse than the criminals! We seem to be somewhere in the middle now, where they’re usually good guys again but cross the line in pursuit of justice. I wonder if the type of people who become police officers have really changed, or if it’s just the fictional representation that has. The job has certainly changed over time!

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    1. You make such a good point, FictionFan! As I think of fictional police such as Tobias Gregson, Chief Inspector Japp, or Inspector Parker, they are all good guys. As you say, they may not have the main character’s brilliance, but they do their jobs well and they’re upright – i.e., not corrupt. Then things change, and as you say, we see some violent, corrupt cops. I wonder if that might have had anything to do with the anti-establishment movements of the 60s and 70s? Then, with work like Colin Dexter’s and Ian Rankin’s and so on, we see cops being basically good people again. Of course some aren’t, and there are some solid novels where the ‘bad apples’ are rooted out. But cops are on the side of the angels most of the time. It’s a really interesting change in the way cops are portrayed!

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