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.