The Problematic Cop

To say that crime fiction long had, and to some extent still has, a police problem may seem rather odd at a time when police procedurals are the most frequent and popular form of the genre. The problem I’m discussing here is not the old political one of knowing whether crime fiction should lionize law enforcement (as it often does) or be more critical of it (as it often does too) but a structural one. The basic requirements and conventions of the genre are often at odds with the realities of the police job. Also and perhaps most importantly, crime fiction from the onset has always had a strongly individualistic streak whereas policing is a collective endeavour.

This was especially true of the pre-WW2 Great Detective era, in which the detective was supposed to solve the case on their own and using only their little grey cells, which is radically antithetical to real-life police procedure. As a result, the era saw the flourishing of amateur sleuths, later joined by private investigators courtesy of the hardboiled school, with policemen seen either as sidekicks, foils or antagonists – never equals. A few writers chose to go against the grain and have policemen as protagonists but the formula basically remained the same as the focus and the onus of solving the case were on them alone. Some admittedly had smaller people working under orders but they didn’t work with them; detection as team work was out of the question. Also having a cop as detective was no guarantee that real-life procedures would be followed to a T. The typical Golden Age copper protagonist, while rarely taking genuine liberties with the law, tended to be their own man and behave in ways that left real-life policemen puzzled in the best of cases. Even Simenon’s Maigret, despite his reputation as one of the earliest « realistic » police detectives in crime fiction, is in many ways a fantasy figure with quite unorthodox and very personal methods. I’m not saying this as criticism, just pointing out how powerful the Great Detective figure was even with writers that professed to reject it.

Things slowly began to change, there and elsewhere, after WW2. As the genre aimed at greater authenticity if not reality, the Great Detective began to wane and was replaced by more human, more fallible characters, most of them being professionals for the very good reason that crime in real life are investigated by professionals, not amateurs or private eyes. The modern police procedural was born but almost from the onset it divided into different schools. One, most popular in Europe and Britain, maintained the pre-war figure of the Great Detective With a Badge, though with a tighter obedience to real-life procedures, while the other, hailing from America, adopted a near-documentary approach, emphasized leg and team work and aimed to portray cops in the most realistic fashion possible. The former was of course greatly indebted to Simenon whereas the latter had actually made its entrance in the war years with Lawrence Treat’s Alphabet series, followed by Hillary Waugh’s Frank Sessions books then by Ed McBain who pushed the concept to its logical extremity by making a whole squad the protagonist of his books. Both schools are still active nowadays, though as often the American one is the most influential and tends to overshadow and even « contaminate » the other.

What’s that « police problem » then? As I said earlier, it’s a structural one. Crime fiction even at its most supposedly realistic has to be at least a little exciting, something that real-life police job very rarely is as any copper will tell you. Some TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue or Homicide have tried to go the full realistic way and ended concentrating more on characters than plots as most of the cases were trivial – as they are in real life. On the other hand, shows as different as Endeavour and S.W.A.T. offer more intellectual or physical excitement but realism is not really one of their main virtues. Crime writers are thus faced with a hard choice between truth and readability and their ultimate decision depends on their priorities. Most try a middle way of reasonable credibility and reasonable excitement, with greater focus on characters or plots according to their own preferences, but in the end liberties are always taken, can’t but be taken. It’s crime fiction, not journalism.

So in the end the treatment of the police in crime fiction is a paradoxical one as the more realistic it tries to be, the more clearly it demonstrates that genuine realism is impossible in the genre. Those good old amateurs had their advantages after all.

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