Caroline: Is detective fiction an escapist genre? The marketing for today’s thrillers and cosy mysteries that encourages us to “get away from the real world” for a while by reading about fictional crimes would suggest that it is. Expecting to be soothed by plots that centre on violent death might sound counter intuitive, but it is the structure around the crimes, the power of the detective to create order out of chaos, that is comforting.
Underlying all of this are assumptions about justice. That through the investigations of a detective, the wicked perpetrators will receive their just desserts and balance will be restored to the universe. And by and large, it is a police force that enforces this justice.
Even if it is an amateur detective like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot who has cracked the mystery, it is the police who will lead the culprit away to a cell after the dramatic denoument. Whether individual officers are portrayed as whip smart or bumbling, the police as a whole are a default part of crime fiction. Their presence is rarely questioned.
But interactions with the police in real life are not always as straightforward or fair as they are portrayed in mysteries. For some people and groups, calling the police has historically made their situation worse, not better — whether that’s because of racism, sexism or other forms of prejudice. What would it look like if those stories and experiences were reflected in detective fiction? That’s what we’re going to explore in today’s episode.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Detective fiction has always been closely interwined with the police, right from its beginnings in the nineteenth century. The two emerged around the same time and developed in tandem. In France, the reformed criminal Eugene Francois Vidocq began organising an informal brigade of plainclothes law enforcement officers in 1811, and two years later the Emperor Napoleon signed a decree that made them an official state security force known as the Sûreté Nationale. Vidocq was friends with authors like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas père, and parts of his life appeared several times in novels from the 1820s and 30s. Honoré de Balzac borrowed much of the backstory for his character Vautrin in the La comédie humaine series from Vidocq. A convicted criminal, Vautrin avoids the death penalty several times and ends up as chief of the Sûreté.
In Britain, a similar process was under way. Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners from the 1750s and the Marine Police Force established in 1798 had gradually morphed into the Metropolitan Police, which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1829. The first detective branch, of eight officers, was added in 1842, and they were given permission to operate in plainclothes, out of uniform, even though there was some distaste in the British establishment at the time for such organised state surveillance. Charles Dickens was fascinated by this new development in law enforcement, and covered the new branch extensively in his magazine Household Words. His first article, from 1851, was titled “On Duty with Inspector Field” and narrates a night he spent out on patrol with the detectives.
Dickens almost immediately imported what he learned on such assignments into his fiction. In 1853 he included the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, a character heavily based on the Met’s Charley Field. Dickens’s friend and literary protege Wilkie Collins followed suit, basing Scotland Yard’s Sergeant Cuff in his landmark 1868 novel The Moonstone on the early antics of the Met’s detectives as well. Considered a likely candidate for the first true detective novel, the presence of a smart, competent police detective in The Moonstone had an outsize impact on the next century of crime fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others were all, in a sense, following in Sergeant Cuff’s footsteps.
In this first wave of crime fiction, the arrival of the police is not necessarily a positive development for all characters, it should be noted. A class dimension to law enforcement was established fairly early, with writers recording the anxiety felt by servants and lower paid workers when a detective starts asking questions. Over and over again in late nineteenth and early twentieth century whodunnits, housemaids and butlers insist that investigators search their bodies and bedrooms thoroughly and immediately so that their innocence can be established beyond doubt. Without a social or financial safety net, a professional reputation was vital to continued employment, and any whisper of being “mixed up” with the police could be enough to ensure that a servant was never hired or trusted again.
But for the largely middle and upper class protagonists of detective fiction, the police represent only security and safety. Aristocratic characters might find the presence of constables on their estate asking them questions irritating or regard inquiries as a breach of their privacy, but they don’t feel fundamentally threatened by them, or consider themselves seriously at risk of receiving unfair treatment.
If you’ve been reading the news at all over the last few years, you can’t help but have noticed that not everybody is afforded the luxury of knowing that the police are only there for their own protection. There have been instances of law enforcement deviating from that ideal of impartial justice that is expressed in detective fiction all over the world, but the most high profile instances, at least from my perspective, have been in the US. From the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown Jr in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolice, Minnesota in May 2020, there have been so many high profile examples of the police themselves being the source, rather than the solution to, the violence. And as the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists have highlighted, these cases are inextricably linked to the wider problem of racial inequality and injustice. Both Brown and Floyd were Black men, and both were killed by white police officers. That this situation, this power dynamic, is replicated over and over again is no coicidence.
There are plenty of examples to draw on from where I live in the UK, too, and no doubt from wherever you’re listening to this now. Most recently and most visibly there was the Sarah Everard case, in which a 33-year-old woman disappeared while walking home one evening in south London. A serving Metropolitan police and firearms officer has been charged with her kidnapping and murder and is now awaiting trial. A vigil held in Everard’s memory near where she disappeared was forcibly broken up by police, with shocking pictures of women attendees being wrestled to the ground by officers being widely circulated. At the time, many made comparisons with the light touch way in which a recent demonstration against Covid lockdown measures had been monitored by police, in echo of similar complaints about the intensive way that Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall protests are policed. There’s still a public inquiry going on, too, that is scrutinising the activities of the so called “spy cops”, the cohort of about 139 undercover officers who spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968. At least twenty of them formed serious relationships with women while undercover and three at least fathered children with them. The Met has retrospectively admitted that this was “abusive and deceitful” to the women involved, and compensation has been paid in some cases after some of the women took legal action.
All of which is to say, it isn’t very surprising that readers have started to look a little harder at the police characters in their crime fiction of late.
Nicole: I was noticing that the police just pop up all the time, whether they’re like a main character, supporting characters or they are foils for the main character, whether it’s like, you know, it was a Sherlock Holmes situation, you have a bumbling inspector they’re running things with, or it’s just like the police are there it’d be like, to help, basically.
In March, the CrimeReads website published an article on this subject titled “Who Are You Going To Call: Rethinking The Role of Police in Mysteries“, and reading that really helped to hone my own thoughts on this subject as I was working out how to talk about these issues on the podcast. So, I got in touch with the writer of that piece, wanting to hear more.
Nicole: My name is Nicole Glover. I’m the author of The Conductors, which came out fairly recently this year. It’s a historical fantasy mystery story about… everything.
Caroline: Nicole’s debut novel isn’t a straightforward murder mystery — as she says, it’s a historical novel with fantasy elements as well — but the process of writing it allowed her the space to consider her own perceptions of law enforcement in relation to the way the police are written about in crime fiction.
Nicole: I think I’ve always kind of questioned the appearance of police in a sense. I have got a healthy suspicion or reluctance of a police presence. But even when I was younger, I was more neutral as kid. And as I got older and realizing how often they appeared, I just started noticing.
And particularly in the last few years, it was something that really sparked my interest about cause I remember reading articles about police propaganda, particularly in the US. Whether it shows and the movies because there’s all these cop shows in America from CSI to like the comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and everything like that.
And there are so many roles for these characters, even look at supporting casts, there’s always a cop character. I guess around the same time I was getting more into mystery because I was starting to write my book. When you write a story, you start looking at inspirations of the people in your genre and watching all these mystery shows, cops are showing up all the time.
Caroline: A Gallup poll of adults in America conducted in August 2020 found a big divide in perceptions of the police. Fifty-six percent of white adults surveyed said they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, while only 19 per cent of Black adults said the same. This divide has been widening since this survey began in 1993, too, with the disparity getting larger. This difference has a lot to do with experiences with the police in different communities — and the fact that situations are more likely to escalate and end badly when they involve people who aren’t white.
Nicole: And it’s also becomes clear the racial issue is really strong because there’s lots of contrast articles that come out when there’s an incidents about whether someone Black or Brown that gets shot from where the case where a white antagonist would probably get gently talked down or taken without being injured.
Like whenever I see accounts of shootings in different areas. If I see in the article that the person was captured and taken into custody, I know that shooter was white without reading anything else beyond that headline.
Caroline: The way the police are characterised in the vast majority of crime fiction — ie as the heroes or at least the reliable coppers who can be relied upon to uphold justice – doesn’t match the experience that Nicole is talking about. It’s not being told from the perspective of characters who are constantly worried that even the most casual and routine interaction with law enforcement could put them in harm’s way. That’s true in books from the 1920s, and it’s largely remained true in the detective fiction that has been published since.
After the break: what happens when the police aren’t the heroes anymore?
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You might be wondering why this all matters. Detective fiction is just that — fiction, so the argument goes. Whatever is going on in the real world, surely the way whodunnits are written doesn’t have any bearing on that.
Except that detective fiction is pop culture, and a very popular part of our culture indeed. It reflects ideas back to the world, and helps to form narratives and trends around it. To give just a small example, there are lots of great interviews with real life forensic pathologists and investigators out there in which these scientists explain how much their work differs from what we see on television on shows like CSI and Silent Witness. We’ve become so accustomed to the way that DNA evidence and blood stains are analysed in fictional narratives, that we expect it to be similarly accurate and rapid in real life, which it often isn’t — lab work takes days, sometimes weeks, and can’t always deliver the certainties that it does on TV.
In fact, for a lot of people, fictional portrayals of police and criminal investigation will form the bulk of their impressions on this question, so it really does matter. Here’s Nicole again.
Nicole: Because even though it seems like in the news that we have a lot interaction with police, most general person will be interacting with police on the very minimum level. They’re not going to see them all the time. So fiction is their most likely way to get their impression of the police.
Yeah. And it’s so many, you know, there’s so many, like there, there are like seven different CSI shows or, or all that kind of all the similar genre and right now, like it’s, so it’s, it’s relentless.
Caroline: When Nicole began writing the story that would become The Conductors, she was sure from the outset that even though it was a mystery, there weren’t going to be any police characters, which is an unusual starting point for a piece of crime fiction.
Nicole: And I guess from the start, I knew the cops weren’t going to play any kind of particular role in the story. Most, some of it’s character reasons — they are former Underground Railroad conductors. They did stuff that was in the eyes of the law illegal back in that time period.
Caroline: The book is set in post–Civil War Philadelphia, and the main character Hetty and her husband Benjy are newly settled in the city having spent years as conductors on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that helped enslaved people escape the United States.
Nicole: So they’re like my definition of what’s legal and what’s right is totally different. So they’re not going to turn to certain authorities about certain things, especially as I often learned in the past that sometimes doing that gets them in more trouble. And I think also in some ways I was curious about like how a story functions without the role of the police.
Caroline: A story set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War with Black protagonists was always going to have to grapple with questions about justice, equality and legal authority. And that’s partly what drew Nicole to this moment in history. When her story begins, the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery — which was ratified by Congress in 1865 — is still very new. It’s only just become illegal to own another person, so her characters can be forgiven for preferring to stay away from the state system of law enforcement.
Nicole: And so the time period’s always interested me. I mean, it’s also, it’s all stuck in my mind cause it pops up the most. When you talk about movies about black history in America, that’s the time period. I used it as a backstory on purpose most because I wanted to talk about the reconstruction period, the period after the American Civil War, because that’s not talked about at all in the US that much beyond like, you know, a paragraph saying it happened.
And I liked the idea of using it as a backstory for the characters that is an area that’s where they got their skills to, you know, learn how to be mystery solvers, basically. I figured like, you know, if you think about it, for me it seemed natural, like, you know, they learned these skills about sneaking around, they get very aware and observant, being able to pick out who could be a good person to help, if they could be like enemy more or less.
And then in addition to like, you know, the magical elements of the world I created , I felt that they got those skill sets and make them really easy to be like, you know, mystery solvers, you know?. I always kind of joke when I was putting together the idea for this, like the mystery element just kind of slid in nicely when I was first like drafting out the story way back when, so like all these things kind of combined together.
In the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, police characters and the system of law enforcement and justice that they represent are certainly a regular presence. But although they are there, they aren’t often in the foreground of these plots. Of the four so called Queens of Crime from this time — Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh — only one created a recurring detective character who is an active member of a police force.
That was Marsh’s Scotland Yard detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who first appeared in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead and then starred in a further 31 novels until his final case in 1982’s Light Thickens. Several times across his long literary career, Alleyn references the fact that as a serving police officer he is merely a small cog in the big machine of the state, with little power to act on his own ethical views. Marsh was especially forthright about this during the 1930s, when she was writing plots that included elements about how Scotland Yard surveilled left wing and radical political groups, alongside ones set at aristocratic debutante balls.
In 1935’s The Nursing Home Murder Alleyn says that “As the police officer in charge of this case I am simply a wheel in the machine. I must complete my revolutions […] neither you nor any other lay person, however much involved, has the power to stop the Machine of Justice or indeed influence it in any way whatever.” This is a pretty bleak view of justice, but it’s one that Marsh returns to repeatedly. The next year, in Death in Ecstasy, Alleyn complains again that “The police force is merely a machine”.
Although he remains a loyal Scotland Yard man for his entire career, Alleyn shares some characteristics with the classic amateur detective in the mould of Sherlock Holmes or Peter Wimsey. Alleyn is a gentleman, a member of the upper classes, and as such is unusual in the ranks of a police force that in both fiction and fact drew its recruits largely from the lower middle and working classes. In her books from the 1930s and 40s this status is especially useful to Marsh, because it gives Alleyn a personal entré into the country houses and county sets where she liked to set her mysteries during this time. E.R. Punshon had a similarly dual role for his Scotland Yard detective, Bobby Owen, who joins up as a lowly constable despite his wealthy background and university education.
Hercule Poirot is another interesting character in this regard. Although in all of Christie’s books he operates as a private detective, unaffiliated with any official force, he is described as a retired policeman who had a distinguished career in his native Belgium. This status largely attracts respect from the Scotland Yard officers he works with, and also means that he has contacts with police in other places like Paris when his cases take him overseas. In many ways, this was Christie having her cake and eating it too. Poirot has all of the freedom of the private detective to act outside of the law when he feels like it and dispense justice on his own terms, but he also has a background that means he can command assistance from the official police force when he desires it.
Then finally, I want to mention the police characters from this period who aren’t bumbling and prone to jumping to the wrong conclusions, but competent and trusted colleagues of the amateur sleuthing hero. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion has a long and close relationship with Inspector Stanislaus Oates, who first appears in 1931’s Look to the Lady. Much later, Campion becomes godfather to Oates’s son. And of course, there’s Inspector Charles Parker, friend and brother in law of Peter Wimsey. Right from the start of her mystery output, Sayers paired these too together. Her debut, Whose Body? from 1923, sees them investigate parallel cases and pool their resources in order to see if the two things are connected after all.
Detective fiction has always evolved alongside the police, borrowing elements of real life investigation and reflecting it back for our consumption. We can only hope that as society changes, so does the crime fiction it produces. I’ll let Nicole have the last word on this one.
Nicole: I think people have been in the past interacting with this, there has been other writers of colour even before I started writing like back the early from nineties and stuff like that, that been looking into different relationships with how do you deal with the police? Basically, it’s not an old conversation.
It’s probably just become more prominent. I guess there’s more upcoming writers as well, who are also engaged in certain things that are doing different in different fashions. I’m not too surprised that within next few years, we aren’t seeing different kind of situations, but to go back to my first point, it’s like, it’s something that’s always been kind of happening.
It’s just probably becoming more mainstream. You might be seeing more bigger stuff happen now. Hopefully.
Caroline: This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club is provided by Connor McLoughlin and the podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude. You can more information about this episode and links to all the books mentioned at shedunnitshow.com/policingthedetectives. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.