October 28, 2021
Police in Crime Fiction


Police in Crime Fiction

Are police still the good guys?

Zoë Sharp

My introduction to the role played by the police in crime fiction was not, I suspect, the usual one. My first foray into the genre came when my grandmother gave me an old copy of The Misfortunes of Mr Teal (later retitled The Saint in London) by Leslie Charteris, which featured his twentieth century Robin Hood character, Simon Templar, alias the Saint.

I was enthralled by that book. The Saint delivered justice—occasionally of the swift and brutal variety—while the cops, such as the unfortunate Detective Chief Inspector Teal of the title, were left floundering in his wake. You could be sure that those the Saint robbed could afford to lose whatever he stole, and those he killed undoubtedly deserved it.

Nevertheless, I always got the impression that DCI Teal was an honest and very capable copper—at least when the Saint wasn’t causing him dyspepsia. Teal was simply not the hero at the centre of the plot, and did not always get his man. The stories occasionally had the two teaming up to chase even greater criminals, as much as they had Teal in futile pursuit of the Saint himself.

Likewise, the character of Detective Inspector Mackenzie in Hornung’s Raffles series, was depicted as an efficient and adept policeman—when chasing anyone except Raffles. And Mackenzie did, indeed, eventually out the gentleman thief in The Gift of the Emperor, causing Raffles to jump overboard from an ocean liner, faking his own death in order to avoid capture.

Plenty of crime novels feature corrupt cops as the antagonists of the story, but rarely do they play the role of hero—or anti-hero, as the case may be. You could place DCI Gene Hunt in that category. (And I include him here only because the TV series Life On Mars was later turned into a four-book series by Tom Graham.)

If it’s wholesale police corruption you’re after, the obvious choice would be James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, in which it’s probably quicker and easier to name the cops who are not corrupt, than those who are. The story examines the layers of guilt. It becomes a case of the less corrupt seeking supremacy over the more corrupt, rather than straightforward good guys versus bad guys.

Simon Kernick’s The Business of Dying has Detective Sergeant Dennis Milne moonlighting as a hitman. He is saved from being a true anti-hero by the claim that he only takes contracts on bad guys. This book opens with him executing three men he has been told are drug dealers. Needless to say, they aren’t, and things go downhill for DS Milne from there.

Even Jeff Lindsay’s serial killer protagonist, Dexter Morgan—a forensic blood spatter analyst rather than a detective—is portrayed as a vigilante who targets murderers as his victims. The twist here is that Dexter’s adoptive father was a cop who recognised the young Dexter’s murderous inclinations and decided to use them for good rather than have the boy locked up for life.

Elsewhere, we may have good cops who occasionally cross the line in the pursuit of their quarry, or those who simply Do Not Play Well With Others. I think I would place Lee Child’s Jack Reacher in this section. Being an ex-military cop means he qualifies. Reacher has his own moral compass—he is all about justice and couldn’t care less about the law. Indeed, he is often up against corrupt local law enforcement over the course of the series.

But by far the vast majority of cops portrayed in crime fiction are hard-working, honest people, whose overriding concern is to catch the perpetrator and not merely to get a result. Just as, I am sure, the vast majority of real-life cops are dedicated and highly skilled professionals, whose integrity is beyond reproach.

But, it’s always the squeaky wheel that gets the grease…

Over the past few years, the police in the UK have not been garnering the best press. In March 2021, marketing executive Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving firearms officer with the Metropolitan Police in London.


As an aside, according to one report I read, after his arrest PC Couzens was ‘hospitalised following a head injury sustained in custody; he was again briefly hospitalised the following day after a similar injury… police said the injury was sustained while he was alone in his cell.’ If this had happened in fiction, the injury would doubtless not have been self-inflicted…

Shortly after Sarah’s murder, a large group of women gathered on Clapham Common to hold a vigil and protest against male violence towards women. The protest broke Covid regulations and the police moved in, but I fear that what will be remembered are the pictures of women being pinned down and arrested by male officers. The Met came under heavy criticism for their handling of the event.

Following the Sarah Everard case, there was increased scrutiny of policing in the UK, at which point it was revealed that 150 officers serving with the Met had criminal convictions for a variety of offences from assault to drink driving, and fraud, as well as those for drugs and firearms offences.

In June 2021, a report by an independent panel into the unsolved murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan in 1987 was published. The lawyer for the family said in a statement that he “welcomed the report’s recognition that we, and the public at large, have been failed over the decades by a culture of corruption and cover-up within the Metropolitan Police, and institutionalised corruption that has permeated successive regimes.”

All this does not help engender trust in the public towards the police. Most people in the UK will have very little contact with the police unless something goes very wrong. Sadly, this was not the case if you were a student during the hippy era of the 1960s and ’70s, when you were likely to be arrested for having long hair and wearing flares, and searched for drugs. I’m reliably informed that this policy soured relations between an entire generation and the cops. These days, car drivers probably have the same feeling towards traffic police waving a radar gun.

Women have other reasons to be wary. The figures for rape and sexual assault in the UK show that fewer than one in sixty reports to the police resulted in a suspect being charged, let alone convicted. For every ten prosecutions the UK Crown Prosecution Service brought to court in 2016-2017, by the end of 2020 it was bringing only three, a decline of 71%.

In the light of this, in some ways it is perhaps surprising that the traditional police procedural novel retains its popularity. The cops have ceased to be the good guys in the eyes of many people, and this is particularly the case for ethnic minorities. According to the UK government’s own figures, released in February 2021, for every 1000 white people, eleven were stopped and searched. But that number rises to 54 for every 1000 black people, and almost half of all stop and searches took place in the area covered by the Met police.

Does all this mean that we are leaning more towards the amateur sleuth in detective fiction, whose motives are all about justice—whatever form that takes—rather than the official rule of law?

In any time of uncertainty, people want to be reassured by what they read—not only that the cops are still the good guys, but that when they do arrest the guilty party, he or she will go on to be charged, convicted, and sentenced. The sad thing is that they have to turn to the pages of fiction for that reassurance, rather than the pages of a newspaper.

About the Author

Zoë Sharp spent most of her formative years living aboard a catamaran on the northwest coast of England. She opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve, and wrote her first novel at fifteen. She began her highly acclaimed series featuring no-nonsense ex-Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard heroine, Charlie Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photojournalist. Her work has been nominated for numerous awards, been used in a Danish school text book, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film. When not working on her novels or short stories, Zoë can be found improvising weapons out of everyday objects, renovating houses, or international pet-sitting. Her latest book is the first in a new series, The Last Time She Died, out October 20, 2021, from Bookouture.

Author links:

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