Veteran cop and bestselling writer Hugh Holton takes a look at the police in crime & mystery novels
As the mystery story usually involves the commission of a crime, throughout the history of it development, from the fictional exploits of Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin to the present, police officers have played an integral part in the plots of such stories. At the turn of the century, Sherlock Holmes had Inspector Lestrade of Scotland yard, who served as a somewhat dim-witted foil for the brilliant Holmes. If Lestrade wasn’t going to Holmes to ask for help in solving a case, he was on the scene of the crime butchering the evidence until Holmes arrived to show him the way.
As the genre progressed to the era following World War I, we find Hercule Poirot giving his assistance to any number of police officials. However, Poirot was not a gifted amateur sleuth, but actually a retired police official, who kept his hand in by solving the odd case, such as the intricately contrived murders in Agatha Christie novels as Murder on the Orient Express and the Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In the hardboiled mystery genre, characterized by the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, cops continue to be mere foils for private eyes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer. Often these cops, like Holmes’s Lestrade, get in the way of the private eye in his attempts to crack the case, or they exhibit less than professional law enforcement traits.
In Chandler’s 1943 novel The Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe encounters a Lieutenant Degarmo in Bay City, California. Marlowe is looking for a missing woman and, as usual, the local police are being less than cooperative. Degarmo is described as “…the big cop with the dusty blond hair…the metallic blue eyes and the savage, lined face….” In character, as a wise-cracking private eye, Marlowe hints that Degarmo is on the take. Degarmo proceeds to slap the P.I. silly. Marlowe simply takes the pasting in stride and goes on to solve the case.
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has a couple of classic confrontations with the good cop, “barrel-bellied” Detective Tom Polhaus, and the bad cop, Lieutenant Dundy. When Dundy tires to get tough with Spade during an encounter in the private eye’s apartment, Sam not only demands that the lieutenant obtain a warrant before conducting a search, but also refuses to sit down when “asked” to do so by the “bad” cop. The Maltese Falcon was first published in 1929, and I wonder how Sam Spade would have dealt with the ham-handed Lieutenant Degarmo?
The watchword should be “accuracy.” I must admit that as a full-time working cop, I’m seeing more authenticity than I’ve ever noticed before in crime fiction, and I assure you, I’ve been watching. In Lawrence Saunders’ 1973 novel The First Deadly Sin, I was so impressed with the authenticity of Captain Edward X. Delaney and the author’s depiction of the New York Police Department that I was actually inspired to become a writer. My idol, as far as the police procedural in the mystery field goes, is William F. Caunitz, a retired NYPD lieutenant, whose bestselling novels One Police Plaza, Exceptional Clearance and Cleopatra Gold, to name a few, I am certain will someday become classics in the field.
The one thing that Lieutenant Caunitz, ret., must do in his works, and that I must do in mine, is be 100% accurate when it comes to dealing with police procedures. The reason? We’ve got a lot of working and former cops out there who are going to critique the books with a very critical eye and will let us know quite vociferously if we make any mistakes.
A number of mystery writers who don’t have cop experience do some very accurate work with police procedure (crime scene processing, chain of command and station routine). In her novels Hard Ball, Hard Tack, Hard Luck, Hard Women and Hard Case, it’s clear that Chicago author Barbara D’Amato has gone on ride-alongs with cops and is a good friend of a certain Chicago cop, whose identity most of you amateur sleuths and law enforcement professionals out there can probably deduce without much effort. New England author Kate Clark Flora (Chosen for Death) does an excellent job of characterizing a Maine State Trooper in her books.
It kind of comes down to one thing if you’re writing a mystery with cops in It: Be accurate. The law enforcement profession is just that: a profession. There is a course of study and state certification required to join and minimum standards for consideration. We have procedures which are often codified and must be followed, whether it be for the investigation of a homicide or writing a parking ticket. And although it was a good ploy in earlier works of fiction, I don’t think there are too many dumb cops around anymore. So, if you’re writing a mystery and there’s a cop in it, check your facts. If you don’t know, I’m sure you can find a cop to ask.
Books Mentioned In This Article
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
- Murder on the Orient Express
- The Lady in the Lake
- The Maltese Falcon
- The First Deadly Sin
- One Police Plaza
- Exceptional Clearance
- Cleopatra Gold
- Hard Ball
- Hard Tack
- Hard Luck
- Hard Women
- Hard Case
- Chosen for Death
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Police Lieutenant Hugh Holton is a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. He lives in Chicago.