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The American Police Procedural

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TO UNDERSTAND THE POLICE PROCEDURAL detective story, it is necessary to relate it to the types of detective stories which preceded it, to view the similarities and differences.
The police procedural represents the second major change in the nature of the detective story since it achieved its puzzle form with the advent of the classical school in the 1920s.
The progenitor of the classical school was the incomparable Sherlock Holmes. While it is true that Conan Doyle got the inspiration for Holmes from Poe's Auguste Dupin, the dominant personality of Holmes so swept the field that all the fictional detectives who followed were created in his image. Born were such semblances as Hercule Poirot, Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Charlie Chan, Lord Peter Wimsey and Nero Wolfe, to name a few. Like Holmes, they were, essentially, detached from and disdainful of the local constabulary. Like Holmes they were intellectual giants, standing head and shoulders above their fellows - except for the villain! As Holmes had to have a Moriarty to challenge him, so the classical detective had to face a gifted murderer in order to exhibit his skill.

In one important way, the classical detective story differed from the Holmes tales. Whereas, when Sherlock Holmes was on the trail, the reader stood at Watson's side, watching the Great Man operate, the writers of the classical school moved the reader onstage and, giving him all the clues available to the detective, let him try to beat the detective to the solution.
It was this development which made the detective story what it is today, an entity, complete and fulfilled. This feature has been the hallmark of the detective story ever since, no matter what form it takes.
The first trend away from the classical tale in America began in the late twenties and is known as the private-eye, or hard-boiled school. The best

known representatives of this new approach to crime writing were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and their stated purpose was to take murder out of the bishop's rose garden - the milieu of the classical detective tale - and put it down in the gutter where real murders took place. This attempt to bring realism to crime writing resulted in stories about seamy characters in seamy backgrounds. The detectives came down from the aeries of the classical school and became working stiffs, hiring themselves out as private investigators.
While these tales had a greater element of realism in them to begin with, unreality soon set in as the hard-boiled school degenerated into the sex-and-sadism school wherein the heroes lived on Scotch whisky but never got drunk, were forever knocked unconscious without getting a headache, and encountered a female population consisting of nothing but oversexed blondes.

The second and latest change in the detective tale in America was the rise of the police procedural, stories in which professional policemen, using police resources and police methods, are the ones who solve the crimes.
While Lawrence Treat's V as in Victim, published in 1945, is acknowledged to be the first such novel, it did not establish a trend. In fact, the next such effort was my own Last Seen Wearing . . . which, though written in 1950, did not appear until 1952. In the interim, Dragnet became a hit radio show and it was so soon thereafter that the police procedural developed and flourished that it may well be claimed that if there is a father of the American police procedural, Dragnet is it. While it is true that no police procedural writer I have talked to points to Dragnet as his inspiration (most not having written their first procedural until well after Dragnet's demise), it seems inevitable that the potential of the police station background was first brought to their attention by Joe Friday and company.
How does the police procedural differ from the classical and private-eye forms? The differences are many.

First of all, the procedural thrusts the detective into the middle of a working police force, full of rules and regulations. Instead of bypassing the police, as did its predecessors, the procedural takes the reader inside the department and shows how it operates. These are stories not just about policemen, but about the world of the policeman. Police Inspector Charlie Chan doesn't belong. (There are no police.) Nor does Inspector Maigret. (There are police, but Maigret remains his own man.) When we speak of police procedural, we are talking about the 87th Precinct books of Ed McBain, about the Elizabeth Linington-Dell Shannon-Lesley Egan, Glen-dale and Los Angeles police novels.
The thrust is toward the police instead of away from the police and the shift is radical. The classical and private-eye novels have more in common with each other than either has with the procedural. Let us see why.

In the classical mystery, the only way to challenge the giant intellect of the detective was to create a villain of comparable genius who could devise the most elaborate of schemes in order to get away with murder. In reality, most murders are spur-of-the-moment crimes and even those that are planned betray little intelligence on the part of the killer. The procedural writer is at a disadvantage here. He cannot challenge his readers in this manner.
Another advantage to those who wrote the non-procedurals, was the trick of having the hero detective - classical or private-eye - keep all the threads of the mystery in his own head. Not only did this keep the reader in the dark, it made the detective a target of the villain, which is good for suspense. In the procedural, this can't be done. In the police department, all resources and
information are pooled. You can't be a loner in a team operation.

One of the real restrictions on the procedural writer is that he has to research police procedure. He has to learn what can and can't be done in real life. Where other writers could talk about fingerprints on guns, wrapping prints in handkerchiefs for protection, and determining the state of mind of a murder victim by the expression on his dead face, the procedural writer can't. He has to know that a print from a gun is a near impossibility, that handkerchiefs smudge, they don't protect, that the best that can be said of a dead man's expression is that he has no expression.
Does this make for reality? Is the police procedural what it appears to be, a real picture of the way crimes are solved?
The answer is no.

Consider murders in general. Most are done in such a state of emotion and for such personal reasons that the police know within five minutes who did the killing and have a fair idea as to why. Arresting and booking the "alleged perpetrator" is a simple thing. (What happens to him thereafter is another story, and out of their bailiwick. Their job has been done.)
One cannot, however, write up that kind of murder - not as a mystery. There's no mystery. There's no suspense. There's no story.
The kind of murder, therefore, that a writer has to invent and fictionalize, has to be one of the very few - perhaps one in twenty - cases where the number of suspects exceeds one, the motives are numerous or uncertain, and the finger of suspicion points to a variety of capable parties.

If an author is writing a police procedural that takes place in a small town, he's talking about the murder of the century. Except that, if he's reasonably prolific, these once in a century murderers are happening in his small town twice to three times a year. This is hardly realism.
Suppose, instead, the police procedural deals with a large city where there are hundreds of homicides in a year (latest figures for New York City are 1,800). Now it's conceivable that a single homicide detective might get two tough cases in a year. But there's another problem with presenting reality.
The real-life detective does not do his detecting a la Sherlock Holmes. He may observe the way Holmes observed: he may well put the pieces of a puzzle together the way Holmes put them together, but this is not the way most real-life crimes are solved. Solutions don't, in most cases, come as the result of ratiocination - not by the exercise of Hercule Poirot's little grey cells, but by the accumulation of information. Dozens of people are questioned - hundreds are questioned - and, bit by bit, pieces of information are gathered which, ultimately, reveal what happened.
That's the hard way.

The easy way is to have the information brought in. Ask a chief of detectives how cases are solved and he won't answer, "Clues", he'll answer, "Informants". It is an adage that a detective is only as good as his informants and the adage is true.
To the mystery story writer, this poses certain problems. The nature of the genre doesn't permit a tough case to be solved by someone coming into police headquarters, telling the detectives who did it and giving them the evidence. That's not the way mystery stories are told. It's not the way any story is told.
But it happens to be the way of the world. So the mystery story writer must make changes in the tale, eliminate the informant and have the detective track down that information through diligence and sweat. But such a tale is no more "real" than the classical ones. Reality and detective stories cannot co-exist. The art of the story must distort the truth.

Now let's consider the hero of the police procedural as opposed to his classical and private-eye counterparts.
Whereas the hero detectives of the classical and private-eye schools were unique individuals, overshadowing the others in the case, the policeman in the procedural has to be shown as a man of ordinary abilities. He can't drink a quart of Scotch without getting drunk, he can't get hit on the head without suffering a concussion. He isn't swarmed over by beautiful blondes because that's not the fate of real policemen and, besides, he's probably a family man. Nor can he heroically invade the villain's stronghold to rescue the damsel in distress. It's the SWAT team that does that. As for collecting evidence and putting clues together, it's a collaborative effort involving such resources as the photo lab, the medical examiner's office, ballistics, latent prints, emergency service, the crime lab and, sometimes, hundreds of other detectives.

This results in one of the great differences that separate the procedural from the other two forms of the detective story. The classical and private-eye novels pit a hero detective against a dangerous and evil genius while everyone else stands helplessly by. In the procedural, there is a villain, but he is not a genius. And against him, what is there? First off, there are two detectives devoting full time to the job of tracking him down. Behind them, at their beck and call, are all the resources of the police, medical and legal systems of the community. It's Mutt against Jeff, the champ against the novice, the sword against the stick. Who's going to want to watch a match like that?
This poses a particular challenge to the writer of the procedural. It is not enough that he must research police departments and criminalistics and learn what can and cannot be done, both legally and scientifically, he must overcome the handicaps mentioned above. He must create excitement out of the unexciting. He must make the mundane interesting. He must extract suspense from the routine.

Layout © R.D. Collins

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