|THE BRITISH POLICEMAN made his entrance on to the stage of the
detective story at an early date; but he played no more than a
walking-on part. In the Sherlock Holmes stories Lestrade and his
confreres at the Yard had the job of acting what, in music hall terms,
would be called the "feed". Their job was to demonstrate the superior
skill of Holmes. They earned a lot of kicks and a few grudging ha'pence.
"Three undetected murders in one year won't do, Lestrade. But you
handled the Molesey mystery with less than your usual - that's to say
you handled it fairly well."
This was not a state of affairs which could last indefinitely. Common sense was bound to assert itself sooner or later. I tackled this point in the introduction which I wrote to a reissue of one of the classics of the police procedural The Lonely Magdalen (1940) by
"When detective story writers started to shy away from the talented amateur, with his odd personal habits, who solved problems by the application of intellect alone, and appeared to possess a formula which enabled him to succeed in detection without really trying, it was inevitable that they should turn to the police story. They knew that murderers, in real life, were caught by policemen. They suspected - and a little research soon proved -that policemen did not catch murderers by taking thought. They caught them by taking statements."
Perhaps the main reason why most early detective stories featured a talented amateur - and many still do - was that the writers, were themselves amateurs, and experienced a certain diffidence in describing a professional operation. They knew very little of what went on behind the blue lamp. Almost the only source of information generally available to them was the reminiscences of retired C.I.D. officers, which dealt sketchily with routine and promoted their hero almost to the position of the amateur they despised.
The logical answer to this difficulty would seem to be that the police procedural, meaning the story which not only deals realistically with police work but gives the principal parts to members of the police force, should be written either by policemen themselves or at least by authors whose calling brings them into close touch with police work.
Henry Wade, mentioned above, was, in real life, Sir Henry Aubrey Fletcher, Bt., of Brill. He was Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire and busy for much of his life with police business. His son was a Metropolitan magistrate. In Britain the Crime Writers Association counts amongst its current members three serving policemen, one of whom sometimes appears at its meetings wearing his Murder Squad tie, a police woman, the editor of
The Police Review, and two police public relations officers. (To complete the role of those who have a direct connection with crime, the Association used also to have a safe-cracker among its members, but lack of success at his profession led to his being expelled for non-payment of his dues.)
While agreeing that these professionals should have the edge, with their knowledge of practice and personalities, it has to be admitted that the amateur, standing on the outside, has often produced better results. Incomparable stories about the army were written by Rudyard Kipling who had very bad eyesight and would not have known one end of a rifle from the other. Equally it has to be admitted that to date the classic series of British police procedural has come from the pen of John Creasey who had no direct connection with the Force.
This brings us to the heart of the matter.
Creasey may not have been a professional policeman, but he was a completely professional writer. One can feel no doubt, as one reads the Gideon saga, that he had friends in the police who were willing to keep him informed of every aspect of organization and procedure. What no-one who is not a policeman can be certain about is whether he was equally correct and realistic about the atmosphere and feeling behind the face of routine. It is a difference which merits consideration.
In one of her best known books, The Nine Tailors (1934), Dorothy L. Sayers made campanology, or the ringing of church bells, the pivotal theme of her story, which centred round a church in a remote East Anglian village. So well, and so thoroughly, did she do her homework that most readers assumed that the book must have been based on practical experience. However, in a letter written shortly before her death, she dispelled this illusion. She said, "Technicalities can be 'got up' as counsel 'gets up' a brief. I read up bell-ringing. But I was brought up in the Fens, and I doubt whether any amount of reading would give one the feel of those windswept agricultural flats if one had never seen anything but mountains."
Apply this to the police procedural and the quandary becomes apparent. Can anyone who does not combine the story-telling ability of a Kipling with the fortuitous circumstance that he happens himself to be a policeman, really give us the true impression, the feel, of police work; the sweat and the frustration, the blind loyalty inside the service and the social difficulties outside it, the occasional successes, the ever-present problem of public
relations ? One feels that if Zola had worn a blue helmet he could have done it.
Is this pitching the problem too high? It has to be borne in mind that the writer who embarks on a police procedural is doing more than merely changing the background of his story. He is shifting his view-point.
In their Catalogue of Crime Barzun & Taylor divide the detective story into five varieties. Normal; Inverted; Police Routine; Autobiographical and Acroidal. The last two of these types are rare (and you will search the largest dictionaries in vain for a definition of acroidai; when the meaning of the word does occur to you, you will appreciate it all the more). The first three varieties encompass the options commonly open to the writer. In the Normal, the story is viewed from the outside. A murder is committed. The reader watches the detective making his careful way among the clues and the suspects and arriving finally at a solution. The reader may, as a technical exercise, attempt to anticipate the solution for himself. But he does so from the outside. He is what A. A. Milne, in a stage play dealing with a murder, called "the fourth wall".
In the inverted story, some of the best of which were written by Anthony Berkeley, under the pseudonym of Francis Iles, the matter is viewed through the eye of the murderer himself. We help him to make his plans and are involved with his hopes and fears. It is perhaps the closest that the crime story comes to the straight novel.
In the police procedural our viewpoint has shifted once more. We are inside the story, but in a different sense. We are not the murderer, and we are certainly not members of the public. Indeed one sometimes has the feeling that in a murder investigation the police have two adversaries to contend with: the criminal; and the great British public, who first confuse the issue by trampling on footprints and concealing clues, and then, when the police have arrested the murderer and have persuaded the Director of Public Prosecutions that they have a case which will stand up in Court, become members of the jury, all too willing to be beguiled by silver-tongued counsel for the defence. In a true-life murder story it might be said that a quarter of the difficulty is identifying and charging the murderer; three-quarters of it is securing a conviction. Many policemen would put these proportions even higher.
"If you want to know what a murder story really is," said a member of C.I.D., now happily retired and, like Sherlock Holmes, keeping bees, "I'll tell you. It's a few hundred statements, a few hours interrogating the man you're going to charge, with a cup of cold coffee in one hand and Judges' Rules in the other, a day in Court having your character torn to pieces by defending counsel, and a fifty-fifty chance of success."
There may be some exaggeration in this, but if it is even broadly truthful, the final question for the writer is, how do I get it on to paper without myself committing the ultimate crime: the crime of being dull?
The answer must lie in the policemen and policewomen. This time they are the real people. Their home-life may be as important as their professional life, a point well- brought out by John Creasey. It is their hopes and fears, not the hopes and fears of the murderer that are in the forefront of the story. Their motives may be more fundamental to the working out of the plot than the motives of the suspects which form the staple of the normal detective story.
This would not be an easy book to write but it would be something eminently worth doing; to concentrate, not on the murder which was the ostensible reason for the book, but on the fascinating, infuriating, vital job of the professionals whose job it is to catch the murderer. With this in mind might I end with a concrete suggestion? If you have not already done so, read a book written some twenty years ago by Edwin Brock, called The Little White God. It is not, in the usual sense of the word, a police procedural, but it was written by a young policeman, and written from the heart, and it did give to this reader at least, a real impression of what policemen think about themselves and their work.
Edwin Brock is a poet. Maybe it needed a poet to do it.
Layout © R.D. Collins
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