~by David W.
Someone’s been murdered: who are you going to call? A haughty genius and his devoted doctor sidekick? A persnickety little Belgian whose egg-shaped head is punctuated by a tiny moustache? A wisecracking shamus in a dingy office, drinking rotgut and polishing his gat? Of course not: YOU CALL THE COPS!
While police were often depicted as bumbling stooges in traditional mysteries, most real world crime solving is done by men and women with a badge. In the 1950s, this fact began to be reflected in a new kind of mystery: the police procedural. These de-romanticized detective stories strove for a more realistic depiction of crime solving, complete with systematic footwork and accurate forensic science. As Dragnet’s Detective Joe Friday would famously say, “Just the facts.”
Nowhere is this down-to-earth ethos better seen than in the epic 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain, a series which premiered in 1956 with Cop Hater and ended a half century later with Fiddlers. In McBain and in the works of other excellent American police procedurals by such authors as Joseph Wambaugh (Hollywood Station) and Archer Mayor (Red Herring), we see crimes not as singular transgressions but as a flowing stream of human weakness and desperation; a daily menu of evil deeds to be set right through the often unglamorous teamwork of dogged public servants. Such tales often have an affinity with fact-based true crime writing, as in Edward Conlon’s excellent Blue Blood and Red on Red, the former a work of non-fiction and the second a novel.
Soon the American coppers had plenty of company overseas, as British police detectives hit the streets. First came Adam Dalgliesh by the late great P.D. James (Cover Her Face), followed by Peter Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks (Gallows View), Bill James Harpur and Iles (Undercover) and many others.
Scandinavian police procedurals got an early start with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 1965 title Roseanna, a tradition kept alive today by such contemporary police writers as Henning Mankell (Faceless Killers), Helene Tursten (Detective Inspector Huss) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess), among others.
Some fictional cops are lone wolf types whose perennial alienation from the force lends them the downbeat heroism of the hardboiled private eye. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch (The Black Echo), James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux (The Neon Rain), Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus (Knots and Crosses) and John Harvey’s Inspector Charlie Resnick (Lonely Hearts) are prime examples.
Highlighting the latest in forensic science there are such specialists as Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner Kay Scarpetta (Post-Mortem), Kathy Reichs’ forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Déjà Dead), Elly Griffiths forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway (The Crossing Places), or Tim Downs’ forensic entomologist (i.e. bug man) Nick Polchak (First the Dead). And of course there’s blood spatter expert Dexter Morgan (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), notwithstanding his unconventional hobbies on the other side of the thin blue line.