How Crime Writers Write About the Police and How That Might Change

From a post on headlined “The State of the Crime Novel in 2021: A Roundtable with the Edgar Award Nominees”:

Conversations about violence in policing inevitably have their counterpart in conversations about the representation of policing. How do you feel authors of crime fiction should respond to the political awakenings of the past year?

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: I thought John Fram’s op-ed in the New York Times addressed this question well. In that essay, he noted, “Novelists who choose to honestly depict the failures of the criminal justice system or center the experiences of nonwhite protagonists can face career challenges.” I hope that’s changing as a new wave of crime fiction emerges that challenges the standard narrative. Of course, not every mystery and suspense novel needs to take on the big issues of racial and social justice. But those books that do examine these issues can definitely add to the conversation and perhaps spark calls for change.

Kathleen Kent: The perspective of the traditional police procedural is shifting as more women and POC have their works published. The role of women, in particular, if they appeared at all in typical Noir fiction, was either as victims of violence in need of rescuing or as sexual objects. Now we have female protagonists who are using technology and strategy as a work around to the violence in the world. They are often the tempering agents who react to the violence they encounter, but do not contribute to it.

June Hur: Crime fiction tends to glorify the police, and I think it’s important for works of fiction to portray how problematic and violent policing can be, even if the protagonist of the book is part of the police force.

Erin E. MacDonald: I do believe that the best authors respond, at least in some way, to the social context around them, whether their works are set in the past, present, or future. The crime fiction authors I most admire and have written about tend to bring socio-political issues into their works and show the police responding to them, sometimes progressively and sometimes not. I think it’s important to have that kind of realism in fiction because it can and does influence people.

Jess Lourey: I think crime fiction authors need to have serious conversations about our representation of law enforcement. Tearing down our corner of a toxic system isn’t something that can be done quietly or alone. The good news when it comes to the actual writing is that the same skills that make for a strong story—complex characters, relational characters, characters interacting with their environment as well as their flaws—are the path out of the “gruff, unemotional police officer/detective with a heart of gold” or “infallible police officer/detective at the center of the story who has to bend the rules because he knows what’s best for others” narratives that have historically populated crime fiction.

Ivy Pochoda: I think the current political climate be it Black Lives Matters or the rise of Asian Hate crimes needs to be addressed either explicitly or implicitly in a novel. It’s part of the panorama of policing, especially an urban crime novel. It’s disingenuous to power through a book involving cops and not nod to these seismic movements and moments in our history. Whether or not they are at the forefront of a novel depends wholly on the author. It’s not a novelist’s job to fix or correct police brutality in our work or to create hero cops who are on the right side of that fight. Because that really doesn’t change anything—and it’s a bit of a feint. But it is the delightful purpose of fiction to examine, highlight, and elucidate people’s psychology and emotions in a more dramatic and dynamic way than happens in non-fiction. And this ability brings readers closer to stories they might shy away from in a journalistic account—which means it makes them listen. Fiction can sometimes go where non-fiction cannot—so it’s an important tool to draw attention to issues such as police brutality, not to correct them, but to locate them as inherent, unavoidable elements of our broken modern world.

Jessica Moor: My novel The Keeper was written largely out of a sense of despair towards policing and author social institutions, after working for a year in the domestic violence sector. I came to see the police as a force that largely served to reinforce existing structures—in this case systematic violence against women, but just as true of other forms of inequality. I don’t think the answer lies in abolishing the police, but in the involved and tedious work of structural reform and training. Many people internationally find it very surprising that in the UK, where I’m from, the police do not routinely carry guns. As a result, their approaches to confrontation are necessarily different. I don’t know that that’s possible in the US, but I think it’s a useful reminder that policing doesn’t necessarily look like just one thing.

As for the place in fiction, I think there’s a tension. We love the crime novel as a puzzle, in which the great detective is the inspired puzzle-solver. That’s a tradition that dates back to Sherlock Holmes and beyond, and there’s a reason that people love it. But that image of the detective is at odds with the reality, partly because policing is largely a matter of collective procedure rather than individual inspiration, and partly because police officers are human and have blind spots.

Joseph S. Walker: This is a tough one, and it’s an issue that I think the field will be struggling with for some years to come. I’ve read some pieces over the last year about how the producers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine have tried to recognize the challenging aspects of thinking about the police in their new episodes. If a sitcom can take these issues under consideration, surely crime fiction can as well.

I’m thinking here about something like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. I love those books; I think the series as a whole is one of the towering achievements in the genre, and I think it deserves recognition as a significant piece of 20th century American literature. I want to be absolutely clear here that I think the books should continue to be read and valued. But it’s very difficult to read them now and not be troubled by, for example, Fat Ollie Weeks, a character whose racism and violence are presented as being, essentially, character quirks in an otherwise brilliant detective. When we talk about McBain, that should be part of the conversation.

For the most part, crime writers rarely produce works that completely valorize the police. After all, our genre has its roots in texts by Poe and Doyle in which the police are usually presented as bunglers. Even writers who have police characters as the central figures in long-running series usually show the police making mistakes or bending to political pressures. They recognize that there are lazy cops, stupid cops, criminal cops and, yes, racist cops who might relish the chance to inflict pain. Still, the genre as a whole is kind of built around the idea that people commit aberrant and transgressive acts which should be explained and, where possible, punished. It’s built, in other words, around the idea that policing, in and of itself, is a basic function of society that is ultimately both necessary and good.

I guess the bottom line is this: it’s still possible to write stories about individual cops who are admirable, and individual crimes that obviously must be solved. Moving forward, though, any story involving the police that is making any claim to a degree of realism should recognize that policing in this country has a deeply problematic history. It doesn’t have to be made an explicit subject of the book, but it’s part of the historical context necessary to an understanding of the book.

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