One of the many things that police detectives have to do is lead teams of people through sometimes very dangerous situations. And even when cases aren’t imminently dangerous, they can be depressing, enervating and difficult. It takes a lot of skill to lead a team of people who have to do dangerous, ugly, depressing work, but if you look at some fictional cop sleuth, you see that it can be done.
Agatha Christie doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time talking about police work since her novels really aren’t what you’d call police procedurals. But she makes it clear that her Scotland Yard detective Chief Inspector Japp is good at what he does. And that’s a very important leadership skill to have. People are more willing to respect the leadership of a really skilled detective than the leadership of one who is incompetent. And in novels such as Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), it’s Japp who gets vital background information that solves cases. In that novel, French moneylender Marie Morisot (AKA Madame Giselle) is poisoned during a flight between Paris and London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, of whom Hercule Poirot is one. So he also gets involved in this case. What’s interesting is that while Poirot uncovers the sort of motive the killer had, and the killer’s identity, Japp finds out exactly how the killer got some necessary information to commit the murder, and he finds out an important part of the why of the case too. And even Poirot, who is not normally one to minimise his own skills, gives Japp the credit for his ability.
Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren has also won his team’s respect by simply being very good at what he does. He has solid intuitions and strong detective skills, so his team members trust him. In fact, in The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), we find that the team looks to him for guidance even when he’s no longer officially on the police force. When Waldemar Leverkuhn is found murdered the morning after celebrating a lottery win, Intendant Münster takes the lead. But he feels the absence of his former boss, and consults with him a few times on the case. At one point, Van Veeteren leaves Münster a note that leads him to re-evaluate the investigation. And it’s not because Münster doubts his team’s competence. Rather, it’s because he has that much trust in Van Veeteren’s.
Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel is brusque (sometimes outright rude), even with his own people. So how does he manage to keep their loyalty and motivate them to work hard? He’s a brilliant detective. Everyone knows that he’s legendary for being able to solve even very difficult cases. But it’s more than that. Dalziel is also very protective of his people in his way. For example, in Child’s Play, Dalziel, Pascoe and the team investigate the strange case of the Lomas family. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas’ son disappeared during World War II, but she never gave up hope that he would someday return. So her will stipulates that her entire fortune is to be left to him unless he doesn’t come back by the year 2015. When she dies, a man claiming to be her son shows up at her funeral and now it looks as though he will inherit everything. But it’s not so simple when that same man is later found dead in a car at the police station. At the same time as the team is untangling this case, DS Edgar Wield is wrestling with a very personal decision of his own. After he gets involved with a young drifter on a mission of his own, Wield faces the choice of what to do about ‘coming out’ as gay. Dalziel’s way of protecting Wield in this novel shows that although he’s sometimes quite hard on his team members, he also does everything he can to protect them.
We see that same protectiveness in Andrea Camilleri’s The Dance of the Seagull. Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano is faced with an awful task when one of his people Guiseppe Fazio goes missing. After a little digging, Montalbano discovers that Fazio was working on a very dangerous case involving smuggling, the Mob and some extremely ruthless people. The only way to really find out what’s happened to Fazio is to pick up the trail Fazio left and follow it, so that’s what Montalbano does. To say much more would come closer than I like to ‘spoiler land,’ so I won’t. But I can say that the plot ends up involving murder, kidnapping, and a really close look at how much Montalbano cares about and wants to protect his team members and their families.
Another part of leading a team successfully is showing faith in the team members and listening to what they say, rather than dictating. That’s not easy to do because ultimately, the leader is responsible for an investigation. But you don’t inspire loyalty and motivation if you don’t listen to the team. That’s what Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett does, and it serves her well. When she first takes over the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team in The Coffin Trail, she’s trying to find her way in her new leadership role but as time goes by, she learns to combine taking the lead with paying attention to the team. In The Hanging Wood for instance, the team investigates the twenty-year-old disappearance of Callum Payne and sudden death of his sister Orla. The case involves family history in the Keswick area of the Lake District, and Scarlett knows that DC Maggie Eyre knows the area’s history. Eyre is a ‘farm girl,’ born and raised in the area and is familiar with all of the local families. So one morning on the way to the police station, Scarlett taps Eyre’s knowledge even though she’s ‘only a constable,’ and learns some important information.
Effective team leaders also support and nurture their team members’ talents. That’s what we see in Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders. In that novel, which takes place in 1943, Melbourne DI Titus Lambert and Sgt. Joe Sable are called to the scene of the vicious double murders of John Quinn and his son Xavier. They’re just beginning the investigation process when there’s another equally brutal murder. In the meantime, there’s a suspected resurgence of a Nazi-sympathiser group, and some evidence suggests that the murders may be connected with that group. But there are other possibilities too, so the team has its work cut out for it as the saying goes. The Homicide team is understaffed and underfunded due to the war, so Lambert has to get as much as he can from the people available to him. He sees in Sable an inexperienced but skilled cop and gives him several opportunities to show what he can do. What’s more, he does the same for Constable Helen Lord when he requests that she join the team. He notices very quickly that she’s an excellent detective and in fact, tells Sable he can learn a lot from her. And this is at a time when the few female constables that there were, were little more than stenographers in uniform. Lambert expects a lot from his team members but he treats them both with respect and supports them. Little wonder they’re willing to take the risks they need to take for this case.
And that’s the thing about real leaders. They motivate their team members to be their best, to work hard, and to deal with the dirty, gritty, ugly and sometimes very dangerous job that police work is. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. How do your favourite fictional cops lead?
ps The ‘photo is of a very talented team of Aboriginal dancers whose work I was privileged to see when I was in Darwin. It takes real skill to lead a dance troupe this good, and their leader showed that skill.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Animals’ Year of the Guru.