Most PI’s, whether real or fictional, find their jobs easier if they develop some sort of relationship with the police in their area. The PI/police relationship is mutually beneficial in a lot of obvious ways, so you would think it’d fall out naturally. But that’s not always the case. If you look at crime fiction, you see that while PIs and police do co-operate – sometimes very well – they are also sometimes at odds with each other. Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘patch wars,’ sometimes it’s a personal dislike, and sometimes it’s a perception of one side or the other as incompetent or worse. And sometimes it’s simply the friction you get with two different perspectives on the same case. But amicable, bitter or somewhere in between, the relations between PIs and cops make for an interesting layer in crime novels.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t dislike the cops because they are police officers. As a matter of fact, he knows the police are important. But he has absolutely no patience with lack of deduction and logic. And all too often, the police, from Holmes’ perspective, allow themselves to be led astray by superficial clues. In fact he’s not above calling them ‘imbeciles.’ There are a few cops, such as Tobias Gregson, with whom Holmes works reasonably well. But he has no patience with the glory-grabbing arrogance and narrow-mindedness that he all too often sees in the police. For their part, the police often see Holmes as meddlesome and conceited about his own ability. It’s an interesting dynamic that runs through the Holmes stories.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has a different kind of relationship with the police. Poirot fans will know that he is a former cop himself, so he understands the job as an ‘outsider’ couldn’t. And in general, he does have a positive relationship with the police. He and Chief Inspector Japp have had many adventures together and although Japp makes more than one remark about Poirot’s conceit and his ‘tortuous’ mind, he knows Poirot is brilliant and usually right. For his part, Poirot respects Japp. He knows Japp’s a skilled detective and an ethical one who can’t be ‘bought.’ In fact, when he’s working with Japp he doesn’t worry about following up certain kinds of leads, because he knows Japp has the resources and skills to do it. It’s not just Japp either. As we learn in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot respects other cops too if they are skilled and do their jobs well. In that novel, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to re-open a case he himself investigated. Poirot agrees partly because he knows that Spence is a good cop. If Spence thinks there’s something more to the case than it seems on the surface, then there is. Of course, Poirot isn’t always on good terms with the police. In The Murder on the Links, he finds Sûreté Inspector Giraud so insufferable, conceited and arrogant that he dislikes him heartily and actually enjoys besting him when the two make a bet as to who can solve a murder case first.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has a very interesting and complex relationship with the police. On the one hand, he has been known to enter homes and offices in a not-exactly-legal way. More than once, too, he lets people believe he’s with the police, although of course he’s not. And he is not afraid to expose cops who are unethical or who cover for those who are. So in that sense you could say he can be a proverbial thorn in the side of the police force. But Marlowe is pragmatic and so are the cops. Each knows that the other can be very helpful and in the long run, Marlow works in the interest of justice. As John Paul Athanasourelis has said,
‘..his ultimate goals are congruent with those of good cops…’
One might argue that when Marlowe is in conflict with the police, it’s not because they are police. It’s because they are in the way of the justice system working as it should.
Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former Saskatoon cop. So he knows what it’s like to do police work. What’s more, he still knows people on the force. For example, Darren Kirsch is one of the people on the Saskatoon Police Service who still return his calls. Here’s what Quant says about the police/PI relationship in Amuse Bouche:
‘Most cops, and I know because I used to be one, think private investigators are unprofessional moneygrubbers that will suck information out of you and give nothing back in return. And sometimes this is true. But I knew if I wanted to make a go of being a private detective, I’d need some friends in the police department. And a smart cop would know that being friendly with a detective who wasn’t employed by the city and was out there on the streets was not altogether a bad idea either.’
And that basically describes Quant’s relationship with Kirsch and the rest of the police. They help each other and they do share information. And he and Kirsch have a history, so they have a kind of friendship. It’s not really what you’d call a full-on partnership, but there is I think mutual respect.
Jill Edmondson’s Toronto-based PI Sasha Jackson also knows that it’s to her benefit to work with the police. She isn’t a former cop, so she doesn’t have the ‘in’ that Quant does. But she has a friend Mark Houghton who is a member of the Toronto Police Service. The two dated very briefly years earlier but now their co-operation is professional. As Sasha puts it in Dead Light District,
‘Although Mark and I weren’t close enough to be friends, we certainly were solid acquaintances and had a healthy respect for each other professionally.’
That respect means that the two of them do share information and help each other. Not that they never disagree or get on each other’s nerves, but it’s not the stereotypical mutual feeling of contempt.
The same might be said of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. Her father was a police officer, so she has a lot of contacts among Chicago’s police. And Warshawski has respect for ethical cops who do their jobs well. In fact, one of them, Bobby Mallory, still looks out for her in his way. Here’s what he says to Warshawski in Indemnity Only.
‘I think you’re a pain in the butt…But you’re not a fool.’
And then later in that conversation,
‘You’ve made a career out of something which no nice girl would touch, but you’re no dummy.’
As the series moves on, Warshawski and Mallory work together more than once and although he does feel sometimes overly protective of her, he also learns that she is both capable and competent.
There’s also of course Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, who was a cop for two years before she left the force. One regular contact she has is Detective Cheney Phillips. Over the years the two have come to respect each other and work well together. Fans of the series will know that they have an intimate relationship for a time, too. But even though that’s over, they’ve learned that each can be helpful to each other. Interestingly enough, they also know that neither tells the other everything about a given investigation. In Phillips’ case it’s often because of policy. In Millhone’s case it’s because she doesn’t always do things – ahem – by the book.
Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney knows all too well that the Thai police are not always, shall we say, fearless fighters of crime and corruption. In fact in Behind the Night Bazaar, she has to work hard to get beyond the official police explanation of the death of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. There are other examples too in this series of instances where the police would very much rather Keeney left a case alone. But Keeney also knows that it’s quite dangerous to go up against the cops. She also knows that the police are extremely pragmatic. If they see it as working to their benefit to give Keeney information or to use information she gives them, they will. So instead of getting into an outright conflict, Keeney finds ways to make interactions with the police work for both parties. Keeney’s relationship with the cops is much more quid pro quo than it is mutual respect, admiration or friendship. That dynamic makes for an interesting thread of tension in the series.
There are a lot of other good examples of PI/police relations in crime fiction. It’s a fascinating dynamic. Which do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wilbert Harrison’s Let’s Work Together. I like Canned Heat’s version of this one too.