When the police investigate or re-investigate a case, they don’t always confine themselves to just looking at whether the right person was arrested. They also look at the way the case was pursued, and that means looking at their own. I’m not talking here of police corruption. Crime fiction fans know that there are plenty of stories where the protagonist goes up against corrupt cops. Rather, I mean stories in which the police have to look at the way a case has been handled. It’s always uncomfortable to do that, as the cops may be investigating someone they’ve known and liked for a long time. But sometimes it’s indicated, and it can make for a very effective layer of suspense in a story.
For instance, in Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Cissy Kohler has been released from prison after serving time for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. Soon, allegations are made that Kohler was innocent and that Wallly Tallentire, who investigated the case, knew that and hid relevant evidence. Superintendent Andy Dalziel resents that claim bitterly; Tallentire was his mentor, and he is convinced that Tallentire’s conduct was entirely appropriate. He also believes that Kohler was guilty all along. Still, the case is re-opened and a new investigation is made. Dalziel and Peter Pascoe go about it from different angles, but each pursues the real truth about what happened to Pamela Westrop. Throughout the novel, there’s a thread of tension brought on by the reality of investigating a cop whom Dalziel knew and respected for years.
There’s a similar kind of tension in Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day. Harry Repp has been released from prison after serving time for burglary. An anonymous tip now alleges that he is also guilty of the two-year-old murder of a nurse Yvonne Harrison. So Superintendent Strange asks Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis to re-open the case. Morse seems unusually apathetic about the investigation, so Lewis does a lot of the work. As he looks into the matter, he makes a truly upsetting discovery that seems to show the reason for Morse’s apparent lack of interest in this murder. Dexter makes it clear how difficult it is for Lewis to continue the investigation after his find. But of course, this is Colin Dexter, so things are not what they seem.
Louise Penny gives readers a look at what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those sorts of questions in her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Beginning with Still Life, the first in the series, we get hints, and later facts, about an earlier case involving Gamache. We later learn that questions about it have been raised. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers. But I can say that this particular story arc lends a solid layer of tension to the novels. Although each of the novels contains a separate murder investigation, the story arc shows that these kinds of questions can go on in the background and can have a profound effect on the life of the subject of them.
Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond has a similar sort of sub-plot. The body of famous TV actor Geraldine ‘Gerry’’ Jackman has been found in Chew Valley Lake not far from Bristol. Superintendent Peter Diamond and his assistant DI John Wigfull investigate the death and they soon find that this is going to be a difficult case. For one thing, it turns out that the victim didn’t die by drowning, and was probably killed elsewhere and brought to the lake. For another, the deeper they dig into her background, the more complications they find. As if that weren’t enough, there’s already somewhat of a cloud over Diamond, resulting from his conduct during an earlier case. He’s very much ‘on probation’ in this investigation and in fact, it’s even arranged for a ‘company spy’ to keep tabs on him.
The murder of Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police brings on a deep look into his life in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. White has the reputation of being very much ‘a cop’s cop.’ Never accused of ‘going dirty,’ always supportive of his colleagues, he is much respected and admired by his peers. One morning he and probationer Lucy Howard respond to reports of a break-in. While they’re at the scene, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. But the police can’t move too quickly here. Rowley is part Aboriginal and from what people call a ‘disadvantaged background.’ The police know that the media is watching everything they do to be certain they ‘play by the rules.’ Besides, there are some hints that something more was going on with this case. As we learn what really happened in the days leading up to the murder, and on the day itself, we also see how the police react when one of their own – someone they really respected – comes under the proverbial microscope.
And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. In that novel, London investigator Catherine Berlin has been building up a case against loan shark Archie Doyle. She’s been working with an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. One day ‘Juliet’ is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels responsible for putting her informant at risk, so she takes a special interest in finding out who killed her. Soon, though, she finds herself suspended for not following protocol with regard to her interactions with her informant. But she wants to know the truth about ‘Juliet’s’ death. Then, Berlin faces a personal crisis. She’s a registered heroin addict who’s been getting her supply from Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts program. One afternoon she goes to his office to keep her regular appointment only to find him dead and herself a suspect in his murder. With only seven days’ supply of the drug left, she’ll have to clear her name as quickly as she can, before withdrawal sets in. In the end, she finds out the truth behind Lazenby’s murder and how it ties in with ‘Juliet’s’ murder. She also discovers some things best left unknown about some of her colleagues.
There are also novels such as Ian Rankin’s The Complaints that deal with internal investigations of police. It’s difficult to have the responsibility of ‘policing the police,’ and those who do so don’t necessarily have a lot of friends in the rest of the department. But it’s a fact of police life.
It’s always difficult when questions are raised about a colleague, especially if that colleague is someone you’ve liked and respected. It’s even worse when it’s a member of the police force, who are supposed to be worthy of public trust. When it happens in real life it’s distressing for everyone. When it happens in crime fiction, it can add suspense to a story. Which gaps have I left?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Take it on the Run.