Come On, Come On, Let’s Work Together*

Cops and PIsMost 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

22 responses to “Come On, Come On, Let’s Work Together*

  1. Ellery Queen and his dad – EQ’s role is a bit ambiguous (and I think changes over the series? – I have only read a handful) but he seems to be a private detective solving crimes for the fun of it, while his father is a NY cop. Ellery is often ‘invited’ to help out in his unofficial role. This was quite a common setup in many a Golden Age story, and it must have made the mind boggle then as much as now. In several stories with a country house setting, the policeman will say to the unofficial sleuth ‘you know these people, you fit in, you can find out more than I could.’ Very much a plot device, and very unlikely in real life!

    • Moira – You’re quite right about the whole setup between Queen and his father, at least during the early novels. Of course even during the later ones he does get called in, but in different contexts. And as I think about it, you’re quite right that it’s an unlikely scenario in real life. Ngaio Marsh made it work by having her unofficial detective Agatha Troy get involved in cases and then involve her police inspector husband. That makes more logical sense. But somehow, we ‘buy’ it in GA contexts. And you’ve just made me think of Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge series, where the cops get him involved… hmm….it does happen a lot in GA novels doesn’t it??

  2. I thought I would be at a loss, since I read fewer PI novels than police procedurals, but of course there is my favorite sleuth, Nero Wolfe (and Archie). Who have a relationship with Inspector Cramer and his staff…sometimes good, sometimes bad.

    • Tracy – Now there’s a great example! Wolfe won’t usually admit it, but he benefits from knowing Cramer. So does Goodwin of course. And although Gramer doesn’t like to go on about it either, he knows very well that he catches more criminals because of Wolfe. I like that dynamic.

  3. Margot: Let me extend your post into legal mysteries. Most do not have a meaningful relationship between police and lawyers.

    The books of Robert Rotenberg set in Toronto are an exception. His lawyers and his police interact in credible ways. In fact, a detective and a Crown counsel have an affair which is at the heart of his last book, Stranglehold.

    Michael Connelly brings together an even more complex relationship with lawyer Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch turning out to be half brothers.

    • Bill – The relationship between the police and lawyers is a really fascinating topic in and of itself. And it’s interesting that you’ve found most legal mysteries don’t depict that relationship realistically. I wonder if that’s done for dramatic effect. At any rate it’s good to hear that Rotenberg’s work depicts the relationship authenticaly.
      And yes, Haller and Bosch’s relationship is complex and yet it’s not labyrinthine. But of course, Connolly does a great job depicting hs characters.

  4. Great examples! I can only think of Jonathan Kellerman’s psychologist-sleuth Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Lieutenant Tragg—all part of the mutual admiration society. Mason and Tragg don’t let their differences get in the way of their respect for each other.

    • Prashant – Thank you. And you’ve got some terrific examples there. Sturgis and Delaware are friends as well as professional colleagues, and of course, Mason and Tragg have a good partnership too. As you say, it’s a case of mutual admiration.

  5. Col

    I quite like the relationships between Robert Crais’s Cole and Pike and the police (name of detective escapes me). Cole is a buffer between the two, and there’s a lot of enmity, not to mention testosterone bouncing around between Pike and his former colleagues.

    • Col – Oh, how could I have missed out the “Greatest Detective?’ Thanks for filling in that gap. And yes, that’s such an interesting dynamic, especially with Cole’s witty way of dealing with it.

  6. Hakan Nesser’s retired Chief Inspector Van Veeteren has a unique relationship with his ex colleagues- a sort of unofficial consultant and father confessor. In the latest book The Strangler’s Honeymoon he decides to become a PI to track down a psychopath.

    • Norman – I really like VV’s connection to his former colleagues, too It’s depicted I think quite well. And now you mention his choice to be a PI, it makes me think of all of the fictional cops who make that choice. I think there are a lot of them.

  7. I would imagine in real life the most antagonistic relationships might be between defense attorneys and the police. I can’t imagine police in real life sharing information with P.Is. or anyone so I guess fictional relationships that mostly mirror real ones are probably most satisfying for me. I think mystery writers of the past used this device more often.

    • Patti – That’s a really interesting point about police sharing information. And of course, it doesn’t make sense that defending counsel and police would get along really well, although I suspect there are always exceptions. I’ll have to think about the difference between today’s novels and those of the past when it comes to police and PI’s – fascinating point you make there!

  8. Hi, I’m new to your blog, but I’m enjoying it greatly! Alas, Tracy K. beat me to my favorite relationship–that between Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin and Inspector Cramer, Sgt. Stebbins and the despised Lt. Rowcliff. My favorite representative scene (in my favorite book) involves Cramer, Archie, a hotel room and a bottle of milk. Close second is Wolfe’s solving a case and helping Cramer return to his job at the same time. I love the combination of hostility and respect among the main four. The pugnacious Rowcliff, of course, gets what he deserves late in the series.

    For another good example, there’s the amicable and sometimes darn-near enabling relationship among Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and the cops Lt. Martin Quirk and Sgt. Frank Belson. Quirk/Belson are continually described by Spenser as highly capable cops, and Quirk/Belson aren’t above closing their eyes (or even encouraging) some of Spenser’s less… legal activities, usually involving his team-ups with Hawk.

    In my own work I try to vary things depending on the characters (well, duh, I guess everyone does that!). One novel has the P.I. and cop as best friends and collaborators; in my ongoing webserial, the sole P.I. (who’s not the main character–there really isn’t one in this series) works for an insurance company, and the detectives she deals with treat her respectfully but with suspicion. My main cop character is wary of her activities because in his experience, insurance investigators are primarily searching for ways to get their companies off the hook for making payments–and thus tend to be prejudiced in one direction or another. He probably wouldn’t have a problem with an independent P.I., however.

    Terrific subject. : )

    • Kira – Thanks for your visit – you’re welcome any time. And thanks for the kind words. You’re quite right about the dynamic among Spenser, Quirk, and Belson. They do have a lot of mutual respect and I think you’ve used a very interesting term – enabling. Each knows that the other is extremely useful, so it makes sense that they would develop that kind of relationship. I’m very glad you’ve filled in that gap.
      And of course you’re quite right about the relationships among the Rex Stout characters. Not that Nero Wolfe would ever admit it… 😉
      I think you have a point too about the value of varying those relationships in your own work. There’d be good reasons why a cop would be suspicious of an insurance investigator. But at the same time, cops and PIs can work really well together depending on the context. Thanks very much for sharing what you do.

    • Kira, I love those examples you mentioned for the Nero Wolfe books. Two of my favorites also.

  9. Margot – My example is yet again from Maltese Falcon, in which Spade and Lt Dundee & Sgt Pohlhouse are pretty much in antagonistic mode throughout the novel. However, both ultimately are more or less on the right side of the law. As Spade explains to Brigid: “Don’t think I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.”

    • Bryan – I love that example. It’s exactly the kind of relationship I had in mind when I wrote this post. And it’s interesting how in this case, Dundee/Pohlhouse and Spade really are on the same side, so to speak. They don’t necessarily see it that way at first, as you say, but they are. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  10. kathy d.

    Well, in the latest Sara Paretsky novel, “Critical Mass,” V.I. Warshawski tries the patience of Police Sergeant Conrad Rawlings, a former intimate of hers. He says,, “Do not call me again for favors, Warshawski. I am fed up to my back teeth with your recklessness. … [and] “you are a goddamn piece of work.”
    I like it best when the detective-police relationship goes up and down, cooperation and aggravation, because that is probably more realistic.

    • Kathy – I think you’re right about the realism of the up/down relationship between PIs and cops. And thanks for highlighting the face that Warshawksi isn’t always ‘the darling of the police force.’ Quite often she is probably a pain from their perspectives. And your example shows that perfectly.

  11. Reblogged this on Murder in Common and commented:
    Excellent post on the relationship between PI’s and police detectives in crime fiction
    June Lorraine

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