Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?




*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

37 responses to “Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

  1. I’m a great fan of the police procedural Margot, not least for its compariitive flexibility within the mystery genre – thanks for highlighting the international dimension as it is particularly interesting to compare procedures as we experience police cases solved by the likes of Maigret, Van der valk or Mantalbano – really adds a great dimension to the genre.

    • Sergio – I think so too. I love that international way of looking at the sub-genre. And I know exactly what you mean about police procedurals. Because there are so many different police forces and ways of doing things, the sub-genre really is flexible. To me, that’s all to the good. It keeps the genre fresh.

  2. I hadn’t considered the international aspect of the Police Procedural but then realised one of my favourites Patrik Hedstrom by Camilla Lackberg is exactly that! I think I like this precisely because there is a mix of the murder and personal lives, that gives the writer plenty of aspects to explore, relationships within the police, victim (and family) murderer and the policeman’s private life. My first introduction to this genre was probably the Inspector Wexford series by Ruth Rendall.
    Another really interesting post, thank you!

    • Cleo – So glad you enjoyed the post. And I think you have a very well-taken point about the way police procedurals mix the professional with the private. This allows the author to explore lots of different aspects of a story. For the reader, it allows the opportunity to choose a series that really explores character too. And I like the Läckberg series very much, too.

  3. I’ve always preferred other genres of crime stories, but I am coming round more to police procedurals these days. I like the Dalziel and Pascoe books by Reginald Hill, and I’m also a big fan of Barry Maitland’s Kolle and Brock books – do they count as procedurals?

    • Moira – I think the Kolla and Brock series definitely counts as a police procedural series. And I’m glad you’ve found some you enjoy. I like the D/P series quite a lot, and I think part of the reason is that although it is a police procedural series, it’s also got great character development.

  4. Police procedurals are probably my favorite crime fiction genre, although I am very fond of espionage novels also. I would bet that half the crime novels I read are police procedurals, although, as you say, there is a lot of variety within that area. Of the last five books I read, four were police procedurals. IN THE SHADOW OF THE GLACIER by Vicki Delany, THE MALCONTENTA by Barry Maitland, ELEVEN DAYS by Donald Harstad and THE NIGHT THE GODS SMILED by Eric Wright. I will seek out some of those authors that you mentioned whose books I have not tried yet.

    • Tracy – Oh, yes, I thought I remembered you like police procedurals. I’ve been finding myself reading a lot of them, too, in the past year. And what’s interesting is that I didn’t do it deliberately. I think part of the reason for that is exactly the sub-genre’s diversity. There’s so much to read, with so many different characters. And you’re reminded me (for which thank you!) that I want to read the Harstad.

  5. I prefer police procedurals in modern fiction, because I find the PI too hard to believe in. I would extend the definition of police procedural though to include people with a close working relationship with the police – such as McDermid’s Tony Hill or the various forensic pathologist-as-detective series. But I hate when the police procedural is used as a cover for a character who’s clearly a PI in all but name – all these maverick, drunken, gun-totin’, noir ‘tecs, who wouldn’t last a day in the laxest of police depts. That’s why I like people like Hill, Bolton or Casey, or of course Rankin – they give a credible picture of how the police force actually works and, while the ‘tecs may be a bit maverick on occasion, on the whole they work within the rules.

    • FictionFan – I couldn’t possibly agree more. I think the best modern police procedurals are realistic about what cops can and can’t do, and they show the consequences when the rules are broken. I recently read an article about just this issue actually. Some real-life cops were making the well-taken point that some fictional cops have strayed much too far from the sort of thing that police actually do, and much too close to the TV-cop syndrome. That’s I think what sets authors such as Rankin, Casey, Hill and so on above the rest. Their cops speak their minds, sometimes push things, etc., but more or less, the novels show police life as it really is.
      And about police who work with forensic experts, etc., I don’t see why we can’t consider them procedruals too. They are. The police character is bound by police policy, the whole thing.

  6. Margot, thanks so much for the shout out! I’ll admit that police procedurals aren’t really my thing, but your blog posts always are. 😉

    • Kathy – Always a pleasure to mention your blog. And thanks for the kind words about mine. Police procedurals aren’t for everyone, I’ll admit. But that’s the beauty of the genre – there really is something for everyone’s taste. 🙂

  7. I think this is the genre I love the best… generally the characterisations are great – the back stories, the human element… I think that is what draws me to them – and the action – usually fast paced. And if you are lucky the book will be part of a series where you get to learn more about the protagonists.
    PS Just started my first Geoffry Mcgeachin – St Kilda Blues- pretty powerful.

    • Carol – I know exactly what you mean. Many police procedurals have a solid pace and lots of suspense. And you’re right; they also do have backstories and story arcs, so that you can get to know the protagonist(s) as more than just the police officer knocking on the door. There is a human element to any crime story, and a good police procedural will acknowledge and build on that human element. And that, too, adds to the sub-genre’s appel.
      And I am so glad to hear you’re enjoying Saint Kilda Blues. I heartily, wholly, strongly recommend the first two, The Diggers Rest Hotel and Blackwattle Creek, too. They are excellent stories in and of themselves, and they give interesting background on Charlie Berlin.

  8. kathy d.

    Police procedurals can surely run the gamut. I like unusual ones, such as books featuring Commissario Brunetti of Venice, Commissaire Adamsberg of Paris, Irene Huss of Goteberg, Inspector Erlendur of Iceland, Alex Morrow of Glasgow and more. Of course, there’s the alcoholic, erratic genius from Norway, Harry Hole. And how could we forget the crazed witty grump, Salvo Montalbano.
    But putting Montalbano in the same category as any by-the-book police detective is like comparing a sparrow to an eagle. They’re in the same species — but, wow, are they different!

    • Kathy – I really like your examples. Besides the fact that they are fine examples of police procedurals, they also show just how varied the sub-genre really is. Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks and Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano are both cops, but they couldn’t be any different. And Harry Hole is in a category by himself. But that’s what makes the sub-genre so interesting. It’s varied.

  9. hmmm…I think that when ever I consider any genre in isolation – like ‘country music’ I often think I don’t like it but then I always think of specific pieces of music, art or books in those styles or genres (Emmylou Harris in country music for instance) that I adore. I don’t think I like police procedurals but I bet there are some I do! I adore Louise Penny, Ruth Rendall and Reginald Hill so I’m a big liar!

    • Jan – Interesting point. I could easily say that, for instance, I’m not much of a one for scifi. And yet, there are some terrific science fiction works that I’ve enjoyed richly. The same thing is true of any sort of story I suppose. You might like one exemplar of it, but not others. And honestly, I admit to being completely biased, but I think it would be hard not to like the work of Hill and Penny. Both truly fine and gifted authors. So even if you don’t think of yourself as a ‘police procedural gal,’ I can see why you feel the way you do about them.

    • I love the Gamache novels! Funny, but I’ve never considered them police procedurals before…

  10. There’s nothing like a good, meaty police procedural to brighten my day – my favourite kind of crime fiction – and, as you point out, Margot, there is so much variety within this sub-genre. You and other commentators mention many of my favourites already, so I won’t repeat those, but I’d just like to add two to the list. One is an old favourite: Michael Dibdin’s Inspector Zen series, which fits more into the ‘loner’ category, but still has Zen operating within the Italian police force’s labyrinthine and often corrupt procedures and policies. And the other is a relatively new discovery, but very realistic, satisfying and well-documented: Mari Hannah – Kate Daniels series (The Murder Wall, Deadly Deceit and 2 more out so far).

    • Marina Sofia – Police procedurals can be very satisfying indeed, can’t they. I think what I like about them is the solid blend you can get of character development, storyline/plot and pace of story. And there is so much diversity in just this one sub-genre that no matter what your preferences are, you can probably find a police procedural series or novel to enjoy. I’m glad you mentioned the Michael Dibdin series; as you say, Zen is somewhat of a loner, but he is a cop and works with other cops. And I’ve been meaning to put a Mari Hannah’s work in the spotlight. I’m glad you’ve reminded me.

  11. Col

    Probably not my favourite sub-genre within crime, but I do like reading them. Burke’s Robicheaux, Connelly’s Bosch, Bruen’s Brant, to mention a few. In truth these are probably more maverick type cops as opposed to the ones that follow the rules all the time.

    • Col – Some of the police procedurals really are good reads. And the characters you’ve mentioned are all (I think) well-developed cop characters. I can see why you like them as much as you do.

  12. One of the elements I find appealing in a police procedural is the way cops and detectives stick up for each other both on and off duty, maybe because they know they’re all in the same boat. I find the way the law enforcers deal with each other and their superiors at work and families back home often more interesting than the plot. They lead ordinary lives and have normal issues like anybody else, separation, divorce, addiction, difficult children, illness etc.

    One of the milder forms of a police procedural is HRF Keating’s Inspector Ghote novels which, I think, you have written about here. Ghote goes about his work in much the same way as a real cop/sleuth would in the Bombay/Mumbai police department or crime branch.

    • Prashant – I’m glad you brought up the Inspector Ghote series. It is a well-written set of mysteries, and it’s good to know that it reflects reality in terms of what a real Mumbai police officer would do and what the work would be like.
      As you point out, police officers do have personal lives, as we all do, and it is nice when a novel or series shows us that. Some police procedurals focus more on this than do others but there again is the variety in the sub-genre. And yes, there is a tradition of police sticking together and helping each other. That can play out very well in a story.

  13. I agree with Prashant. The working relationships, in particular, offer so much scope for interesting characterisation and sub-plots. Rankin, Lackberg and Robinson are my favourites. In my Murder on Page One I had great fun creating different cops, including one from Mumbai who serves in the Met.

    • Ian – Oh, that is an interesting premise – a cop from one culture working in another. I like it. And you’re right; the interactions and working relations in the police procedural can be very appealing.

  14. Margot, now I’m going to have that song running through my head all day long, 🙂 I’m never quite sure what falls under a police procedure heading. As you mentioned, that genre as changed a bit. Would Jussi Adler-Olsen’s books fall under this heading?

    • Mason – It is one of those songs, isn’t it? 🙂 – And you’re right; the genre has evolved a lot, and there’s quite a bit of variety in it now. I really do think that Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series about Department Q fits into the category; I’m glad you mentioned it.

  15. You can’t beat a really good police procedural! A writer who was early in the field was Hilary Waugh and his work is still very readable. Last Seen Wearing was published in 1952 and is a classic in the genre.

    • Chrissie – Oh, good reminder – thank you. And you’re right about Waugh (whose work I really do need to spotlight). Some of those classic police procedurals are really memorable.

  16. Is Hilary Waugh the same person as Colin Dexter? I jumped on that because my Mom, who is *very* difficult to buy for, likes procedurals … but Amazon pointed me to a “Last Seen Wearing” indexed to both names. I am confused. 🙂

    Anyway … I haven’t been a huge reader of procedurals, but I did read several 87th Precinct novels, all the Kate Martinelli novels (want more!!) from Laurie R. King, and a whole slew of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider mysteries. And it seems like Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn novels ought to count. They are in the permanent collection chez moi.

    • Chacha1 – Hilary Waugh and Colin Dexter are different people. Each wrote a novel called Last Seen Wearing, and even more, both novels are police procedurals. But they are not the same novel. I hope that helps.
      It’s interesting isn’t it how certain novels and series draw a person in, even if that person isn’t generally a fan of that (sub)genre. I understand what you mean about liking the Kate Martinelli novels and Bill SLider novels even though police procedurals are generally not your choice. And as for the Roderick Alleyn novels? I can see how you’d consider them police procedurals. THey do involve police investigations and they do focus on Alleyn and Fox (although Alleny’s wife Agatha Troy features quite often too). It’s a wide and diverse sub-genre.

  17. I’m not a big fan of police procedurals in crime fiction as my tastes tend more toward the PI or the amateur sleuth. However, I rather like TV police procedurals and Law and Order was one of my favorites. Along the internationalist lines, we might include Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Henning Mankell’s Wallander series. I’ve not read the novels but saw the movie and TV version respectively and liked them. I guess I go for police procedural stories that have a touch of the paranoid in them 🙂

    • Bryan – You’re not alone in that. That’s one of the appeals of William Wryan’s Alexei Korolev series, too. And I’m glad you included the classic Wallander series as well as the excellent Arkady Renko series. They really are quite good in my opinion as novels, so I hope you’ll get the chance to read them. Interesting too that you see a difference in your taste between what you read and what you watch. I’m not surprised though, as they are different ways of telling a story.

  18. Pingback: Know Your Genre: Tips and Secrets from the Experts for Writing Bestselling Genre Fiction - Anne R. Allen's Blog... with Ruth Harris

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