You Can Always Depend on Me*

Enabled DetectivesNot long ago, I had an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews and Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Both blogs, by the way, are excellent resources for honest, interesting and thoughtful book reviews. If you love reading, you’ll want those blogs on your blog roll.

Our conversation was about what I’ll call fictional police enablers: supervisors who enable maverick cops. In real life of course, there are limits to what a police officer is allowed to do in the course of an investigation, and there are rules that govern how police are supposed to get evidence, deal with suspects and the like. And while those policies aren’t always followed, there are real consequences for cops who don’t.

In fiction though, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are plenty of fictional maverick cops, and although their supervisors don’t always like what they do, they usually keep those police officers from getting in real trouble.

We see this for instance in more than one of Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte mysteries. Bony works for the Queensland Police, and is often sent out to crime scenes in remote towns and rural areas. He knows very well that official police policy doesn’t always work in those places, and he knows even better that they don’t work among the Aboriginal people who are sometimes concerned in his cases. And Bony would rather solve cases than stick strictly to the letter of the law. So in that sense he’s a maverick. His unorthodox ways do get him into trouble with the ‘higher ups’ at times, but they don’t cost him his job. One reason for that is that he’s a brilliant detective. He gets the job done. Another is that despite the fact that his supervisor gets exasperated with his refusal to go along with policy, he knows that Bony’s the best at what he does. So he protects him.

Carol O’Connell’s NYPD homicide detective Kathy Mallory is another example of a maverick detective. She’s had a very dark, troubled background and matters were made worse when her surrogate father, police detective Louis Markowitz, was killed in the line of duty. Mallory is arguably a sociopath and has little regard for departmental policy. In many ways, you might call her a supervisor’s nightmare. But she is good at catching ‘bad guys’ and she is unafraid to go up against some very nasty people. What’s more, she’s protected by her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Detective Riker. Riker knows about her past, and he has his own share of issues, so he has some sympathy for her. And that’s part of why he enables her, if you want to put it that way.

Fans of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole will know that he’s broken just about every policy there is. He’s gotten too close to cases, done patently illegal things, and more. And that’s not to mention his struggles with alcohol and drugs. Despite all of that, he’s a brilliant detective. In fact, he’s about the best there is when it comes to serial killers and other ‘unusual’ sorts of murders. That’s part of why his boss Bjarne Møller protects him as much as he does. Møller knows that Hole will get the job done if he can just stay on a somewhat even keel (and sometimes, even if he can’t). What’s more, he knows that Hole’s colleagues respect his ability.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest seldom follows policy. As it is, she’s independent and sometimes rash. Add to that her knowledge of the part of Australia’s Outback where she lives, and it’s easy to see why she’s not much of a one to do what she’s told to do if it makes no sense to her. When we first meet Tempest in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), she’s just returned to the Moonlight Downs Aboriginal encampment after some time away. She gets involved in a murder case when the group’s leader Lincoln Flinders is murdered. In the process of finding out who killed the victim and why, she meets Superintendent Tom MacGillivray. He sees that Tempest has a lot of practical knowledge and that she’s smart and gutsy. That’s part of the reason he protects her, even enables her, when he can. There’s also the fact that she has a fairly strong instinct for tracking down leads. But MacGillivray can’t do much to enable Tempest in Gunshot Road. He’s been sidelined by injury, so Tempest comes temporarily under the command of Bruce Cockburn. She quickly finds out that Cockburn won’t enable her at all when the team is called to the scene of a murder at Green Swamp Well. Cocburn is satisfied that the death was the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest isn’t sure that’s true. And in this novel, she learns among other things that being a maverick can be costly.

And I don’t think it would be possible to discuss maverick police detectives without mentioning Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus fans will know that he is much more interested in finding out the truth about the cases he works than he is about following policy. There are plenty of instances in which he takes his own approach to dealing with ‘bad guys,’ tracking down leads and so on. Sometimes he’s enabled, mostly because the people he works with know he’s a very good detective, and that he won’t give up on a case. But even the legendary Rebus isn’t enabled all of the time. When he lets his temper get the best of him in Resurrection Men, he’s sent off to Tulliallan Police College as a last-ditch effort to ‘reform’ him. And he’s certainly not enabled in Black and Blue when he turns up some unpleasant truths about a ‘bent’ senior officer. He’s sent off to investigate the murder of an oilman instead of being assigned the more prestigious case of a killer who seems to be copying a serial killer from years earlier. That doesn’t stop Rebus though…

I know I haven’t mentioned all of the fictional police mavericks there are (I know, I know, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch). But just from these few examples, we can see that some are more enabled by their superiors than others. Some push the limits of what they’re allowed to do more than others. And of course some stretch credibility more than others. But they arguably have in common that someone in authority sees that their detective skills and their integrity outweigh their unwillingness/inability to play by the book, so to speak. And as challenging as it can be, that’s reason enough for some people to protect a cop who doesn’t always ‘mind the manners.’

What do you think of the premise of the maverick cop who’s protected by someone in charge? Does it make sense?

Thanks, FictionFan and Cleo, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland’s Reach Out (I’ll be There), made popular by The Four Tops.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Carol O'Connell, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, Michael Connelly

28 responses to “You Can Always Depend on Me*

  1. Well Margot, you certainly nailed that post really well (and quickly) Josh Derwent, Maeve Kerrigan’s boss in the series by Jane Casey, has also been given more leeway than seems likely. He is another character that is only enabled because he is brilliant, something all your examples have in common. I like the fact that you have chosen examples of remote location policing where maybe the rules don’t matter quite as much. Love the post and thanks for the mention.

    • Cleo – It’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog, and thanks for both the inspiration and the kind words. You do have a good point about Derwent, someone who certainly does belong in this group. I appreciate your filling in that gap. It’s interesting too that you’d bring up the locations of these novels. I think in a lot of cases the rules are different in the back of beyond to what they are in a city or even a suburb. And that would likely make a difference in how much enabling and maverick behaviour we see.

  2. I can think of so many examples – Frost, Dalziel (while Pascoe is more rule-bound). And then the lovely Bruno from Martin Walker’s series – who has learnt all sorts of little tricks to smooth the wheels of justice and navigate the often Byzantine legal maze in rural France.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, those are terrific examples! And all of the detectives you’ve mentioned have as their goal solving cases and making sure that there’s some sort of justice, whatever that really means. They’re just very pragmatic about it.

  3. Like Marina Sofia I think of Dalziel – but in the specific and charming scenes where Sergeant Wield has been worrying and panicking about coming out to his police colleagues – and I think readers might be worrying a bit too. But Dalziel responds magnificently and heart-warmingly: looking after his subordinate.

    • Moira – I’m glad you brought that scene up. As you and Marina Sofia say, Dalziel certainly does things his way, regardless of what his superiors or policy says. At the same time though, he does support his subordinates in a very loyal way. I think that’s part of the reason they put up with his – er – unorthodox ways…

  4. Loved your representation, many a thanks.

    One thing though: “… there are real consequences for cops who don’t …” In which fantasy world, please? May be, “this” one

    And, please, no hard feelings intended … 🙂

  5. Mallory definitely has to be one of the worst, but Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint could give her a run for her money, I reckon! And one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the Rebus series is seeing how Rebus’ maverick behaviour actually gets toned down as the series goes on – tying in with the real-life tightening-up of the police force over here over the last couple of decades. But poor Siobhan still has to cover for him too often…

    Thanks for the mention, Margot, and for another very interesting post! 🙂

    • FictionFan – It’s a pleasure to mention your excellent blog 🙂 – And thanks for the kind words. You make an interesting point about Lacey Flint. And I like too that the Rebus series has shown changes not just in the characters, but in Scottish society. It’s one of the things that makes the series relevant, at least in my opinion. Siobhan does her share of covering up, though, that’s for sure. Talk about enabling…

  6. Do you think there is some of art reflecting life here Margot? I could never be a cop, I don’t see the law in black and white more is shades of grey.

  7. Margot: While the maverick cop protected by a superior is a crime fiction staple I think what is more likely to happen in real life is exemplified by a trio of sleuths.

    Each of Russell Quant (Anthony Bidulka), Spenser (Robert B. Parker) and Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) were mavericks who left the police because they were too individualistic for police departments and their administrations.

    Few fictional mavericks could have stayed in a real life police department.

    • Bill – That’s a very well-taken point. I’d guess most real-life cops who chafe under departmental regulations and so on are more likely to look for another line of work than to stay, as they do in fiction. And you’ve given clear examples of sleuths who are like that, too.

  8. Col

    Bruen’s Jack Taylor was a square peg in a round hole when on the force. Similarly his Inspector Brant isn’t too wrapped up in procedure when it comes to detecting.

  9. kathy d.

    And then there are the police who enable others. No criticism of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, but Commissario Brunetti does enable her expert computer investigations, some of which may (ahem) go over the legal line. He enables her work as it helps his investigations.
    And I love the Four Tops singing, “I’ll Be There.” In fact, I love them singing anything, one of the wonderful Motown groups who specialized in great songs and harmony to rival the songbirds.

    • Kathy – I really like The Four Tops, too. And there are certainly police who enable others. Brunetti does with Signorina Elettra, as you point out. And now you mention it, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano enables his friend Gegè Gullotta, who manages several not-exactly-legal ‘businesses.’ He leaves those businesses alone more or less, and Gullotta is helpful in his turn.

  10. Fascinating post, Margot. As always, I draw a blank on adding suggestions with all the intriguing characters you’ve mentioned playing around in my head. I suspect too, that there are a few maverick cops in real life that do get by with some things as it’s hard not to see the grey area at times.

    • Mason – Thanks for the kind words. I think you have a very well-taken point about grey areas. Certainly there are maverick cops who behave that way because they are undisciplined. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of cases where policy and the right thing to do don’t lead to the same decision.

  11. A little off the mark but somewhat related perhaps: I think of cases where the police, if not exactly coddle, at least tolerate, in effect protect, the presence and participation of an exceptionally brilliant private investigator, two prominent cases in point being Poirot and Monk.
    As for police, didn’t Morse do a lot of questionable things? I don’t recall if there were consequences or not.

    • Bryan – Interesting point about Morse. He does do some questionable things, and his boss Superintendent Strange is not fond of Morse’s ‘liquid diet.’ But Strange also knows that Morse is brilliant. You make a strong point too about the way the police work with PIs in fiction. You have some great examples, and we see that also in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series. The police do work with those PIs even if they don’t always relish their presence. The same is true in Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant series and in ways, in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series.

  12. When the series is interesting (good plots and characters), I can accept quite a lot. As you say, Harry Hole is a brilliant detective, but not good at obeying rules or taking orders. What has annoyed me recently, however, is that it seems as if he has to be 99% dead at the end of every volume – only to rise again in a new book a year later. I’m not very fond of THAT superman cliché. It’s unrealistic for so many reasons.

    • Dorte – I think that part of the Harry Hole series is unrealistic too. And yet, as you say, when the plots are really engaging the characters well-drawn, we do forgive things. I find myself being more forgiving in those cases than I am when the plot is a bit dull or the characters not ‘fleshed out.’

  13. I think that Arthur Bryant and John May in the Peculiar Crimes Unit are both maverick cops in their own way, but Arthur Bryant is possibly the more eccentric of the two, who goes his own way quite often. It has been a while since I have read one of these. Am I remembering correctly?

    • Tracy – You know, I hadn’t thought of Bryant and May when I was planning this post, but they do certainly do things that aren’t always – erm – orthodox. And even though you couldn’t really say they’re enabled, there are definitely times when they cover for each other. And yes, you are remembering correctly.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s