Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman

32 responses to “Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

  1. Patti Abbott

    I had forgotten all about L.R. Wright. Have to revisit.

  2. My favorite Nero Wolfe book remains “The Doorbell Rang,” in which Wolfe takes on the FBI (which, at the time, required a degree of bravery pushing foolhardiness). Rex Stout played some neat tricks in that one, and I wouldn’t call his take on the agency a positive one…

    • Oh, yes of course, Les! That’s a great story. And you’re absolutely right about both Wolfe’s opinion of the FBI. Folks, it’s a good ‘un if you haven’t had the chance to read it.

  3. Yes, I used to enjoy L. R. Wright, too.
    Interesting topic, Margot. I love the Maigret novels, though sometimes the police there behave in ways we’d consider unethical these days – threatening suspects, for instance. But on the whole these are hard-working well-meaning people and Maigret himself is a wonderful character.

    • Oh, I like Maigret too, Christine. He’s a very interesting character and quite well-drawn. And you bring up a really interesting topic in the way he and his teammates treat witnesses and suspects. It’s not the only case by any means where the methods of yesteryear would not be acceptable today. May do a post on that at some point – it’s interesting, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’ And for the kind words.

  4. It is interesting how often in British crime fiction the mention of Scotland Yard can be used both as a measure of the importance of a case, and the cause of frustration for local coppers that the case is likely therefore to be taken out of their hands. Just depends on which side of the fence you are telling your story from, Thanks Margot,

    • Well put, Sergio. It really does depend on whether the characters have a reason to be pro-Yard/Met or pro-the locals. I have read some books where there’s a decent amount of cooperation between the agencies. But there’s also quite frequently a sense of ‘patch wars’ and turf-building too.

  5. Hi Margot! The FBI is the agency so many people love to hate, but I have the highest respect for the work they and the other national law enforcement organizations do. As a result, I’m a big fan of thrillers featuring those organizations.

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, Pat, how people do love to hate the FBI. And we’ve all heard legends about them. But the majority of FBI people are hard-working, dedicated folks who take on challenges I know I couldn’t. I understand why you like thrillers that feature them.

  6. Nice to see P D Martin mentioned here Margot – I did enjoy reading this series ( I think I just have the last one to catch up on) and I like how Fred Vargas enlists the ordinary ,the hidden to help solve the crimes – doesn’t rely on the official.

  7. Margot: I am probably not the best person to comment on the RCMP since I have spent the last 40 years defending people they have charged.

    Early in my life they were always seen as heroic. “The Mounties always get their man” was a part of Canadian culture.

    They are not all heroes but the force remains well respected and is the local police force in most of rural Canada.

    • You do have a unique perspective on the RCMP, Bill, and an insight into how they do what they do. Not all of the members of the RCMP are heroes, as you say (I suppose that’s true of most national police forces) but they are well regarded. And like all police forces, they have to do a sometimes terrible and thankless job.

  8. And then of course there are the countries where the national police is uniformly regarded with great suspicion, which is why the development of crime writing lags behind there (or shows great corruption scandals, impossibility to get justice or closure etc.), for instance India, Brazil, Argentina, Israel.

    • That’s a good point, Marina Sofia. In those places, most people don’t see the national police force as an ally, but as an enemy to be evaded. And now you’re reminding me of Ernesto Mallo’s work, which explores the police presence in Argentina. Yes, it’s not a case there of ‘if you’re in trouble , the police will help you sort it out.’

  9. Col

    I do like competition among police agencies in some of my crime fiction. I’m not sure I understand all the distinctions over jurisdictions in some crimes, but having the FBI in conflict with the local police adds a layer to me.

    • I agree, Col; that competition and conflict can indeed add to a story. The lines between the FBI’s jurisdiction and other jurisdictions do get blurred at times. In a very general sense, the FBI investigates crimes at the national level (for instance, an abduction in which the victim is taken across state lines). There are also other major crimes (such as theft of major artwork, multiple murders in different states, human trafficking or drugs smuggling) where the FBI is involved immediately. But it’s not always that clear, and conflict over ‘who’s in charge’ can add tension to a novel, too.

  10. One of the things I like about reading crime fiction set in other places is the chance to learn about the local law enforcement, and to compare and contrast with the arrangements in other countries. You’ve suggested a great reading list!

    • Thanks, Moira. Law enforcement is definitely different depending on where you go, Moira, and I like to read about those differences too. I especially like it when the author gives an authentic picture of the police force, so you can really get a sense of it.

  11. Margot, I think law enforcement in India got more complex since terrorism took root a little over two decades ago. The 26/11 attacks in upscale Mumbai changed it further and we now have more than one sophisticated intel agency assisting the local police in terror and criminal investigations. Until then, we had the very competent crime branch, or CID, within the police force and the word was that they always got their man; that is, they never knocked on the wrong door in the dead of night. They are still doing a good job.

    I agree with Col about the FBI-police conflict adding to the excitement of reading such thrillers, or watching like movies. “Mississippi Burning” comes to mind.

    • I’m very glad, Prashant, that the CID does a competent and careful job of investigation. And you make a very good point about the way terror attacks change the way police are perceived, what they do, and how they work. It’s not just coping with the tragedy of the attacks themselves, hard as that is. It’s also, as you say, intel and so on to ensure they don’t happen again.
      And thanks for mentioning Mississippi Burning. It shows that conflict between the FBI and local police effectively. And it brings up the situation when the local police cannot be trusted, so that the FBI is necessary.

  12. In real life, the various Scottish regional forces have recently been amalgamated to become one Scottish force. I think we’re still at the stage of waiting to see how successful or otherwise that will be, but it’s already begun to feature in fiction – both Ian Rankin’s last book ‘Saints of the Shadow Bible’ and Val McDermid’s recent ‘The Skeleton Road’ had the change as a strand of the plot. It will be interesting to see how it affects our recurring detectives over the next few years…

    • It will indeed, FictionFan. I think there’s some real logic in that sort of amalgamation, especially in terms of cooperative effort and sharing certain information. I’m sure the actual process will be messy, especially at first, as all new things are. But as you say, it’ll be very interesting to see how it goes and yes, how it impacts crime fiction.

  13. What a fascinating and helpful post – it isn’t always clear if you don’t know, what the different parts of the police force do in other countries. Here in Jersey we have Parish Police who are elected to serve (although only the top level, Centeniers, can charge someone with an offence) as well of the States of Jersey Police who are like any UK Police force.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I really do think it’s interesting to learn how different countries manage different police branches, and what each does. I didn’t know that Jersey has two police forces – that’s fascinating! And it sounds as though they complement one another rather than compete.

      • Well compared to most places there aren’t that many of us to police. We have very little crime but whether it’s cause and effect or because of other reasons (like it’s fairly hard to make a quick getaway) it’s difficult to tell. Funnily enough I don’t think the two systems always work in harmony either…

        • For whatever reason, Cleo, I’m glad that you live in an area where there’s very little crime. And I suppose it’s not shocking that your two systems don’t always work like a well-oiled machine…

  14. A timely post, Margot: my mother, having recently listened to the audio book version of Behind the Night Bazaar, told me off for having my character Jayne Keeney ‘be mean’ to the AFP! One of my friends took umbrage at the novel for the same reason. Admittedly, she is married to a former Australian Federal Police officer 😉

    • Well, that does make a difference, doesn’t it, Angela? 😉 I think a lot of people in the AFP (as with most police forces) are hard-working and competent, and care about their work. But under the circumstances, I think Jayne Keeney is right. I suppose it just goes to show you how much of a difference perception makes….

  15. I love reading about different types of police forces in various countries. Great post, Margot.

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