You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

22 responses to “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

  1. I thought of two examples and I don’t know how they fit… So you can tell me. In the Jane Dentinger series, the protagonist Jocelyn (Josh) O’Roarke gets involved with Detective-Sergeant Phillip Gerrard who is investigating a case she is involved in. I know the first two books feature Gerrard, but don’t know if that continues throughout the 6 book series. Seems like I read that the story veered away from that? Anyway, it is a series set in the theater world.

    And then there is the Allingham series, where sometimes Inspector Oates is involved, and sometimes Charlie Luke. But not always?

    • I’m very glad you mentioned Inspector Oates, Tracy. That’s a great example of exactly what I had in mind. He’s not really the protagonist; in most of the novels, that’s Campion. But he plays an important role, and he certainly proves helpful. It’s an interesting question about O’Roarke and Gerrard. It’s a sort of special case, I think, when the sleuth is involved with a cop (Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles is in that acategory too). You know, I ought to do a post just on sleuths/protagonists who are partners with/married to cops. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  2. All Good Deeds by Stacy Green uses the police as secondary characters. The protagonist is a vigilante who rights wrongs, the author using the Dexter effect. The police certainly make an appearance but the main focus is on the protagonist and her “partner in crime” (another vigilante). Interesting subject, Margot.

  3. Margot in the The Fixer, A Justice Novel by T. E. Woods – and the rest of this series, the protagonist is The Fixer – and the cop, Mort Grant, has an important but secondary role.

  4. I thought it would be easy to come up with something for this category but I can’t think of one. I was going to say the Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood but I think as the series has moved on Inspector Jack Robinson has really become more central to things (and he’s certainly an equal in the TV adaptations).

    • He is indeed, Bernadette. Perhaps early in the series Robinson had a more ancillary role. But as it’s gone on, he has gotten more central to it. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues. It’s funny, too, because I almost mentioned this series (so I’m glad you did), but at the last minute I didn’t, for just that reason.

  5. Keishon

    This is great, highlighting books where police are supporting characters. I admit to not giving much thought to that. I also know it’s rather limiting. Frex, Liza Marklund’s main protagonist, Annika Bengzton, is a journalist but the police do have a supporting role. I don’t think Q, the police captain had a major role in the story but I haven’t read the entire series to say that. Any rate, I remember thinking that I didn’t like being so far away from the crime solving aspect and everything that goes with it because obviously the character wouldn’t have information regarding forensics or suspects. I did like the give/take of their relationship/roles and it grew on me.

    • Keishon – Thanks for the kind words. You make a well-taken point about being a bit distanced from the criminal investigation aspect of a story if the protagonist isn’t a police detective. But as you say, it does allow for an interesting dynamic, and if it’s done well (and I like your example) it can add to a series.

  6. Margot: I noticed as I read your examples that the series featuring police who are less capable, even bumbling at times, than the sleuths were all set decades to over a century ago. Could it be in our politically correct age that it is no longer acceptable to so portray the police? Authors can make them corrupt or imperious or aggressive or passive but it is hard to find mysteries where they are basically inept.

    • You know, Bill, I thought about that too as I was preparing this post. It’s definitely something I’ve noticed as well, and I think it’s interesting. There are plenty of mysteries I’ve read where one police force considers another inept (For instance, there are very disparaging remarks made about the FBI by some local and other U.S. police. And that’s not the only instance). And there are also lots of novels where one or another particular officer is inept (I’m thinking, for instance, of Donna Leon’s series, in which Sergeant Alvise is not exactly portrayed as capable). But you’re right; in general, the police aren’t commonly portrayed in modern novels as inept. I don’t know if that’s political correctness, better information from the police, former cops writing novels, or something else entirely. It’s an interesting phenomenon though.

  7. Col

    Struggling for any examples myself, I’ll ponder some more!

  8. I read an Ellery Queen mystery recently where EQ (the sleuth, son of the police detective) is on the spot – of course! – when a crime is committed. He tells the investigating officer that he is in with the NY police, who let him poke around with crimes, so can he look at the body etc and help with this one? The local guy says yes of course – and then EQ thinks to himself (words to the effect of) ‘this was quite shocking, he should never have agreed to this, EQ’s Dad would be horrified by this break in procedure.’ It really made me laugh, because it is a much more realistic view of all this helping-the-police, and I think EQ the author was having a joke with us….

    • Oh, Moira, that is great! I really do love the realism there. And it’s interesting how in some cases, Inspector Queen does seem to ‘step aside’ as his son takes the lead. In other cases, he does a lot of the work, and we follow him. I think it’s one of the more interesting dynamics in crime fiction.

  9. Hi Margot, sorry I’m late to the party – getting caught up on my fave blogs – thanks so much for the shout-out! It’s interesting that it took a while for the police to be portrayed more realistically in mystery fiction, and not be “bumbling” any more. I was never fond of using the stupid policeman as foil for the brilliant private/amateur sleuth, but I do like to have a bit of adversarial tension between cop and protag, before they end up working together.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your work, Kathy. And you ask an interesting question about when the police character stopped being a bumbler, as they often are portrayed in early crime fiction, and started being a professional. I’ll have to think about that and maybe do a post on it, actually. Speaking strictly for me, I prefer the cop character to be skilled; it’s more realistic. But as you say, it can add a nice bit of tension to have there be a bit of tension between the police character and the amateur sleuth, at least at first.

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