For 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.