One of the more enduring (and to some, endearing) figures in crime fiction is the local (usually small-town) copper – the village bobby if you want to think of it that way. This character is depicted differently, depending on the point of view of a novel. There are even novels in which the small-town copper turns out to be the killer, or at least a ‘bad guy’ (no spoilers). But whether they’re depicted sympathetically or not, bobbies and their counterparts in other cultures are woven throughout the genre, and not just in classic/Golden Age crime fiction.
It’s easy to see why, too. For one thing, they are police officers; they investigate crimes. For another, there’s a certain relationship that develops between local coppers and residents. In places where everyone knows everyone, the bobby often has a feel for the people who live in a town. That knowledge can be crucial for getting information and solving cases.
M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth uses this sort of knowledge quite a bit when he solves cases. He’s the village bobby for Lochdubh, in the Scottish Highlands. He knows the locals very well; he’s one of them. Because he’s an integral part of that community, he finds it easier to get people to talk to him than he would if, say, he were an ‘outsider’ up from Inverness to investigate. So on the one hand, it serves him very well to be on the low rung of the police ladder. Much to the chagrin of his superiors, he’s good at solving cases, too. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a high-status position. Nor is it particularly lucrative. So there are those who don’t have the kind of respect for him that they might if he were a Superintendent. Still, being the village bobby suits Macbeth; he really has no ambition to move up.
Constable Evan Evans, Rhys Bowen’s creation, chose to be the village bobby for the small Welsh town of Llanfair, in the Snowdonia Mountains. He’s from the area, but moved to Swansea as a boy. At first, he hoped that life in Llanfair would be peaceful, but it’s hardly turned out that way. As the local bobby, he gets involved in all sorts of investigations, from trampled flower beds to brutal murders. Still, he is committed to the people he serves, and he is considered ‘one of us.’ He has a perspective that his superiors don’t, and that often gives him insights that help him solve cases.
When readers picture village bobbies, they often think of the traditional UK bobby. And there are lots of them in crime fiction. I know you’ll be able to think of many examples. But this sort of character has counterparts in other places in the world. And it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved outside the UK and Ireland.
For instance, there’s Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. His jurisdiction is Absaroka County, Wyoming, and his base of operations is the town of Durant. Like the more traditional bobby, Longmire is an integral part of the local community. Just about everyone knows him; he knows just about everyone. He cares about the people who live in the area, and for the most part, they know that and respect him for it. So there is a similar sense of ‘small-town copper’ that you see in ‘English village’ murder mysteries. But there are some interesting differences. One is that, as sheriff, Longmire is elected, not appointed. This does affect the dynamic between him and the people he serves. Longmire’s no toady. Still, he knows that if he doesn’t do his job well, or if he loses the respect of the locals for another reason, he won’t be re-elected. It makes for a subtle, but real difference in his interactions with people. Another is that he’s got a very large area to patrol. And that has a real impact on the way he and his team go about investigating. It’s not often a matter of a quick trip to a shop to ask about who’s been there.
There’s also Vicki Delany’s Moonlight ‘Maggie’ Smith. Born and raised in Trafalgar, British Columbia, she now serves the town as constable. Smith works with a slightly larger team than you sometimes find in series featuring local coppers. But there’s still that almost-intimate relationship between her and the members of the community. In some ways, that’s helpful to her. She knows a lot of the local history, and she can find out things that aren’t as easy to learn if you’re not from the area. On the other hand, since she grew up there, a lot of people remember her from her early years. And sometimes that’s awkward for her, as she now has a position in law enforcement. Still, her local ties are very helpful to her boss, Sergeant John Winters. That connection is part of what she brings to the team.
And I don’t think a post about local bobbies and their counterparts would be complete without a mention of Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is a former soldier who now serves the small French town of St. Denis. He’s tightly woven into the community, and most people trust him in ways that they don’t trust the police nationale or even the local gendarmerie. He knows a lot about the area, too, and the histories of most of its people. He coaches youth sport, and has gotten to know most of the families. Like the British bobby, Bruno has a relatively small jurisdiction. He travels from time to time, but his cases are generally quite local. And, like the bobby you probably think of when you hear the term, he’d prefer to settle matters informally and peacefully. He’s a practical, pragmatic person, and he’s found that to be a lot more useful than obeying only the letter of the law.
There are many, many other examples of the local copper. Whether they’re traditional village bobbies or not, these characters fill an important role in law enforcement. And in crime fiction. Which ones do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alanis Morissette’s Guardian.