I’ll Be Your Warrior of Care*

Village BobbiesOne 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.


Filed under Craig Johnson, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Rhys Bowen, Vicki Delany

30 responses to “I’ll Be Your Warrior of Care*

  1. I wonder whether Judge Dee would qualify here. As a village magistrate in T’ang Dynasty China, he represents law and order (so to speak) to the villagers. The magistrate was known as the “mother and father official” and was supposed to represent justice and the majesty of the law to “his” people – a function which Judge Dee carries out in all of Robert Van Gulik’s wonderful books.

    • Now, that’s an interesting question, Les. Certainly Dee listens to everyone, and his role is to maintain peace and safety. And he does get to know the various people in his jurisdiction rather well. I wouldn’t have thought of him that way, but what you say makes some sense. Thanks for that different perspective.

  2. Howard

    I enjoy James Lee Burke’s novels about Hackberry Holland.

    • Oh, yes, Howard! He is a great character, isn’t he? Perhaps not as well-known as Dave Robicheaux, but a fine character. And he is a good example of that small-town copper.

  3. Hi Margot — I’m fond of Goat Jones, the sheriff in the Stella Hardesty mystery series by Sophie Littlefleld. Sheriff Jones knows Stella is walking a thin line and suspects she’s dealing out a little vigilante justice, but he’s also sweet on her.

  4. I like the local police officers in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels: the enigmatic Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (who becomes Phryne’s unrequited love interest in the TV series) and the somewhat naive Constable Hugh Collins, engaged to Phryne’s companion, Dot.
    My favourite local TV cops of all time are those depicted in the long-running UK series Heartbeat. All of them!

    • Oh, you’ve chosen great local coppers, Caron. I really like Jack Robinson, and of course Hugh Collins too. I think they make a nice counterpoint to Phryne Fisher (whom, by the way, I adore as a character). I admit I’m less familiar with Heartbeat, but both sets of characters are great examples of the local coppers who really do know their communities.

  5. Got to love the village policeman – our local gendarme helps the children at my son’s school cross the road in the morning and knows most of us by name. But was also called suddenly to a burglary scene and conducted a car chase.
    Speaking of French village policemen, there is another one in addition to Bruno that I know and love and can recommend to others, namely Adrian Magson’s Lucas Rocco. Set in 1960s Picardie, they are very evocative of their time and place, as well as featuring an assortment of endearing village characters (while not being at all ‘cosy’, but neither too violent).

    • I’m glad you have a helpful local gendarme, Marina Sofia. Just because the local police are supposed to be helpful integral parts of small-town life doesn’t mean they are. And your example shows that the village police officer does many different things, from ‘crossing guard’ duty to car chases.
      And thanks for mentioning Magson’s work. I know it less well than I know Walker’s, but from what I do know, it’s a great example of the way the local police work (well, worked) in small-town France.

  6. Margot: Let me add a second Canadian woman police officer in Hazel Micallef who presides over the detachment in the fictional Ontario town of Port Dundas in the series by Inger Ash Wolfe (Michael Redhill). Hazel has a realistically close relationship with the residents of Port Dundas and area. I enjoy the interactions between people in small communities who have known each other for years.

    Now that Armand Gamache has moved to Three Pines in the series by Louise Penny does he qualify as a small town copper? (I actually cannot see anyone describing Gamache as a “copper”.) He certainly has the familiarity with the people of Three Pines. I choose to overlook that he is retired.

    • He certainly does have the familiarity with Three Pines that small-town police tend to have, Bill. And ‘retired’ doesn’t at all mean ‘inactive.’ Certainly Three Pines is exactly the kind of context in which a lot of stories about local police are set. You make a solid case for Gamache here. But like you, it’s hard for me to think of him as a ‘copper.’
      Thanks, too, for mentioning Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe’s Hazel Micallef. She is a great example of a police officer who knows the people she serves, and who is firmly knit into the community. And you’ve given me a welcome reminder that I need to spotlight one of those books, so thanks for that.

  7. Col

    I hope to try a Hamish Macbeth book at some point, which could be interesting!

  8. I don’t mean to be picky about the “UK” references, but I can’t see how this model of the local copper as a small-town or village “bobby” applies to the Northern Ireland bit of the UK map, even after the ceasefires.

    It’s probably better to talk more specifically about “British bobby” characters (such as as the Scottish and Welsh examples) rather than the “traditional UK bobby”.

    • That’s not too picky at all, Mel. I actually appreciate you putting me right on that. We can always learn, and you make an interesting and important point here.

  9. Sadly the village bobby in the UK is almost a thing of the past. Now they are in cars, hardly ever on foot or on a bicycle, and no longer approachable and friendly. More like para-military. The golden age of village bobbies has passed, but that is why it is wonderful to read about how they were. When I was growing up the village, the bobby knew you, and should you fall out of line was the first to clip our ear and give you a lecture. You held him in high esteem, and the threat of calling PC whoever to the house to deal with minor misdemeanours, was enough to stop you dead in your tracks. LOL remember that well.

    • You know, Jane, as I think about your comment, it is interesting how life has changed, even in small towns. With the village bobby no longer on the scene, the relationship between the police and the village residents has, I am sure, changed. You no longer have PC ___ helping to look after the young people. At the same time, you don’t have the residents trusting the police. It’s harder to put a name and face to local law enforcement. And that changes the dynamic entirely.

  10. I love the dynamic of a small town sheriff, or bobbie. Matter of fact, I had so much fun playing with that dynamic in Marred. One of my POV characters is the sheriff of a tiny, rural town, and he’s having a bit of culture shock because he was homicide detective in Boston for 30 yrs. Needless to say, he’s more of a fish out of water than woven into the fabric of the town.

    • Oh, that’s a great premise, Sue! I’m sure that you did have fun with it. And your protagonist sounds like an interesting person, too. I think there is something unique in the relationship that a small-town/village police officer has with residents. And it makes for some great grist for the crime fiction mill. 🙂

  11. Margot, I have not read many crime-mystery stories about local or small-town cops and sheriffs but I can see why it’d resonate with a lot of readers. Those stories are always interesting to read because you can connect with the cops whom you probably grew up and went to school with, and lived next door to.

    • Exactly, Prashant. In that small town, local cop context, people know each other and are vested in each other. It makes for a really interesting dynamic in crime fiction, I think.

  12. In the traditional Golden Age books, the village bobby was usually put in his place when Scotland Yard was called in to solve the murder. This turned out in a variety of way – sometimes the local constable was portrayed as a slow-thinking yokel, but sometimes he either co-operated with and impressed the Yard, or he put one over on them…

    • I love that dynamic, too, Moira! There are a lot of examples where you see it from one or the other perspective, and it adds suspense that you don’t always know which way that’s going to go.

  13. I like Moira’s comment above, I do remember that happening a lot…Scotland Yard swoops in and the local officials may be thrilled not to have to deal with a murder… or not.

    I have no idea if this truly fits this post, but one of my favorite pairs of investigators are Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill of Stansfield (a fictional town based on Corby). In a series by Jill McGown.

    • I think your example of Lloyd and Hill work very well, Tracy. I’m glad you added it in, as I wouldn’t have thought of it. And yes, it does make a nice plot twist when you have the local cops have to work with federal or Scotland Yard cops. Makes for some nice layers of either tension or collaboration.

  14. Keishon

    Since reading Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 or even his other one, The Killer Inside Me which both feature small town police officers as the main character, I’ve wanted to read more of them. Of course those lawmen turned out to be bad guys but the dynamics of that type of character arc is fascinating to me.

    I also like Donald Harstad’s deputy chief, Carl Houseman, who isn’t the town’s only local lawman but it’s set in a small town. I think these examples might be a bit off track of your main article’s point but, I do love me a small town copper located in a isolated town or village.

    • Off-point or not, you’ve suggested a solid series that I ought to explore more, Keishon. Thanks for that. And you have a well-taken point. Even when a small-town copper isn’t one of the ‘good guys,’ (And I love the Jim Thompson example!), the context can make for a fascinating premise for a novel.

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