If you read enough crime fiction, you find that a lot of fictional characters – even those who are not guilty of a crime – do not like the police. Even in cases where the police characters are ‘the good guys,’ there’s a tendency not to want them around. There are even plenty of characters who would rather try to manage a very dangerous situation on their own than involve the police. I’m no expert on sociology or psychology, but I think there are some basic, underlying patterns that drive a wedge between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. Those wedges can mean that even when the police are ‘on the side of the angels,’ people don’t trust them.
Police Aren’t Always ‘The Good Guys’
There are plenty of stories in which characters have good reason to distrust the police. For example, in cases such as Nicole Watson’s The Boundary and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road (Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, too), characters have had unfortunate, even terrible experiences with the police. The police have acted in racist, bullying ways. Or they’ve abused their authority because of a ‘power rush.’ In cases such as Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark or Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, you see police who are part of a larger, dangerous state system where people ‘disappear.’ There are plenty of other examples, too, of course.
When this sort of thing happens, especially if you see it happen multiple times, it’s only natural to believe that the police cannot be trusted. Why would you speak to anyone who could very well end up abusing you or worse? In this case, even a copper who’s on the ‘side of the angels’ has a hard time getting anyone to talk. No-one is willing to take that risk.
There’s Community Resistance to the Police
In some communities, the police are seen as meddlers and officious busybodies. People in those communities want the police to just go somewhere else and arrest someone else, rather than tell them what to do. Anyone who is regarded as being too friendly with the police is seen as a threat, or at least someone who isn’t quite ‘one of us.’
We see that sort of community in Peter May’s Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, but left as a very young man, and has been serving as a police officer in Edinburgh. He’s seconded back to Lewis at the beginning of the trilogy, and it’s interesting to see how everyone reacts to him. For some, that reaction is because of personal history. Others, though, can’t resist commenting on the fact that he’s ‘polis’ now, the implication being that he’s no longer ‘one of them.’ We also see this attitude in several of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe novels. In those cases, the police have to penetrate rather closed communities, where the police are simply seen as not belonging. Even those who aren’t guilty of any crime would rather not be seen as talking to the coppers.
Related to this are the novels in which the police have to work within a closed religious community, where members don’t usually interact with ‘outsiders.’ I’m thinking, for instance, of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels, where the Amish community of Ohio figures largely.
Fear of Retribution
In some cases, the police are up against a dangerous enemy – one with at least as much power (or so it seems) as they have. In these cases, people know what will happen to them if they talk to the police. So they keep quiet in the hopes of staying out of trouble, calling no attention to themselves, and (hopefully) staying alive.
We see that, for instance, in Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. Some very dangerous people are seen as more threatening than the police who are investigating a murder. So people say as little as they can. That’s also true, to an extent, in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. That story takes place among Birmingham’s sex workers, who have more to fear from powerful pimps, as they see it, than from the police. So it’s very hard to get information from them, especially for those who don’t have an ‘in.’
There is Risk to One’s Reputation
There’s less of this, I think, in modern crime novels than in classic or Golden Age crime novels. I haven’t gathered the data to support myself on this, but I do think people are less concerned about ‘what everyone will say!’ if they call the police than in times past. But certainly a lot of fictional characters hire a private detective rather than call the police for just that reason.
For example, in several of Agatha Christie’s novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client)), Poirot is hired because his client doesn’t want to involve the police. It’s considered to be a family matter, and therefore, not something the client wants made public. There’s even a mention in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) that
‘It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’
And Christie is by no means the only author who weaves this prejudice into her stories.
Characters are Guilty
There is, of course, also the fact that people don’t want the police around because they are guilty. They may not be guilty of murder; in fact, many aren’t. But they are guilty of something, and they would rather the police not find that out. You see that in many, many novels, and I don’t want to spoil stories by mentioning particular titles or authors. But if you read enough crime fiction, you know that lots of people dodge the police because they have ‘side businesses,’ or skim from company funds, or perhaps don’t exactly mind the legal drink limit, or something of that sort.
All of this, of course, makes it very hard for the police to go after a killer. Trying to get through all of these side issues and resistance can be extremely difficult. But it also adds to the tension and complexity in a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Almost Cut My Hair.