Like Looking at My Mirror and Seeing a Police Car*

Resistance to PoliceIf 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Ernesto Mallo, Eva Dolan, Garry Disher, Linda Castillo, Maureen Carter, Nicole Watson, Paddy Richardson, Peter May, Reginald Hill

33 responses to “Like Looking at My Mirror and Seeing a Police Car*

  1. There are so many countries where the ‘police’ was (or is) propping up the dictator or doing the bidding of a repressive government, that there is little wonder that the police is not trusted. Add to that the corruption that is often rife in other (or the same) countries within the police ranks. I’ve often been told by Venezuelan, Mexican, Colombian or Russian readers (to name just a few examples) that this is the reason that crime fiction is not much written in their countries – and only foreign authors of crime novels are read (if at all). Reality far surpasses any fiction…

    • I couldn’t agree more, Marina Sofia, about the corruption and worse that is rife in some countries. As you say, when the police are that susceptible, or that much in control of a government, it makes absolutely no sense to trust anyone in such an agency. And even though I’ve read crime fiction about those countries, or that takes place in them, you’re absolutely write that locals write less crime fiction. It’s not hard to see why…

  2. Great post Margot – and fascinating comment,, Marina.

  3. You forgot to mention that people don’t want the police around because they’re always drunk and depressed! 😉 Seriously though, it is interesting to see how attitudes to the police have changed in crime fiction over the years. As you say, it used to be considered not quite respectable to have dealings with them, but also the police tended to be seen as incompetent quite often, with the amateur ‘tec putting them to shame. But nowadays there are far more series (I think) where it’s the police who solve the crime – maybe that increase in efficiency also makes them more to be feared?

    • 😆 Yes, there are plenty of fictional coppers who aren’t exactly fun at parties, aren’t there, FictionFan? You make a very well-taken point, actually, about the change over the years in the way the police are portrayed (i.e. incompetent bumblers vs competent professionals). And if the police are, by and large, more competent, it makes sense that people would be more wary of them. That’s an interesting pattern, for which thanks!

  4. Col

    Some great examples posted Margot. I’ve just started David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight and it’s interesting to see how the police aren’t trusted by their own sometimes. Corruption can occur anywhere.

    • It certainly can, Col. And I’m so glad you’re reading Line of Sight. I think it’s terrific, and so is the next one, Zero at the Bone. And there’s a third Frank Swann novel coming out next year. I think Whish-Wilson does a fine job of portraying the way corruption can make the police stop trusting their own.

  5. Interesting post, Margot. You always have me pondering more after I read your post.

  6. Another post full of my favourite examples – it may be me but I think it is the smaller communities where (fictional) people are most wary of the police. Perhaps because others will know or that they know more about the characters rather than them being faceless men and women doing their job?

    • That could very well be, Cleo. I hadn’t thought of that angle when I was preparing this post, but it makes an awful lot of sense. That personal knowledge can make a person vulnerable…

  7. Kathy D.

    Sometimes there are crooked cops, as in some of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole books. Also, police who go along with criminal elements and profit from crime, as in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar or who ignore terrible brutality, as in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night.
    The role of police is such a variable in crime fiction. Either an entire police force or department or an individual can be criminal, corrupt, vindictive, brutal. Certainly the variables make for interesting plots.

    • They do, indeed, Kathy. And you’re absolutely right that there are plenty of police who are corrupt themselves, or who ignore/go along with what criminals are doing. Then, of course, there are plenty of fictional police who are ‘the good guys,’ and that makes for another kind of plot. As you say, all sorts of variables.

  8. Dan Kavanagh (pseudonym for Brit writer Julian Barnes) wrote a few books about a PI called Duffy in the 1980s – they have been republished recently. In the first book, Duffy uncovers corruption on an unprecedented scale in one of the London police stations – not a clean cop in sight!

    • Oh, interesting, Moira – thank you. That’s not a series I’m familiar with, so it’s good to hear that it’s being republished. I always like it when publishers take a risk like that. I may have to give that series a go.

    • I actually bought the first book, Moira – it was only when I put the names together I figured out who the author is (still to read it, though!) I take it it must be ok if they thought it worth a reissue – or is it proof that “anyone can write genre fiction”, as the literary authors often imply?

  9. The biggest sin we might commit as children would have been to ‘bring the police to the door.’ Mother would have killed us. We were told endlessly never, ever, cause a policeman to ‘darken our door,’ or to be seen ‘coming up the garden path.’ The shame of it and the fact that the village curtain twitchers, who never missed a thing, would see or find out, meant mother could never again ‘hold her head high.’ Just saying lol

    • Some things travel, Jane, and that’s one of them. I can’t even imagine what would have happened to me if I’d been the cause of police visiting my home! As you say, among many other things, the fact that others could see ‘the shame of it all’ would have been the last proverbial straw!

      • I wonder if it is an age thing…those of a certain generation lived in fear of being exposed as this or that or for not being what everyone thought they should be? It is quite common I think. Whenever I’ve spoken with my mum’s generation (85 year old) they are in morbid fear of being talked about, shown up, or disgraced in some way. I wonder if my generation or younger have the same concerns and I wonder if such a concern would lead to a murder/crime in an effort to cover up such deeds or behaviours? Food for thought.

        • Food for thought, indeed, Jane! Certainly I agree with you that people of a certain generation are more concerned about what might be said about them, as you say. At the same time, there’s no-one more self-conscious than a teenager or very young adult. I wonder if perhaps they are concerned about different things? Older adults, as you say, don’t want to exposed as being whatever. Perhaps young ones don’t want their very natural and normal inexperience and awkwardness revealed? It’s a really interesting question, so thanks!

        • Oh yes, being a teen is the worst. So many imagined slights and life is one great big worry, and not just about spots or being fat/thin or knock-kneed. You must fit in, must not stand out and what if the boys don’t like you! But older people are concerned with their perceived position, socially and politically. The right accent, school background, university and so on(more in the UK perhaps than Outer Mongolia), and having the right car, house and postal code not to mention career or profession. Imagine what there is to lose if all that was exposed as being a lie, a front, a myth. So much at stake then. It might well lead to murder and we have not touched on jealousy also bringing murder…or worse, ruin!

        • You’re quite right, Jane. For some people, there is so much at stake, and their reputation is so important, that they’ll do anything to keep up that reputation. It’s not surprising that it could matter enough to commit murder…

        • Silly really, because in the end being caught and tried for murder – as they most likely will – is a far worse humiliation and embarrassment I am sure.

        • I do think you’re got a plausible plot for a book here! It hinges on the perpetrator being positive they’ll get away with it though – which might have been the case in the past, but I wouldn’t fancy my chances nowadays, with all the technology, even if many police forces can’t afford it!

        • I know what you mean. I have been doing a lot of research and it is such a minefield. I have incorporated it into another story I was writing (book) and it works well, but it is such a nasty subject I have found it hard to write. Thanks so much for reading it and for your most welcome comments. Always good to natter with someone about one’s writing now and again. I tend to work in a vacuum and just pop up for air now and again. Have a fab week, and thanks again.:)

      • You too, Jane, and Margot. Honour killings are another such situation – such screwed up thinking about what’s shameful.

        • It is very strange thinking, isn’t it, Crimeworm? And you’re right that it’s another situatoin where people don’t want the police involved…

  10. Following up on Marina’s comment, in much of American Golden Age detective fiction, the police are often irretrievably corrupt – in cahoots with, not so much dictators, as the big players in society in general, i.e. the corrupt rich. In many novels from this era the police are at best benignly absent or incompetent.

    • You make a very well-taken point, Bryan. There are plenty of cases where the police are at the very least protective of, and at worst in cahoots with, the corrupt rich and powerful.

  11. I don’t know whether it is crime fiction, or TV and movies about crime, or the news I read, but I have less respect for policemen now than I did when I was younger. I enjoy novels with both types of policemen, the straight arrow cops and the shady ones, because I believe that there is truth in both views.

    • Interesting point about your change in perception, Tracy. I think as more and more stories come out about police who are themselves criminals, it’s not hard to see why they aren’t trusted. As you say, there are good, honest police out there. There are also some who aren’t. It’s realistic to portray both kinds of police in crime fiction.

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