I’m Spread Way Too Thin*

spread-too-thinIt’s a fact of life that the police have limited resources. They simply don’t have the staff to investigate everything, so they have to do the best they can with what they’ve got. That’s doubly true when they’re short-staffed. Whether it’s because of holidays, illness, or competing demands for resources, the police are extra miserable when they’re stretched thin, as the saying goes.

As difficult as it is in real life, being on a skeleton staff can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. People sleep less, eat less healthfully, and are sometimes cooped up together for long hours during a staff shortage. All of that can add tension and conflict. And of course, there’s more possibility of crime when there are fewer people investigating it. So it’s little wonder we see this plot point come up in the genre.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, for instance, Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team are stretched thin when a US senator comes for a visit. They’re expected to provide extra security, and make sure the visit goes without a problem. But there are plenty of people who oppose the Vietnam War (the novel was published in 1973), so a huge protest takes place at the American Embassy. Things get dangerous, and the police have their hands full trying to keep order. Then, there’s a terrible attack on a bus. A gunmen boards, and kills eight people, including police officer Åke Stenström. At first, it’s believed that this was a terrorist attack. But as Beck and his team look into the matter, they learn that someone was ‘hiding’ Stenström’s murder among the others; he was the real intended victim. But with a shortage of staff, it’s going to be difficult both to investigate the bus murders and to protect the embassy.

Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes takes place during the Edinburgh Festival, which is always a difficult time for the police. The city fills with tourists, there are a lot of events, plenty of drinking, and it all makes for real trouble when it comes to keeping the city as safe as possible. As if this all weren’t enough, the body of Billy Cunningham is discovered at Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. The murder was especially brutal and deliberate. This wasn’t a mugging gone wrong. Matters get worse when it turns out that the victim may have had ties to the IRA and to Scottish ultra-nationalist groups. Then, it turns out that Cunningham was the son of Edinburgh crime boss Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. And he’d like nothing better than to get revenge in his own way. Now the police have to contend with the crowds, possible terrorist activity, and a gang leader who isn’t afraid to take all sorts of measures to find and deal with his son’s murder.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place during a holiday – this time Christmas. It’s 1943, and the Melbourne police are stretched thin enough as it is with the war going on. Add to that that people want time off at Christmas, and Inspector Titus Lambert has a definite shortage of staff. But he and Sergeant Joe Sable are doing the best they can. Then, the bodies of John Quinn and his son Xavier are discovered. It might be a murder-suicide situation, but Lambert isn’t sure. And there are other possibilities. For example, there was evidence found in the home that links the family to a pro-Nazi group. That group could have been involved in the deaths. There are other leads, too. Soon, Constable Helen Lord Joins Lambert and Sable in the investigation. Now, it’s more or less three people against what could be an extremely dangerous group.

The Brighton and Hove area is very popular with tourists, and Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace is all too familiar with what it’s like to need more people on staff than are actually available. It becomes quite a challenge in Not Dead Yet. In that novel, a male torso is discovered in a disused chicken coop. So Grace and his team get to work trying to find out who the man was and who killed him. As you can imagine, that’s quite a challenge. But then, Grace’s superiors tell him that international superstar Gaia Lafayette is coming to Brighton, where she grew up. She’s set to star in a film being made there, and the studio has insisted that Brighton and Hove provide plenty of extra security – naturally, at no cost. The argument is that her presence in the area will draw lots of commerce, so the payoff will be worth the investment. But protecting Gaia is going to be especially challenging. Her life has already been threatened more than once, and before long, it’s clear that whoever’s responsible is not going to give up. It all makes for very long hours and little sleep for Grace and his team.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. As the novel begins, the city of Dunedin is dealing with a virulent ‘flu epidemic. What with people falling ill, and having to take care of sick family members, the ranks of the police are temporarily thinned. Against that backdrop, the city endures five straight days of rain, followed by a twister that roars through the area. The police are hoping that everything will stay relatively calm until the damage is cleaned up and the epidemic dies down. But that’s not to be. In the wake of the storm, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who’d been missing for two weeks, is discovered in Ross Creek. It’s not the sort of case that Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd would normally take, as he is coping with the disappearance of his own daughter nine years earlier. But with the staff stretched thin, there’s no-one else available. So Judd assembles a team from among the few healthy members of the staff, and begins to look into the case. He finds that this case will resonate in ways he hadn’t imagined.

Everything is more difficult when there’s a staff shortage. If you’ve experienced what it’s like to do the work of three people during a shortage, you know what I mean. And that stress can add a solid layer of tension to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line form Dirty Heads’ Spread Too Thin.


Filed under Ian Rankin, Jane Woodham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter James, Robert Gott

35 responses to “I’m Spread Way Too Thin*

  1. Pingback: I’m Spread Way Too Thin* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Mortal Causes is a great Rebus!

  3. Col

    I’m spread too thin trying to read everything I want to, including Rebus and the Martin Beck series!

  4. This is another thing that has changed a lot in crime fiction, isn’t it? These days in police procedurals they’re always stressed and overworked, but policemen of old seemed to only have one case assigned to them and kept working on it till it was solved. I wonder if it was ever really like that…

    • Oh, I doubt it was, FictionFan. My guess would be that police at that time worked more than one case at a time. But you’re right that we see a lot more of the spread-too-thin department today than we did in the past. I wonder if there’s some modern point of honour, at least for some people, in saying how hard you work and how little you’ve slept…

  5. That is another high-potential point you made here, Margot. The problems of ‘the system’, when it comes to police or fire department efficiency, IS a really rich source of story potential, motives, and explanations.

  6. Margot: In the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones, which is set on the northwest coast of Alaska, the police are often stretched thin by bad winter weather. Storms isolate communities. The police must make do with who is available when the storm strikes.

    Active, in Tundra Kill, is forced to accompany the beautiful but unpredictable Governor, Suka (a barely fictionalized Sarah Palin), on a flight but then is forced by weather to land and camp overnight. The officers of the small detachment are left pressed by his departure with the Governor.

    • You’re absolutely right about the weather in the Nathan Active series. When people and supplies can’t get in, there’s nothing to do but, as you say, make do. And thanks for mentioning Tundra Kill. I remember your review of that one, and I’m glad you’ve reminded me of it.

  7. The stretched thin theme does add depth and intrigue to a story. Great post, Margot.

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  8. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg expounds on “Stretched too Thin.”

  9. Margot, just this evening I walked away from a couple of Ian Rankin paperbacks at the secondhand bookshop I frequent. But neither was “Mortal Causes” which I’d like to read eventually. Peter James is another author on my eternal wish-list.

    • Oh, I know just what you mean about the wish list, Prashant! There is just never enough time to read all we want, is there? When you do get to it, I recommend Mortal Causes – it’s a terrific example of Rankin’s talent.

  10. Keishon

    Great post. I love small town crime novels. They get a sensational, national headlining case and boy do you see how strained they are for resources and talent. Of course when they send in the big city folks, tension is strained and when they don’t have the most up to date equipment even more tension. Add to that budget restraints. I’ve worked short-staffed and it’s no fun. 😦

    • You’re right about that, Keishon! It’s really difficult to work short-staffed, especially when the work is as high-stress as a police investigation. And it’s doubly difficult for a small police force that’s not accustomed to, say, media hype and a lot of interest. That added strain really can add to a novel, I think. Thanks for the kind words.

  11. Twister piques my interest. It seems the author piled on conflict after conflict. Love it!

  12. I’ve been reading some of Tana French’s Murder Squad series, and there it is important how many ‘floaters’ you have attached to your case – they are less experienced police people who will do the grunt work such as door to door and routine checking and calls. The senior detectives are anxious to keep up the numbers when there are warnings that number of floaters will be reduced and questions about how many are needed. It’s an indication of how important the case is, of how it’s going, and of how likely that it’ll be solved.

    • Thanks, Moira, for bringing up that aspect of being staffed enough (or understaffed). I think French’s account probably reflects reality as far as that goes. My guess would be that the police want as much staff as possible when they’re working on a major case. Of course, there are always budgets and so on, but I’m sure they do what they can to have enough people.

  13. kathyd

    I remember watching a movie with Susan Sarandon as a detective in a small Canadian town. She had one assistant, I think. So, when a serial killer was stalking villagers, there was no team, only one or two investigators.
    And then what about park rangers? Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon always seems to be in grave danger chasing a killer by herself. Where are the local rangers pitching in? Or local police? In Boar Island set in Maine, she’s on her own much of the time.
    Anyway, what this post just did was add Mortal Causes to my TBR list. Luckily, I read The Holiday Murders and The Laughing Policeman or they would have been added.

    • You make a well-taken point about Anna Pigeon, Kathy. The US National Park Service doesn’t have a huge budget, so rangers often work alone, or nearly alone. I did some research on this for a Joel Williams mystery I’m revising, and they don’t have the staff that, say, a large police department might. As to Mortal Causes, if you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  14. I do need to read some more novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Ian Rankin. Police procedurals are one of my (many) favorite types of mystery novels.

    • Those are both excellent police procedural series, too, Tracy. I do recommend them. Of course, not every novel reaches the pinnacle, so to speak. But they’re all fine books, in my opinion.

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