The Man Said, Why Do You Think You’re Here?*

counselingPolice work and other criminal investigation can take a real toll on a person. After all, these people see the worst that humans can do to each other, and that can leave scars. Even the most sane, balanced person can get pushed to the breaking point under those circumstances.

That’s why many police departments have psychologists, either on their staff or as professional associates. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the detectives will actually use those services unless required. There’s still, to some extent, a stigma attached to getting mental health care. But more and more, people are seeing the wisdom of getting such support when it’s necessary. And that aspect of police work – the aftermath of a case – can make a fictional character more human and believable.

For example, in Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote, LAPD detective Harry Bosch is at the end of his proverbial rope. After an incident in which he attacks a superior officer, he’s sent for mandatory psychological counseling, and relieved of his duties until he completes it. Bosch begins his sessions with Dr. Carmen Hinojos, who tries to help him face some of his personal issues. One of them is the fact that his mother was murdered when he was eleven. She was a prostitute, and not a ‘high profile’ one, either. So not much was done to investigate. Feeling at loose ends because of his enforced break from work, Bosch begins to look into his mother’s death again. That case, plus his work with Hinojos, helps Bosch do some of the work he needs to do to start functioning again.

In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, we meet career analyst Andrea Thomson. On the one hand, she’s not a doctor, a psychiatrist, or a psychological therapist. She’s hired by the police (as a freelancer) to work with the detectives on job-related issues. On the other hand, job counseling and mental health counseling aren’t that far apart, so some of the same issues come up. That’s how she meets Inspector John Rebus, who’s just gotten into deep trouble for throwing a mug of cold tea at a supervisor during a meeting. In Rebus’ case, he’s been sent back to Tulliallan Police College for career counseling and a refresher course on working with others. Needless to say, Rebus isn’t happy being pulled from his regular work. Nor is he deeply interested in reflecting on his career. He’s happiest out on the streets, dong his job. He and a group of other detectives who’ve been sent for the same refresher course are given a ‘cold case’ to work, as a way of building their teamwork skills. But that doesn’t stop him working with Sergeant Siobhan Clarke on a case they were already investigating. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how the police view counseling, Thomson, and the process of reflecting on their work.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces readers to Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. As the novel opens, he’s just returned to active duty after a line-of-fire incident in which one of his colleagues was killed, and another left with permanent paralysis. Mørck was badly injured, too, and not just physically. He’s never been overly friendly or extroverted, but since his return, he’s been even worse. In fact, no-one wants to work with him. So he’s ‘promoted’ to head a new department called ‘Department Q,’ which will have responsibility for cases of special interest – cold cases. In this way, the Copenhagen police can respond to media and public criticism over unsolved cases, and at the same time get Mørck out of the way. The first case that Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad re-open is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time she went missing, everyone thought she’d had a tragic fall from a ferry. But Mørck and Assad begin to suspect she may still be alive; if so, she may be in grave danger. In the meantime, Mørck’s boss wants him to get some psychological help. The department has recently hired a crisis counselor, Mona Ibsen, and Mørck is strongly encouraged to work with her. He has no desire to face any personal issues, but he is smitten by the new counselor. And it’s both funny and awkward to see how he starts to do the work he needs to do, even if it is for very much the wrong reasons. Fans of this series will know how both his mental health work and his interactions with Mona Ibsen evolve as the series does.

In David Mark’s Sorrow Bound, Hull D.S. Aector McAvoy and his team are up against a dangerous new crime boss. At the same time, they’re dealing with what looks like a series of revenge killings that are related to past police investigations. And all of this takes place during a heat wave that makes everyone miserable. Things aren’t made easier for McAvoy by the fact that he’s been required to attend six sessions of counseling to help him deal with some of the trauma he’s been through recently. Here’s what he says to Sabine Kean, his counselor:

‘‘Look, the people at occupational health have insisted I come for six sessions with a police-approved counselor. I’m doing that. I’m here. I’ll answer your questions, and I’m at great pains not to be rude to you, but it’s hot and I’m tired and I have work to do, and yes, there are lots of places I would rather be. I’m sure you would, too.’’

As the novel goes on, we see how McAvoy’s sessions progress and where they lead him, mentally speaking.

Of course, it’s not only the police who occasionally need mental health support, whether they admit it, or want it, or not. Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series will know that Martinsson, who is a lawyer, needs and gets quite a lot of psychological counseling after experiencing severe trauma in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) and The Blood Spilt.

It makes sense to weave this element in to crime novels, since crime is traumatic. So long as it’s not melodramatic, that sort of plot thread can help make characters seem more believable.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. 


Filed under Åsa Larsson, David Mark, Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly

37 responses to “The Man Said, Why Do You Think You’re Here?*

  1. Pingback: The Man Said, Why Do You Think You’re Here?* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Great subject Margot. From my experience in the emergency services – all be it a few years ago now – counselling was there but accessing it was tricky. You weren’t offered it as standard. In my opinion it should be something you opt out of not in to if that sense. Perhaps once a month you should be given the opportunity to have done counselling so it no longer feels like you ‘failed to cope’. Unfortunately i suspect that as with all things it’s about funding.

    In fiction the internal conflict these situations cause and the vulnerabilty it shows in the character all build empathy and interest for the reader.

    • Thanks, D.S. And thanks for sharing your experience. I think you have a well-taken point about the funding. Even a rudimentary counseling office costs money. And then there’s the stigma, as you say, of having to seek it out. For a lot of people, that’s tantamount to admitting you’re not up to the job, and plenty of people don’t want that reputation. And yet, first responders, police, firefighters, and other such professionals see some of the worst that there is. And they can’t always make things better. It’s only natural that they need help dealing with that.

      As for fiction, I agree: that sense of vulnerability, the internal conflict, and even the tension among colleagues can add character depth and interest in a novel.

  3. Col

    I enjoyed the Connelly book you mentioned. Time to read something else by him I think.

  4. I can quite see why some fictional detectives need counselling but there are others I just can’t see putting up with it. I pity the poor counsellor who had to deal with Superintendent Dalziel, for example… 😉

  5. I’ve noticed quite a few crime books ordering their fictional police staff to undertake some form or another of counselling lately – I do like your reference to David Mark’s character Aector McEvoy.

  6. Well, beyond the fictional applications, call be skeptical about psychologists and psychiatrists; perhaps no discipline masquerading as science is so far removed from scientific principles. I clump “shrinks” in with chiropractors, psychics, snake-oil salesmen, and a hundred other variations on crystal ball gazers.

  7. Margot: When you mentioned Harry Bosch I thought of another psychologist, Hannah Stone, with whom he connects as a somewhat unusual love interest in The Drop. Their dynamics were interesting and I had hoped they might continue as a couple. It would have been very interesting what insights she might have had into Harry’s personality in a long term relationship. Unless Connelly changes his mind it appears she is out of Harry’s life.

    • Right you are, Bill, about Hannah Stone. It would really have been interesting to see how that relationship might have evolved over time. Certainly she could have added a dimension to the stories, and to our understanding of Harry’s character. I’d like to see her make a return, too. Are you listening, Mr. Connelly?

  8. A.M. Pietroschek

    Basically I noticed that ‘therapy (couch-whining) was not about the courage to do that step, but about the oft unspoken fact that it was a career killer kind of secret entry in your job-application-papers.

    In Germany most therapists can rightfully be called overpaid parasites with zero knowledge of reality. It is nigh unbelievable what inexperienced, and outright useless, hotel mama brats were allowed to fester in that profession.

    Luckily I belong to the minority of people who met some of the true academics along their way through life, too. Needless to mention, but I post this on the website of one really outstanding host to us all. 😉

    ‘Failing to cope with it’ is a global classic, and evidence of prejudices just as worse as racism, which are not resolved nor banished from society. Luckily a minority of therapists really believe in their work and progress the professional help they can offer.

    Movies I remembered in absence of books:

    • You make an important distinction, Andrè, between the decision to get mental help when it’s needed, and the stigma attached to it. You also make an interesting point about the effect of the reputation that psychologists and psychotherapists have.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Thanks for your time. It soon is 1:00 am now, and I must go back to bed to prepare for work again at 5:30am…

  9. Keishon

    Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson series will know that Martinsson, who is a lawyer, needs and gets quite a lot of psychological counseling after experiencing severe trauma in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) and The Blood Spilt.

    I was looking for this one! I love that series, btw. Yes, you’re so right about making the characters more human and believable when addressing psychological issues due to work-related issues. I love when authors show when their first responders/police people see the horror of what people do to each other and how those things impact their psyche. Absolutely. Novels like that are a notch about the rest in my humble opinion.

    • I know what you mean, Keishon. It really does make the characters more human, doesn’t it, when we see that they aren’t immune to the horrors they have to deal with at times. And it doesn’t have to be a major, melodramatic plot point to be effective. And you know, I don’t see how I could have discussed this issue without mentioning Rebecka Martinsson. She has been through it, hasn’t she?

      • Keishon

        yes! and Karin Slaughter kind of does the same with Lena in her Grant County series…showing her characters going through hell psychologically. Mostly almost all of her female characters have faced violence for such a small town hehe. But yeah, agree with everything you said in your article.

  10. kathyd

    Poor Rebecka Martinsson. Who would have thought being a lawyer would be a life-endangering profession? I didn’t think she was going to survive the brutality meted out in those two books. But she does and returns to carry out more investigations. I was quietly pleading with Asa Larsson not to let Rebecka be the target of violence again. Twice was enough for her and her reader-fans.
    I think many police forces require counseling when cops are involved in certain situations before they can return to work. I have read about that in many police procedurals.

    • I think you’re right, Kathy, about police forces requiring counseling under certain circumstances. I’ve read that plot point in several police procedurals, too. And I agree that Rebecka Martinsson went through more than enough in the first two books.

  11. I was thinking of Carl and Mona as I was reading. Theirs is an interesting connection. I also thought about the series Monk and the books that followed the series. Another interesting topic to ponder, Margot.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • I agree, Mason, that Carl Mørck and Mona Ibsen have a really interesting relationship. I’m glad Adler-Olsen explores it. And I hadn’t thought of Adrian Monk, but that’s an interesting example, too. Thanks for adding it in.

  12. The detectives are running rampant in The Last Coyote. LOL I’m definitely adding that one. Thanks, Margot!

  13. I can see how police personnel would be just as vulnerable to PTSD as our military personnel. They all witness horrible things at crime/battle scenes, are sometimes put in a position of shooting someone out of fear, and are required to run toward danger when any normal person would want to flee. I’m just grateful there are men and women who are willing to serve in those arenas to protect the rest of us. The psychologists and psychiatrists who help these folks have a big job on their hands.

    • Oh, they do, indeed, Pat. And I think you make a very apt comparison between the mental health care that military members need, and the mental health care that police and first responders sometimes need. In both cases, as you say, there’s real trauma these people witness and sometimes suffer.

  14. Interesting theme, Margot. Recently, I wrote a short story about a Mumbai crime branch detective whose psychologist wife assists him in some of his difficult cases. It’s a mild and atmospheric story that I have just sent out.

  15. A.M. Pietroschek

    Reblogged this on Bum's Restart Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek and commented:

  16. Adler-Olsen and Mercy jumped to my mind immediately – I remember that aspect of the book very well.

  17. kathyd

    Now, what about the books that feature psychologist-sleuths? I remember that Maxine Clarke recommended Nicci French’s Frieda Klein series. I will get to that somebody. Has anyone read any of these books and if so, how are they? (Says the person with the impossible TBR list)

  18. I do love to read stories about policemen but I don’t see how they do handle the stress. Marriages often suffer. Of course, fictional detectives usually encounter more bad situations than real life detectives (I guess).

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