Hey, Better Send Some People Down*

Even the best-equipped police forces don’t always have the staff or the resources they need, especially when there’s a particularly difficult investigation going on. And many police forces serve areas where there’s little major crime. So, they don’t invest a great deal in special equipment, extra people, and so on. That’s not usually considered a wise use of taxpayer money.

What this means is that sometimes, police departments have to ‘borrow’ people from other police departments. Being seconded can give a detective solid experience, and it’s a way to get the job done with limited resources. Sometimes it goes smoothly; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, a secondment can add an interesting layer to a crime novel, and an equally-interesting look at the way police departments work.

For example, in Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), lifestyle guru Cecilia ‘CC’ de Poitiers decides to move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. She settles in with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter, and it’s not long before she succeeds in alienating just about everyone. She’s mentally sadistic, malicious, and thoroughly self-involved, so it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly the most popular person in town. Then, during a Boxing Day curling match, CC is murdered. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. For duty officer Robert Lemieux, this case gives him the opportunity to work with the legendary Gamache, as he’s the one who reported the crime. Gamache welcomes Lemieux to the team, and does his best to take the fledgling detective under his proverbial wing. It turns out to be a very sad case, but it gives Lemieux valuable experience. And fans of this series will know that he plays an important role in The Cruelest Month, too.

James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place mostly in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s been devastated by the disaster, and the police force is stretched to its limits. So, many of Louisiana’s other police forces are tapped for extra support, including the New Iberia Police. And that means that police detective Dave Robicheaux is sent to New Orleans to help. He discovers that an old friend, Father Jude LeBlanc, has gone missing. LeBlanc had set off in a boat to try to save some of his parishioners, but hasn’t been seen. What’s worse, the boat he used has turned up in the possession of some looters. Robicheaux is sure that there’s a connection between LeBlanc’s disappearance and the looters; to him, this isn’t a case of people happening on an empty boat. But, with much of the city reeling from the hurricane, and with few resources, it’s not going to be an easy connection to make.

Inger Ash Wolfe’s (AKA Michael Redhill) DI Hazel Micallef lives and works in Port Dundas, Ontario. It’s not a very big place, and there’s generally not a lot of crime there. So, she doesn’t have a very big police department. That proves to be a major problem in The Calling, when a series of murders takes place in the area. A small team like Micallef’s isn’t enough to handle the multiple investigations, so she requests extra staff. At first, her boss, Commander Ian Mason, doesn’t see the need for any secondments; he’s not even sure there’s a serial killer involved. But Micallef knows that she and her small team aren’t going to be able to solve these crimes without help. She finally convinces Mason to approve some staff, and that’s at least a start. One of the interesting sub-plots in this novel is the politics behind secondments, and the way that ‘borrowed’ officers and the ‘regular’ team have to work together.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods sees Accra DI Darko Dawson seconded to the small town of Ketanu when the body of Gladys Menah is discovered in a nearby wood. The victim was a volunteer with the Ministry of Health, so the Minister of Health takes a special interest in this case; hence the secondment. Dawson’s the logical choice, because he speaks Ewe, the local language, and because he’s a skilled detective. That doesn’t cut much ice with Inspector Fiti of the local police, though. He resents what he sees as Accra’s meddling, and he doesn’t care much for the insinuation that he and his men can’t handle the case. Dawson does his best, at least at first, to reassure Fiti that he has no desire to meddle or take the investigation out of their hands. It doesn’t work, though, and there’s a great deal of conflict and friction between the two. This leads to its own sub-plot, which adds a layer of interest to this novel.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh police inspector who’s working on a murder case when another, very similar, murder takes place on the Isle of Lewis. It’s very possible that the same person committed both crimes, so Macleod is seconded to help with the Isle of Lewis investigation. It’s hoped that if it’s the same murderer, he and the Isle of Lewis police will be able to help each other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up there, but it’s not a happy one. He had very good reasons for leaving, and hasn’t had any desire to return. Still, he does his job and goes. This investigation will force him to confront his own past, and deal with several unresolved issues.

Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie introduces readers to DCI Alistair Fitzjohn, of Sydney’s Day Street Station. He’s been in the UK taking some leave time, but returns to Sydney when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is found at a marina on Rushcutter’s Bay. Normally, the Kings Cross Police Station would handle this case, but they’re short-staffed at the moment. So, Fitzjohn is seconded to Kings Cross to help out. Fitzjohn insists that his second-in-command, Martin Betts, go with him. Betts isn’t overly eager, but he agrees, and the two take up their temporary assignment. It turns out that there are several possibilities, both personal and professional, when it comes to motive and suspect, so this case isn’t going to be easy. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Fitzjohn learns that a ‘mole’ may have been placed at Kings Cross to report back to his superior. In the end, though, Fitzjohn, Betts, and the Kings Cross team find out who killed Rossi and why.

Secondments can be awkward for everyone. Sometimes they even end up in friction or outright conflict. But they can also add to a crime novel. These are only a few of many examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Everybody’s Out of Town.


Filed under Inger Ash Wolfe, James Lee Burke, Jill Paterson, Kwei Quartey, Louise Penny, Michael Redhill, Peter May

11 responses to “Hey, Better Send Some People Down*

  1. Col

    I’ve read a few books where there is forced cooperation between authorities. There’s the local police initially, then the big bad FBI poke their unwanted noses in. Plenty of tension and testosterone, before getting back to the case.

    • That’s quite true, Col. That resentment against the national-level police, whether it be the FBI, the Met, or some other group, can add a lot of tension to the story. Forced cooperation might get the case solved but it doesn’t always go smoothly.

  2. Ian Rankin’s Rebus was seconded to London in Tooth and Nail to help track down a serial killer. It was quite fun, because so many Scots spend at least some part of their life in London, often through economic necessity rather than choice, and Rebus’ grumpy outlook on the city was pretty spot-on about the love/hate relationship so many of us have with it.

    • Thanks, FictionFan, for adding that in. You’re absolutely right, of course, and I should have mentioned that one. I’m glad you did! And I’m not surprised that you found Rebus’ reaction so authentic. I think that’s one thing that Rankin does very well. He portrays Scotland and its people in realistic ways. Well, it’s always felt that way to me, and from what I hear from you and other Scottish friends, he really does.

  3. kathy d.

    Isn’t this conflict between police departments, even between city, state and federal officials a common theme in crime fiction? Or between police and the FBI? It seems to me I’ve read about this fairly often.
    In fact, having just read Sara Paretsky’s latest book, Fallout, I’d say there were conflicts between local police, army and air force officials.
    In Commissairio Guido Brunetti’s books and TV episodes, there are conflicts between his questura and caribinieri or government officials. This is also true in Salvo Montalbano’s books, too.

    • There are, indeed, plenty of fictional conflicts between police agencies, Kathy. And you’ve given some great examples of it, too.l I think that’s part of why there can be resentment (‘though it’s not always the case), when a police character from one police force is ‘borrowed’ by another. Even if the forces aren’t in conflict themselves, it can lead to, at the very least, awkwardness.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links 6/12/17 – Where Genres Collide

  5. In Golden Age detective stories set in villages, there is often tension when the local police have to ‘call in the Yard’ – if the crime is too big a deal for them, they summon an inspector down from Scotland Yard to help out. There is always tension, and tact needed: and sometimes we see that the visitor can manage to soothe local feelings, And there’s always room for a local lowly constable to impress the London man, so his career can be kick-started….

    • That’s quite true, Moira. It’s really interesting, too, how the author can use that dynamic to either create friction, a unified front, or something else. It allows for flexibility in terms of the plot, I think. And of course, it adds a whole plot thread as the seconded person comes in.

  6. I recently read The Likeness by Tana French. In that book, Cassie Maddox is working in the Domestic Violence division, but gets the opportunity to temporarily return to the Undercover division for a special assignment, where she had worked years before.

    • Great example, Tracy. And that’s a really interesting case, too, of how a group of people can get very close and tight-knit, so that they’ve got their own little world. It’s fascinating and eerie, if that makes sense. Thanks for filling in that gap.

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