A popular image of the fictional police detective is of a dedicated professional who’s determined to solve the case and find the ‘bad guy.’ And a lot of fictional police officers are just that way. That perseverance and curiosity carry them through some very difficult cases.
But that’s not so for all fictional coppers. There are cases where the police detective is reluctant, or even unwilling, to investigate. A police detective might have any number of reasons for not wanting to look into a case, and we see several of them in crime fiction.
For example, in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, we are introduced to New York police detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. The futuristic world in which he lives is more or less divided between two groups of people. Spacers are the descendants of people who explored space and returned. Earthmen are the descendants of people who never left Earth. The two groups have very different outlooks on life, and different world views. There’s a great deal of conflict between Earthmen and Spacers, to the point where they live in different self-contained places. When a prominent Spacer scientist is shot, Baley is called into the office of his superior, Police Commissioner Julius Enderby. He’s asked to take on the investigation, as a way of demonstrating that Earthmen weren’t responsible for this murder. Baley isn’t interested at first. He’s even less interested when he hears he is to be paired with R. Daneel Olivaw, who is a positronic robot. If there’s anything Earthmen hate and fear more than Spacers, it’s robots. So, this is very difficult for Baley. But he isn’t given much choice. What’s more, he knows that the ‘perks’ he has come largely from his position as a homicide investigator. Losing that job would cause serious problems in his personal life. So, he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, and begins to work with Olivaw. And they find out that this case is more complex than they thought.
Police officers are human, just as the rest of us are. Their jobs are stressful, and they want the occasional weekend or holiday away from work. The news that there’s a new case isn’t always welcome when one’s about to enjoy some time off, but that’s what happens to Inspector Richard Jury in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. Jury is packing to spend some time visiting his friend, Melrose Plant, at Long Piddlington. He gets a call from Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Racer that changes everything. A human finger has been found in the village of Littlebourne, and there’s no-one else available to investigate. Jury’s none to happy about it, but he doesn’t have much choice. So, he goes to Littlebourne, and begins to look into the matter. It turns out that the finger belonged to Cora Binns, a secretary who worked for a temporary placement agency. She was in Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that interview. Plant joins his friend, and the two work to find out what happened to Cora, and who would want to kill her.
Police departments have finite resources, and finite numbers of people. So, those who are in supervisory positions have to make choices about what the police investigate, and what they don’t investigate. And they’re not likely to want to look into a matter if it isn’t a genuine case for the police. That’s what happens with Inspector Tom Barnaby in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. Financial advisor Dennis Brinkman has died in what looks like a terrible accident. He collected ancient and medieval machines, and it sees as though a malfunction in one of them killed him. But Brinkman’s friend, Benny Frayle, doesn’t think so. She is convinced he was murdered and goes to the police to insist that they investigate. Barnaby hears her out, and in fact, looks over the file on the case. But he can’t see any way in which the original investigating police officer was negligent. So, he decides not to pursue the case. Then, there’s another murder which is connected to Brinkman’s death. Now, Barnaby has little choice but to re-open the initial investigation. And he’s a good cop, so he does want to find the guilty person. And, in the end, he and Sergeant Gavin Troy do just that.
There are cases where police don’t want to investigate a case because doing so could get them into danger. There’s a thread of that in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Vanancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a police detective in late-1970s Buenos Aires. It’s a very dangerous time, with the military government firmly in place, and any kind of (even perceived) dissent viciously punished. Everyone knows to keep quiet, don’t call attention to yourself, and so on. One morning, Lescano is alerted when a body is discovered near a river bank. Not far away are two other bodies, obviously of victims of an army ‘hit.’ Lescano knows to give those two deaths only a very cursory treatment, and not question them. But the third death looks just a little different. He doesn’t look for opportunities to run afoul of the higher authorities, but Lescano does try to be a good cop. He reluctantly starts to ask a few questions and finds out that this death isn’t what it seems like on the surface. The body belongs to a pawn shop owner/moneylender named Elías Biterman, and there are plenty of police who won’t bother to investigate the death of ‘just another Jew.’ But Lescano chooses not to give up. There are, of course, plenty of other novels where the police don’t want to investigate because the victim is, ‘Just another….’
There are, of course, a few police detectives who
are lazy who see no point in exerting themselves if it’s not absolutely necessary. Why waste energy? Such a police officer is Inspector Alvarez, who ‘stars’ in Roderic Jeffries’ series. He lives and works on Majorca, and quite frankly, would rather relax, eat fine food, and have a nice drink than investigate. He gets drawn into cases when he sees no other option. When he does start asking questions, Alvarez finds the answers. But he’s not particularly eager to be the higher-ups’’ lackey, so to speak.
There are several reasons for which a police officer – even a good one – might not want to take a case. I’ve only touched on a few. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hawk Nelson’s The Job.