It’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.