It’s interesting how people’s views of the police can vary. That’s true even if you consider just law-abiding people (after all, those who have a habit of breaking the law aren’t likely to welcome the police). People’s views of the police are affected by lots of factors (social class, culture, whether there are police officers in the family, and so on.
One attitude is expressed neatly in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who shot Dr. John Christow. The victim and his wife, Gerda, were weekend guests at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when Christow was shot. So, naturally, Grange and his men want to talk to all of the members of the household. Here’s what the cook, Mrs. Medway, says when one of the kitchen maids tells the police something she saw:
‘‘It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’’
The belief is that respectable people, regardless of their social class, do not get involved in crime. Many people still have a little of that assumption.
Also inherent in Mrs. Medway’s remark is the belief that the ‘better class’ of people wouldn’t have anything to do with crime. We see that also in Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger, which takes place in Victorian London. In it, Inspector William Monk searches for the killer of a ‘blueblood’ named Joscelin Grey, who was found killed in his own home. As you might imagine, Monk wants to talk to the members of Grey’s family, to see if any of them might be able to shed light on the matter. Immediately, it’s made clear to him that no-one in a family like the Greys could possibly, in any way all, be mixed up with a sordid crime. He’s better off, he’s told, going after the ‘riffraff’ who committed the crime, then bothering a socially prominent family. Interestingly, in the novel, the police are treated as not very different from tradespeople – certainly not people to be obeyed automatically.
Many people, of course, respect the police, and see them as people to turn to in time of need. There are hundreds of crime novels in which people depend on the police to solve a family member’s murder, or to find a missing loved one. One example is Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot line of the novel, Benny Frayle is devastated when her friend, financial advisor Dennis Brinkley, is killed. On the surface, he died in a tragic accident in the room where he kept his collection of ancient weapons. Benny doesn’t believe this death was an accident, though. So, she goes to the police to ask them to take another look at the case. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby hears her out, and duly looks over the reports from the initial investigation. He doesn’t see any cause for concern, though. The officers involved did their jobs efficiently and professionally, and they found no reason to call this death anything but an accident. But Benny insists otherwise. Then, there’s another death. A self-styled medium named Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Her murder comes shortly after she holds a séance in which she mentions details of Brinkley’s death that she couldn’t have known. Now, Barnaby is convinced that the two deaths are murders, and are related. So, he and his team look into the cases carefully, and find the link between the cases.
There are also plenty of people who don’t want to be involved with the police more than absolutely necessary. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of the consequences if they do have anything to do with the police. Sometimes it’s because they distrust authority. Sometimes they see the police as interfering. We see this sort of attitude in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. In that novel, we meet Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod, an Edinburgh police detective who’s been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help solve a murder that’s very similar to one he’s already investigating. It’s believed that, if the two murders were committed by the same person, then it makes sense to share information. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the Isle of Lewis. But he had his own reasons for leaving, and he isn’t especially thrilled to be back. Woven into the story is the local people’s natural distrust for ‘the polis.’ That’s also quite evident in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which sees Glasgow Inspector Jack Laidlaw investigating the murder of a young woman who went missing after a night at a disco.
For some people, their view of the police is impacted by negative experiences they’ve had. In other words, the police themselves are the problem. We see that in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, for example. In it, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. His new assignment is a punishment for ‘whistleblowing’ during an Internal Affairs investigation in Adelaide, so as it is, he’s not particularly popular with his new colleagues. Then, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch looks into the case, he learns that several of the local people don’t want to cooperate with him. They assume that he’s in league with the other local police, and they have very good reason not to trust those police. Little by little, though, Hirsch finds out the truth. There are plenty of other novels, too, where people don’t talk to the police, because they know that the police are not to be trusted.
It’s interesting to see how many different views there are of the police. They’re impacted by a lot of different factors, too. And that means that a crime writer has a lot of flexibility when it comes to how the police will be regarded in a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman.