Police Procedurals Analysis

Classic Detective Fiction Formulas

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Classic detective fiction was born out of the scientific materialism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Opposed to superstition and belief in the supernatural, it is based on the assumption that all occurrences, even the most bizarre ones, have rational and logical explanations for which irrefutable material evidence can be found. Moreover, the classic detective story sets its action in something like a preindustrial utopian society. It is, at heart, a benevolently feudal society from which large, industrial areas are absent. Within this nearly ideal society, serious crime is so rare as to be considered extraordinary. It therefore cannot be tackled by the developing police forces, made up of lower-class plodders. Police investigators serve largely as comic relief. Extraordinary crimes, which are committed mostly for personal reasons and with great ingenuity, can be solved only by extraordinary detectives. Crime is never random or gratuitously violent; indeed, most victims in classic detective stories die as consequences of applied poetic justice; their deaths and the methods by which they are dispatched are appropriate punishments for transgressions they themselves have committed. The involvement of detective heroes is for the most part cerebral, with a minimum of physical violence, primarily seen as an intellectual challenge, without consideration of financial rewards, and motivated mostly by attempts to prevent wrongful condemnation of friends or acquaintances. Acts of physical violence are left to the police and less cerebral sidekicks, except in cases of self-defense.

The attraction of the classic detective story to readers is based largely on a form of nostalgia similar to that evoked by classic Westerns. It evokes illusions of bygone Great Good Places—to borrow the poet John Donne’s phrase—and of pastoral societies with clear social hierarchies, administered by benevolent squires, in which all crime is rare and sordid crime is nonexistent. Moreover, such rare and extraordinary crimes as do exist are solved by private, highly talented and self-motivated persons, not by functionaries of the state. The genteel detectives provide logical solutions and explanations for even the most mysterious events, sufficient to withstand the scrutiny of the developing scientific laws of evidence in criminal cases. The consequent eradication of crime by amateur, upper-class intellectuals restores edenic society to perfection after temporary disturbances.

Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The moral fantasy of the Great Good Place, most popular in Britain mystery and detective fiction between the world wars, a period often called the Golden Age of detective fiction, was being revised and replaced in the United States during that same period. The Depression era created new paradigms in the public’s attitude toward crime and law enforcement. The growing disparities between the condition of the class of wealthy businessmen, financiers, and industrialists and that of the large masses of impoverished, unemployed, and displaced workers and farmers were made increasingly evident by the irrefutable images of breadlines, soup kitchens, and labor unrest that appeared in newspapers and newsreels. This social and economic shift made the nostalgic utopia of the Great Good Place more and more untenable in both the United States and Europe, and it logically moved the conservative, blithe social fantasy of the classic detective story radically to the left. Unsurprisingly, the utopian moral fantasy of the Great Good Place was transformed into the melancholic and bitter dystopia of the Great Bad Place depicted in the American hard-boiled detective novel and prefigured in mainstream novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

The hard-boiled detective story is an American subgenre of the detective story, but examples of hard-boiled detective fiction abound in other countries as well. In many ways it is a logical consequence of...

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The Police Procedural

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Police officials have always played roles in detective fiction; however, they have been treated very differently over the years. Conforming to its dominating moral fantasy, the classic detective story tends to treat the police as unnecessary and incompetent. The corresponding dystopian world of the hard-boiled detective novel depicts police, with rare exceptions, as venal and corrupt, appropriate if one considers them as instruments of a society dominated by venal and corrupt people. Readers of classic detective fiction prefer heroes whose profiles reflect their own moral and cultural fantasies. Their ideal detectives are upper-class, by nature if not by birth; they have scientific minds; they are amateurs who essentially volunteer their services; they are inclined to argue rather than engage in physical action. Readers of hard-boiled fiction prefer heroes who will fight with the means appropriate to the conditions of the Great Bad Place, namely, with physical violence. Readers also prefer their detectives to exhibit cleverly disguised idealism, deception, tolerance of pain and suffering, and a willingness to accept that only small moral victories without material rewards are possible in a society that is rotten to the core.

The stances of the two types of readers represent positive and negative extremes. It is thus both logical and necessary that a third subgenre should emerge to provide a less extreme, more realistic compromise, both in its view of...

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Pioneers: Lawrence Treat

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Scholars and historians of detective fiction almost unanimously agree that the first modern police procedural is Lawrence Treat’s novel “V” as in Victim (1945). No evidence suggests that Treat consciously set out to revolutionize detective fiction. He had started writing detective novels and short stories in 1937. All those works were rather conventional, with most using the alphabet-tag titles, as in “V” as in Victim. Nevertheless, Treat’s contribution to the developing genre, however unintentional, is significant. His two protagonists, Detectives Mitch Taylor and Jub Freeman, initially are not dedicated and enthusiastic cops. Taylor is rather bored by police work and spends much time trying to avoid getting involved in cases. Freeman is a young man with a scientific bent who is looking for a steady civil service job that will allow him to follow his vocation; he is not greatly interested in law enforcement. However, during the course of the investigation of two seemingly unrelated crimes, the two men begin working together as a team, reluctantly at first, with Taylor becoming increasingly convinced of the value of science and Freeman growing more enthusiastic about his contributions to the criminal justice system.

Although “V” as in Victim is a rather traditional whodunit in its overall plot structure, Treat used it to introduce several innovations that facilitated the development of the police procedural. Treat was never a police official, but he spent some time as an unofficial observer with the San Diego police and in the New York Police Department’s crime lab, both to study police procedures and to get a feeling for the daily routine of policemen and their way of thinking. The development of the police procedural is tightly connected to a proliferation of authors who were, or had been, police officials themselves and thus could bring to genre an unprecedented component of verisimilitude of method, ambiance, and psychology. In his later novels, Treat shifted the emphasis of his plots to Jub Freeman, virtually eliminating Mitch Taylor, and thus moving his novels more into the direction of the scientific procedural that would later gain great popularity, particularly on television.

Hillary Waugh

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Hillary Waugh is credited with writing the first police procedural novel to garner critical acclaim, Last Seen Wearing . . . (1952). One of the few early writers of procedural novels who stridently denies having been influenced by Dragnet, Waugh claims to have been inspired to write his novel after reading accounts of ten true murder cases in which all the victims were young women. Last Seen Wearing . . . was his attempt to write a novel that would mirror the tone of those semidocumentary accounts so that events would sound true to the reader. It is generally believed that his novel is based on a true 1941 case of a Vermont student who disappeared that still remains unsolved. Waugh’s approach anticipated the strategy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and what became know as the nonfiction novel. Even Waugh’s title is taken from actual police records describing the apparel of a missing person. Waugh’s protagonist, Police Chief Frank W. Ford, demonstrates the limits of the concept of reality in police procedural fiction; at the end of the novel, the case is solved. However, this novel brings to the police procedural a much greater sense of real-life police procedure; its plot develops in a perfectly straight line, with readers being made privy to the same facts Ford has at his disposal and also being allowed to follow Ford’s train of thought.

Although obvious traces of the classic detective story remain in Last Seen Wearing . . ., Waugh’s attempts at presenting his novel as a dispassionate and straight-forward “police case” are largely successful and have been praised by many scholars and critics. The novel can also serve as a yardstick for judging the aesthetic limits of the concept of reality in popular fiction: how much reality audiences of entertainment fiction can ultimately tolerate. An alternative approach is to develop narrative strategies that persuade readers to believe that stories are true, while firmly staying within the boundaries of fiction. In recognizing the difficulties of locating a police procedural in a small, rural town—frequency of significant crime, size of police force, scientific resources—Waugh took the final step in the direction the modern police procedural with his Manhattan series of novels around Detective Frank Sessions of the New York Homicide Division.

Maurice Procter

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Born in 1906, Maurice Procter worked for twenty years as a policeman in Halifax, Yorkshire. After leaving the police force in 1946 he used his professional experiences as the basis for a series of novels, most of which feature Detective Chief Inspector Harry Martineau. The first in a long list of prominent British writers of police procedurals, Procter was also the first procedural writer with a background in police work. His background gives his work an especially authentic flavor, both in depicting methods used by the Yorkshire police and in the characters of its members. In addition to his Martineau novels, Procter’s The Chief Inspector’s Statement (1949; published in the United States as The Pennycress Murders (1951), established him as the foremost author of early police procedurals in Great Britain.

Early Masters: John Creasey

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the most prolific writers of all time—and not merely of detective fiction—British author John Creasey is best know for the series of novels about Chief Superintendent Roger West that he wrote under his own name and others about Commander George Gideon that he wrote under the pseudonym of J. J. Marric. The Roger West series began in 1942 and thus predates the beginnings of the police procedural; it is also still clearly dominated by the formula of the classic detective mastermind. By contrast, the Gideon novels are early masterpieces of the police procedural. In contrast to the traditional single-murder pattern of the West series, the Gideon novels all follow multiple investigations, as has become standard in the modern police procedural. In addition, Creasey adopts R. Austin Freeman’s technique of “inverting” the plot, eliminating the mystery element, and focusing on the procedures used to solve the cases.

Whereas Roger West is essentially a stereotype of the dashing young hero of adventure and romance fiction, Commander Gideon is much more complex, rounded character. He is a man full of loyalty to his country and to the policemen under his command. As has become standard for protagonists of the police procedural, he is conservative, deploring the excesses of the revolutionary youth culture of the late 1960’s, and a firm supporter of what have been called “family values.” However, despite his conservative social and political outlook, Gideon is quite capable of empathy, even toward criminals and hippies. He disapproves of using firearms and deplores the resistance to modernization among English law-enforcement organizations.

Ed McBain

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

To many readers of detective fiction, the name Ed McBain is synonymous with police procedurals, as his writing career parallels the growth of the genre from its early beginnings. After the huge success of his novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954, written under the name of Evan Hunter) and the film based on it, he turned to detective fiction. In 1956, shrewdly recognizing the growing appeal of procedural novels, he began to write his 87th Precinct series, set in the mythical city of Isola, which resembles New York City more than casually, despite McBain’s protestations. After a slow start the series became phenomenally successful and occupied him until his death. Fiddlers, the last novel in the series, was published...

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Modern Police Procedurals

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

By the late 1960’s, the police procedural had found its niche among the readers of detective fiction who had become accustomed to its distinctly different approach to mystery fiction. Due to the increasing remoteness of their moral landscape, both classic detective stories and hard-boiled detective fiction were being written by fewer young authors than ever before, and their basic formulaic ingredients were being absorbed by the police procedural. Lawrence Treat, Hillary Waugh, John Creasey, and particularly Ed McBain had established a basic formula for the police procedural that remains successful and popular. In order to satisfy readers’ demands for reality, police procedurals had to adapt to and incorporate into their...

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Elements of Police Procedurals

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As a subgenre of detective fiction, the police procedural adheres to the basic plot structures of the main genre: Crimes are committed; one or more detectives take up the investigations; complications arise in the course of the investigations; the crimes are solved. After initially having close ties to one or both of the other subgenres, the police procedural developed into a separate and distinct subgenre during the 1970’s and 1980’s by drastically altering the character of the investigators, the methods of detection, the nature of the crimes under investigation, and the physical and moral landscape of the action.

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The Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Few readers of detective fiction have ever encountered real-life equivalents of the Great Amateur Detective or the seedy but idealistic hard-boiled detective of fiction. Almost everyone, however, has had some contact with, or observed, a real police official. Detectives in police procedurals bear a double burden: They must conform to readers’ images of police detectives, their professional methods, and their private lives. At the same time, the authors’ descriptions of reality must also be of sufficient aesthetic interest to keep readers coming back for more. This is even more of a challenge at a time when compelling visual images of real and fictional policemen abound in films and on television.

This tension...

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The Crimes

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Gone, for the most part, from police procedurals are the brilliant criminals of the classic detective story. However, the theme of political corruption and the boundless acquisitive greed of wealthy and powerful people of the hard-boiled thriller still operates in the procedural. Most crimes in procedurals are committed by ordinary people for ordinary reasons, such as sex and money. The brilliance of the classic criminal that was only matched by the intellectual genius of the Great Detective has mutated into the deviant, warped criminal mind of serial killers.

The main innovations of the procedural, then, are the investigation of multiple common crimes instead of single, extraordinary crimes, and the admission of the...

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Methods of Detection

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In conformance with the characteristics of the detectives, the main formula of the procedural insists on teamwork, both in solving a particular case or in assigning individual, multiple cases to different members of the unit. Contrary to the ratiocination of the amateur detective and the deceptive role-playing of the hard-boiled detective, the main method of detective in the procedural is the police routine, consisting of the use of informants, strenuous door-to-door gathering of mainly useless information, the interrogation of subjects, and the allocation of limited time and resources to multiple cases.

One of the most important variants in the procedural formula is the convention, based on reality, that police...

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Landscapes of Police Procedurals

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although more closely related to the Great Bad Place of the hard-boiled detective than to the pastoral idyll of the classic detective story, most police procedurals are set in large metropolitan areas, which are closely associated in readers’ minds with large-scale criminal activity. In such vast, impersonal landscapes in which criminals can hide and disappear, police work becomes particularly difficult and frustrating, and the cooperation of the civilian population is hard to attain. At the same time, large metropolitan areas are also ethnically and culturally diverse, adding color and depth to the monolithic landscape of the English countryside or the American suburbs, while blurring rank and class distinctions. In this urban...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Dove, George N. The Police Procedural. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981. This first large-scale scholarly study of the police procedural genre excludes short stories and police fiction (stories about uniformed officers) from its coverage. It thus excludes the work of Joseph Wambaugh. Offers detailed studies of individual masters of the genre, with comprehensive listings of their main works. Should be consulted in conjunction with Panek’s The American Police Novel.

Panek, Leroy Lad. The American Police Novel: A History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Comprehensive study of police...

(The entire section is 256 words.)