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Truth and Lies in Police Procedurals (Part 1) by M.J. Ford

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MJ Ford

M.J. Ford

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In September 2019, Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service in London, gave an interview to the Radio Times magazine. She was asked her opinion of two well-loved TV series written by Jed Mercurio, Line of Duty and Bodyguard. While conceding they were ‘good drama’, she professed herself to be ‘outraged’ at elements of the plotting and moved to switching off altogether. The ‘ludicrous’ portrayals of policing, she claimed, drove her colleagues ‘up the wall’. She also admitted Mercurio had made the police more ‘cool and interesting’ than in fact they were.

Dick’s mixed feelings about those programmes reveal a lot about the challenges of balancing authenticity and entertainment in ‘police procedural’, a sub-genre of crime fiction more popular than ever with the reading and viewing public. The enduring fascination with the work of the police is perfectly understandable: here are characters not only able to investigate criminal acts – accessing places, people and information we as the public cannot – but also with the power to dispense justice.

Approaching the genre as a writer can be daunting: there’s no doubt a degree of verisimilitude is important to hook and hold the reader’s attention. To achieve this, many writers recruit a serving or retired police officer, sometimes several, to act as consultant on the finer points of policing. Some are paid, some are promised speaking parts in the finished work, but many simply do it because they’re keen to share and gracious with their time. Such is my close friend who works as a detective for Greater Manchester Police, and throughout writing my first procedural novel, Hold My Hand, he was on response: sometimes it was a list of queries emailed over, other times a quick phone clarification, and occasionally talking over a more complicated scenario while we ran together in the hills (my tactic in the latter case was to ask a question at the beginning of a long ascent and catch my breath as he, a much stronger runner, laboured to answer on the incline).

His answers tended to follow a pattern: first would come a sarcastic short reply implying a great and general incompetence in modern policing; then a more detailed, comprehensive and helpful explanation of procedure; and finally, as a sort of coda, a grumpy rant about police red-tape and office politics. All three levels of information are useful in forming a picture of what policing and police officers are actually like – generally dark-humoured, ultimately hard-working and thorough, but also realistic that their best intentions are stifled by systemic obstacles.

I don’t actually know if my friend has read any of my books (other than to check he was properly acknowledged in the endmatter). The thought of him doing so is faintly embarrassing, because in many cases I’m certain I’ve created a poor representation of real police work, eschewing his advice in the service of the drama, with gross simplifications or even outright contradiction of procedural reality; indeed, readers delight in pointing out the latter.

However, just as policing has plenty of constraints – time, resources, bureaucracy – so does writing. Real life contains drama sparingly; a story must sustain it from the first page to the last. Readers demand an intriguing beginning, a suspenseful middle, and a satisfying end. It’s that middle section where fiction travels farthest from reality. Most true-life murder investigations are solved quickly… or not at all. There isn’t much dramatic meat in the sandwich. A procedural, in which the culprit is typically on the run or unrevealed until the very end – requires a level of convolution (obscure clueing, sub-plots, red herrings, etc) that doesn’t play such a role in the real world. In fiction, the evidence gathering, the mistakes and mishandling, the obstacles and office politics, all delay the reveal of the culprit. And throughout this substantial chunk of the story, the stakes have to rise. Often this means more killings, which in reality is incredibly, and thankfully, rare.

(c) M.J. Ford

Read Part 2 of this article here.

About Watch Over You:

The hunt is on. And this time, it’s personal…DS Josie Masters is called out to a house in North Oxford to investigate a serious incident – an apparent burglary turned violent. But things take a personal turn when she walks through the door and discovers the body is that of her former friend and mentor, Harry Ferman.

He’d lived alone, though possessions found in his spare bedroom indicate that he’s had a lodger staying – a young woman who seems to have fled the scene. Soon, though, further vengeful killings rock Oxford, and evidence mounts that the picture is not as simple as it first appeared.

The girl is on the run, and someone is following her – leaving a stack of bodies in their wake…

‘Superb, gritty and realistic’ MEL SHERRATT, million-copy bestseller

Watch Over you is published 9th Jult 2020. Pre-order your copy online here.

About the author

MJ Ford lives in the north of England with his wife, two young children and two dogs. He studied English and Classics at Oxford University before working in publishing for many years. He writes for both adults and children.

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