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Resources for Writers

Truth and Lies in Police Procedurals (Part 2) by M.J. Ford

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Article by M.J. Ford ©.
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Commercial crime fiction almost always demands resolution. It’s implicitly understood that when a reader buys a crime novel the case will be solved, and the subsequent prosecution will be airtight; it’s not enough to have circumstantial evidence and strong suspicion. We need the ‘smoking gun’, the suspect’s confession, or simply incontrovertible proof, if justice is going to be served. Sadly, in real life, it often isn’t: crime pays and innocents suffer with no redress. Far from having deep and meaningful motives, many killings have banal origins: a neighbourly grudge that escalates; an argument over a perceived slight; being in the wrong place at the wrong time; or more frightening still, a crime that stems from boredom or sociopathic sadism. Fiction offers logic, cause and effect, answers – something our lives habitually lack.

If my detective friend has read my books, he perhaps feels like Cressida Dick shouting at her TV (see Part 1 of this article). But I’m not overly concerned with massed ranks of dissatisfied police readers chucking my novels in the bin. Though I’ve carried out no official research into the statistics, I’m willing the bet the Venn diagram of ‘Police Officers’ and ‘Readers of Police Procedural’ has little overlap for the very reason that such people would find the stories irritating or vaguely cartoonish.

We crime writers are fortunate, however, in that most of our audience aren’t deeply embedded in the realities of police work, but instead are more than conversant with the vernacular of its fictional representation. Programmes like Mercurio’s exist in a long tradition of cop dramas, almost all of which to greater or lesser degree play loose with the truth. Information technology and surveillance, police ranks and departmental organisation, the legalities of arrest and interrogation, time-frames and logistics… they’ve all been (mis)represented on screen and in book format, with thousands of creators muddying the waters. The result is a general and amorphous idea of what police procedure is, so even if we’re not painting strictly between the lines, the picture still looks pretty from the middle distance.

There are plenty of writers who approach police procedural more stringently and diligently than me, as well as those who eschew such concerns almost completely. In the former camp, one of my favourite crime authors is Joseph Wambaugh, known for his Los Angeles-based police stories. Tellingly, he was once a cop himself. His novels are raw and realistic depictions of the daily challenges faced by US police and their complex interactions with the public they serve. They’re also not mysteries in the classic sense, and the procedural elements tend to focus more on the camaraderie and workings of the uniformed officers, rather than the forensic methods of investigation. There’s no cult of personality here – no sinister antagonist and maverick cop – and often no justice to soften the suffering. The story is very much about the human qualities of the officers and how the job tests their characters. And for any novel to convince, the characters’ believability is arguably much more important than the how closely the story cleaves to reality. ‘Jump the shark’ with an element of the plotting and the reader may forgive; have a character in whom the reader is invested act inconsistently, and it can shatter an illusion completely.

Perhaps it sounds like this writer doth protest too much, reaching for any excuse and technicality in order to defend the charge of poor research, or worse, intellectual laziness. Don’t we have a duty to the reader to represent accurately the work police do? Well… no. Our duty, if that’s the right word (‘mission’ might be better), is foremost to entertain. Readers vote with their eyeballs, and there’s a burgeoning shelf of crime – true or fictional – that they can try instead, should they be dissatisfied. In terms of duty to the police themselves, I have tremendous respect for the work they do. Their jobs are difficult, sometimes dangerous, often dull, and routinely disparaged. And in writing procedurals, I try to pay homage to all of those things, even if it takes a few white lies to get the point across.

(c) M.J. Ford

Read Part 1 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.


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.