I’ve written before about my love of the police procedural. At its best it’s one of my favourite genres, but there seems to be a trend now to go very heavy on the procedure. It seems some writers feel they have to prove they’ve done their homework by regurgitating every painstaking detail onto the page. Sadly, there have been a number of recent high-profile cases which suggest that the actual police are rather less concerned with procedure than the aspiring crime author.
If, to paraphrase Hitchcock, fiction is life with the dull bits cut out, why are some crime writers, in their quest for verisimilitude, zealously putting them back in? Part of making a story move is shaping the narrative, knowing what to select. A bright eight-year-old might question why no one ever goes to the toilet in stories, but most of us know the answer.
When does messing with reality become a problem? I read a Stephen L Carter novel where he changed the timing of a battle in Vietnam to suit his character’s arc. I thought rewriting history was going a bit far. On the other hand, Sharon Penman once moved Richard the Third to a different castle on a crucial date and I felt much less strongly. Because the historical record was less clear, or just because it was a long time ago?
I felt let down by Force of Nature because I found the premise unconvincing, but was happy to watch Paul Abbott’s No Offence where rules are gleefully abandoned – suspects questioned together, vulnerable individuals left unsupervised in interview rooms, a pathologist who also happens to be their IT expert and is not averse to turning his hand to forensics – because it fits the anarchic nature of the programme.
I think it’s okay to deviate from reality if it complicates a story, but not if it miraculously resolves one. If a career criminal refuses a lawyer, bursts into tears and confesses everything, that’s a disappointment, but if he’s illegally interrogated in the car on the way to the station and gives up a significant piece of information that is now inadmissible, that may be a lie, that would force the police to take the case in a whole new direction, then that is great storytelling.
Even the most casual reader or viewer of crime fiction these days is well versed in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. If we’re expecting gritty realism, we need to be confident that there is a solid procedural framework underlying the drama. What we don’t need is authors over-zealously showing their workings.