Monday, July 16, 2007




DEATH AND THE COPPER



Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks series of crime novels are better done than most. Over a period of time, characters have grown and more complex plots been developed. I have just finished reading In A Dry Season and Dry Bones That Dream. Both are admirably put together, but it occurred to me that even the best exponents can't get beyond certain limitations of the form-and also that it is VERY apparent when they are TRYING to go beyond the form. Both P.D. James's Dalglish and Robinson's Banks are cultured men who love classical music, jazz, wine, fine living, etc. They just happen to be coppers as well. And therein lies the rub...

In the popular imagination coppers are not generally credited with high intelligence. Of course, there was Sherlock Holmes, but he was a gentleman sleuth who regarded the professional bunglers with scorn and contempt. Most ordinary folk tend to think of coppers as people who can give you a lot of trouble and are best to be avoided: bureaucrats rather than first class thinkers. From the outset, then, our fictional sleuth needs to be a little boring--the kind of guy or gal who can easily fit into a fairly rigid and bureaucratic hierarchy without any great sense of a personal loss of freedom. This element of the copper's character is usually referred to in fictional terms by a penchant for doing all serious detective work in the pub. A chartered Accountant just had his brains blown out on his isolated farm? Lets go talk about it in the local! Our smart but under appreciated Detective Chief Inspector needs to have a personal chat with the Super? No problem! See you in the 'Dog and Duck"! As a consequence of this boozing habit our classics loving aesthete acquires street credibility as a plodding bureaucratic copper. However, the ensuing identity crisis will do a lot to sink the character's believability--and this is without having touched on what is probably the central problem for all writers of police procedural mysteries: what makes our hero tick? Is he a beer bellied cynic waiting for retirement? Is he a sadist who enjoys inflicting pain on others? Is he a classics loving plodder who wasn't able to do anything else? Is he all of these? More improbably, is he a decent guy doing the job because he worries about the little people and the effect of violent crime on their lives? Most readers would surely find the last definition the hardest to believe--and yet because of the limitations of the form, this is the definition they are most often required to accept. Robinson's Banks just has a gut feeling for the little people and wants to see the bad guys brought to justice. Sometimes you wonder how he could have ever attained to the rank of DCI with such an attitude!

Perhaps this is mostly an attempt for me to come to terms with the unsatisfactory nature of the copper at the centre of most police procedural mysteries that I read. To paraphrase a famous saying "I love the form but hate the unctuous copper at the centre of it all". My advice? Learn from the master, Arthur Conan Doyle, and make your omniscient detective, above all other things, private.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Poirot said...

Love the Inspector Banks mysteries--but you're right in suggesting that the chief himself is a miserable old sod.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous ely said...

Superb!

3:16 PM  

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