When a dead body turns up, can a policeman be far behind?
That’s the reality faced by writers of non-police-procedural murder mysteries. Our private detectives or amateur sleuths must carry the day, but apart from an unlikely scenario such as murder at the South Pole, we’re obliged to give at least a nod to the men and women in blue working in the background. And when we do, we want to get things right. For those of us whose interaction with the police is limited to the occasional traffic ticket, this can be a challenge. Fortunately, helpful resources are available. Two books on my shelf are Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland and Armed and Dangerous: A Writer’s Guide to Weapons by Michael Newton.
Even with such resources, questions remain. The internet is probably the first place writers go for basic information. Police departments typically maintain websites where a writer can learn about departmental hierarchies and can often view photos of uniforms and emergency vehicles. While working on a story set in northern Vermont, I learned that murders in that state are typically investigated by the Vermont State Police. I telephoned State Police Headquarters, explained what I was working on, and was put in touch with a Community Liaison Officer who answered my questions about weapons carried, the vehicle a plainclothes detective would be likely to drive, and how and when they cooperated with local law enforcement. From there I contacted the Sheriff of Grand Isle County who helpfully described everything from working with the State Police to the layout of the Sheriff’s Office on North Hero Island.
But what happens when your story, like mine, is set in another country? When police procedure isn’t a writer’s major focus, it’s tempting to rely on the policing found in crime novels and television dramas. Since my mystery, A Dream of Death, is set on a fictional island in the Inner Hebrides, I might have gleaned information from such iconic Scottish crime fighters as Ian Rankin’s gruff DI Rebus, Glenn Chandler’s pragmatic DCI Taggart, or even M. C. Beaton’s work-shy Sergeant Hamish MacBeth. Doing so would have been a mistake. In 2013, eight regional Scottish constabularies were replaced by the new, unified Police Scotland, and at the same time, the investigation of serious crimes was given to the newly formed Major Investigations Team. Since then, murders in Scotland are no longer investigated by local detectives but rather by elite crime squads based in major cities and parachuted in on a moment’s notice. A good move as far as policing is concerned. By March of 2018, the MIT had solved 100% of the 301 violent murders in Scotland. For Scottish crime fiction, however, the change threatened to put many well-loved protagonists out of a job. A literary nightmare.
During the 2016 Edinburgh Book Festival, Ian Rankin revealed that in 2013 he and a number of Scottish crime writers were invited to lunch with Chief Constable Phil Gormley, then head of Police Scotland. Gormley explained the massive structural changes that would effectively relegate local detectives like Rebus to secondary roles. “Well, look,” he is reputed to have said, “this has been done for the right reasons and I’m sure you can find a way round it.” (Kevin McKenna, The Guardian, 20 August 2016). “Rankin and his confreres in crime were aghast.”
They have found ways around it, and so have I. Val McDermid kindly suggested I contact Inspector Lynda Allan on the Isle of Skye for information on policing in the Hebrides. A life-saver.