If the police cannot be trusted, then where does that leave police procedure?
It is a universally recognized truth that normal people love murder. Well, watching crime and murder documentaries, to be more specific. And by normal people, I mean me and every other woman over 25 that I know. We can’t get enough. From Serial, Making a Murderer, The Staircase, The Keepers, Tiger King to The Tindler Swindler, we’ve watched them all and want more. When we’re not watching true-crime documentaries, we’re reading detective novels that continually top most other genres.
My own fiction is influenced by real life. I don’t tell other people’s stories but it’s hard not to be influenced by what’s going on around you. Sometimes a detective novel asks not who did it, but why, and in doing so we resuscitate the victim. Mystery is at the heart of detective fiction, but in real life, we don’t need to have all the answers. One of the reasons we read about crime and are drawn to it is because we get to control the narrative. Unlike real life, justice is usually done, even if it’s complicated.
So what’s the appeal of crime stories? Well, for starters, this is not a recent or new phenomenon. Detective novel elements exist in Old Testament stories and Shakespeare’s plays, with the genre becoming popular in the late 18th century. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 established the first disciplined police force for the Greater London area, and this, together with the popularity of the Newgate Novel, a form of true crime journalism, paved the way for fiction based on the crime and its detection. .
True crime often inspired plots for the sensational novels of the 1860s and 1870s, while Edgar Allan Poe is credited with creating the first detective story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock mysteries and French author Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1868) established the earliest form of what we call detective fiction, based on detecting crime using logic and collecting evidence.
The Newgate Calendar, originally published in book form in 1773, was inspired by the violent and intriguing cases of Newgate Prison inmates who usually ended up in the gallows. These sensational chronicles were must-read to satisfy the masses’ morbid fascination with murder and mayhem. Without a doubt, Newgate’s novels shaped popular culture and undoubtedly influenced the work of authors like Dickens.
Interestingly, true crime has a dirty reputation not too far removed from that of detective fiction. But while we’ve had this long-standing fascination with crime stories, it’s not without its hurdles. For starters, the police aren’t always the nice ones. When defenders of the law are overwhelmingly white, male, and from a middle-class background, it has profound implications for bringing justice to a population that is not. In the north of Ireland, stories of collusion have long marred our political history. Just this month, Marie Anderson, the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, identified that police and loyalist paramilitary groups had exhibited ‘collusive behaviour’ in relation to killings, some of which dated back in the 1990s.
America has its own history of poor policing. The killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, has sparked outrage and calls for change from racially biased policing that has a long history of affecting marginalized communities.
The kidnapping, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in England last March by serving Met police officer Wayne Couzens highlighted the dangers women face from those in positions of power. In the wake of Everard’s murder case, a culture of misogyny within the police force was revealed when WhatsApp messages sent by a group of police officers, including his killer, came to light.
Then there was the arrest and conviction of two Met police officers Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis, who took and shared photos of murdered sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry in June 2020. Not only did they take and share the photos , dehumanizing the victims, but they also risked violating the crime scene. Both cases exposed systemic misogyny and racism within the police.
So if the police can’t be trusted, where does that leave the ever-popular subgenre, police procedural? As a writer of police procedurals, I have been aware of the complexities that exist within a subgenre that traditionally portrays the police as restorers of social order. But what detective fiction does best is illuminate the inherent complexities of society. We use our stories to challenge misogyny, racism and homophobia.
Writers like Claire Allan, whose latest book, The Nurse, delves into incels and gender-based violence, and Kelly Creighton, whose police procedural series Harriet Sloane focuses on themes of gender and class, show that the form of Crime fiction is flexible and well able to address concerns of institutional misogyny.
SA Cosby wrote last year’s hit, Razorblade Tears. In Cosby’s book, justice is not meted out by the police or the justice system, but by ex-convicts avenging the murders of their gay sons. Line of Duty, the must-watch crime show, deals with corruption within the police. Twisted brass is nothing new, but the popular show gives an unflinching portrait of the prevalence and entrenchment of bad policing.
And what about the ethics of true crime stories? Do they cross the line from respectful to salacious? Entertainment is unquestionably a consideration for true crime makers, but is it that bad? True crime stories often focus on female victims and give voice to the “dead woman” in ways that traditional detective fiction has often failed to do. Additionally, there have been examples of true-crime docuseries uncovering new evidence and having wrongful convictions overturned.
Mystery writers have a long history of exploiting true crime. It’s our life’s blood, but I bet if you had some kind of psychological analysis of mystery writers, you’d find that we’re all sweet, big, scary cats who turn our darkest fears into stories in order to defeat them.
My new book, The Midnight Killing, started with me wondering what might happen if a group of friends made a terrible choice that affected their lives. The story of my character, James McCallum, unfolded, with tendrils that had their roots in the past. I write to understand what bothers me, scares me, often looking for meaning rather than answers.
You find the story you want to tell and use genre and literary devices to tell it, employing all the tricks of the trade to invite the reader to suspend their beliefs and get on board. I do my best not to be exploitative, so I work to clear up misunderstandings. I put the victim first, reverse tropes and show that those who take a life do not make it out, but also that there is often a reason behind death. So while a real case can sometimes be the initial inspiration, we use it as a starting point, turning it into something completely different.
Look around – crime is everywhere, so it’s no surprise that we’re interested in understanding the motivation behind it and detecting it. And besides, what we are all ultimately looking for is to know what really happened. Watching others in pursuit of truth, however subjective, is totally addictive.
Sharon Dempsey’s The Midnight Killing is out now