Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Golden Age and Modern Age: Cops in Crime Fiction

One of the great misconceptions you run into about classical, puzzle-oriented detective fiction from the Golden Age (c. 1920-1940, but arguably longer than that) is the idea that the detectives from that era were almost invariably amateur or private sleuths, often gentlemanly "glamour boys" (as author Jonanna Cannan derisively termed them) like Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion--whom some readers, and perhaps the authors themselves, fell in love with--but also less romantically-inclined eccentrics of varying stripes, like Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Lancelot Priestley and Reggie Fortune, and inquisitive older women, such as Miss Marple, Miss Silver and Mrs. Bradley. 

The game is afoot, what?

It's no wonder these brilliant, larger than life figures grabbed so much attention from readers (often aided by radio and film adaptations), but in fact a terrific number of the series sleuths in the Golden Age, both in the US and the UK, were policemen.  Even among the "Crime Queens" Agatha Christie's Superintendent Battle headlined a few of the author's novels and Ngaio March and Josephine Tey had policeman sleuths (admittedly highly sensitive ones).  And you don't have to look far to find additional examples.

recently finished my 25th introduction in E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen detective series and was thinking about the depiction of policemen in crime fiction then and now.  Henry Wade was one of the British authors from the period who actually broached the idea of police corruption in his work, but British crime writers from the period tended to shy, I would say, from "making the police look bad" (as people put it), at least intentionally.  The view generally seemed to be that venality and "third degree" interrogation methods were things which happened across the pond, in America naturally, but not at home in the mother country, where people (and the institutions which they staffed) had standards.

Inspector French on the case
Sometimes British authors inadvertently made police detectives look not quite so admirable in many modern eyes, however, as when Freeman Wills Crofts has his ostensibly squeaky clean Inspector French--who of course would never get drunk (let alone get high), take a bribe or bed a woman besides his wife--making illegal searches, lying to and threatening witnesses to get information and, with a great show of post-WW1 xenophobia, nastily bullying a "German Jew" he deems insufficiently forthcoming.

The author himself, a highly religious man, likely thought that such behavior was justified in the good cause of fighting "evildoers" (to use his term); and possibly many British crime writers, not to mention much of the British public, agreed with him at the time.

In his books E. R. Punshon, a member of the UK's Liberal Party, makes a point of having Bobby Owen behave with greater scruples concerning citizen's rights and he also indicates that the police, Bobby naturally excepted, often do not, in fact, treat every citizen the same, having a tendency to be overawed by socially eminent people in positions of power.  These observations are part of what makes Punshon's writing interesting to me.

Of course anyone following news from the US is aware of how questions concerning the relations of police and civilians in this country currently are undergoing great discussion and debate (probably there's more debate than discussion).  That's a matter I choose not to get into here, but I thought I would look at some modern police fiction in which some of these issues are raised.

In particular I will be writing about an interesting new police series by Canadian author John McFetridge and a much-admired, long-running one by British-Canadian author Peter Robinson.  I have a high opinion of the work of both of these writers and I look forward to making some comparisons between their writing and that found in the Golden Age, as I did over four years ago in a piece about Freeman Wills Crofts and Ian Rankin.  Please stay tuned!

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