The police have received a rather raw deal in classic detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes mentions the gentlemen of Scotland Yard somewhat dismissively as being “out of their depths – which, by the way, is their normal state”, and Poirot’s references to “the good Inspector Japp” have an echo of “my good man” and even “good dog”. Policemen in the “golden age” whodunnit tend to vary from self-important bunglers (Mr. Athelney Jones in The Sign of Four) to decent chaps who nonetheless need the detective hero to do the real thinking for them (Inspector Parker in the Lord Peter Wimsey series.) Whether written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Arthur Conan Doyle policemen in the whodunnit seem doomed forever to proceed in an easterly direction whilst the lynx-eyed detective gazes north-north-west.
In fact the low stock of the police in detective fiction seems pretty unfair, since the genre didn’t – and perhaps couldn’t – exist without them. The detective department of the Metropolitan Police was formed in 1842, and the latter half of the century produced Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and the first Sherlock Holmes stories. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, generally regarded as the first detective story in English, had been written earlier in 1841, when there was no American detective police, but Poe set it in Paris, where the Sûreté had been investigating crimes since 1812. The British public had long enjoyed tales of crime, from the seventeenth-century pamphlets of Notorious and Horrid Murthers Providentially Discovered, through picaresque novellas to the Newgate Calendar, but before Britain had a detective police department, there was nothing we would recognise as a detective story.
The police’s portrayal is also surprising considering that the genre is concerned with the solution of crime, the apportioning of guilt and the restoration of order and safety – all themes in which the police might have been expected to feature as positive symbols. Yet it is the amateur, the eccentric and the outsider who plays the hero in the whodunnit. Lord Peter, with his silly-ass-about-town front, Holmes, with his Goethe and cocaine bottle and Poirot with his obsessive neatness and ostentatiously Gallic egotism, all seem pretty unlikely champions of order and public safety.
What the public considered to be their safety is not as obvious as it might first appear, however. The Metropolitan Police record that the appearance of police patrols on London’s streets met with resistance amongst the public, many of whom disliked the idea of a police service under the control of the Home Office. Their concern over civil liberties was understandable; after all, the Sûreté (the Met’s Parisian inspiration) had been modelled on Napoleon’s secret political police. Far from welcoming these embodiments of “law and order” onto the streets, some Londoners found them sinister.
It wasn’t only those on the streets who looked askance at the Metropolitan Police in the Nineteenth century. In 1853 Lord Dudley Stuart argued in the House of Commons that the police were not worth the money paid to them, and insisted that a higher class of officer be recruited to control the constables. Unlike the army, a perfectly acceptable career for a gentleman, the police continued to be beyond the pale into the twentieth century – in the 1960s Ngaio Marsh is still having fun with characters in her novels (such as Death in Ecstasy) who assume that Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn must have come from a working-class background, when in fact he is the brother of a baronet.
The ambivalence about the police in the whodunnit seems to spring, then, from an anxiety about putting capital-letter questions of Justice, Truth and Guilt into the hands of a cadre of men who were not particularly well educated, were paid by the government, and were shown to be corrupt during the “Turf Scandal” trial of 1873. Of course the convention of the bumbling police officer and the brilliant amateur detective continued long after the detective department had been cleaned up and reformed as the CID – it was such an established part of the genre, and probably still resonated with the conservative tendencies of the form.
The distaste for professional detectives should also be read in the light of the Victorian cult of “amateurism”. After all, the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, and it wasn’t until 1916 that Members of Parliament were paid a regular salary from central government. Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin embody the same instinctive feeling that really important matters ought to be left in the hands of those who don’t need to be paid to deal with them. Sherlock Holmes’ contemporary (and stablemate at the Strand Magazine) Raffles was titled by his author as The Amateur Cracksman; he obviously felt it was important that a line be drawn between Raffles, who committed his crimes out of spirit and adventure, and common criminals who did it for money. Indeed, one of the Raffles stories is entitled “Gentlemen and Players”, borrowing the cricketing term which distinguished gentlemen amateurs from the socially inferior professionals. Bearing all this in mind, Poe and Conan Doyle look as if they are answering Lord Dudley Stuart’s call: providing the fight for justice with an officer class.
All this snobbery and genteel amateurism might itself feel rather distasteful to modern readers of detective fiction. Such attitudes, at least overtly expressed, were surely left behind in the early Twentieth century, if not the Nineteenth. But it’s worth asking why, if that were so, heavy-footed PC Plods continued to appear in whodunnits all through the last century. Partly it may have been due to the inertia of a genre which, having found a popular and entertaining set of conventions, didn’t hurry to break them up. Or it could have something to do with the conservatism of much twentieth century detective fiction which I mentioned above, with its nostalgia for a lost Edenic pre-war England.
It can’t be coincidence, however, that even when detective fiction adopted policemen as its heroes, most of those policemen were themselves eccentrics or outsiders. Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn is of a different social class to the other detectives he works with; Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is a Wagner-loving intellectual loner; P.D. James’ Inspector Dalgleish is a sensitive, thoughtful man who writes poetry, which other characters comment upon as unusual in his profession. Their later comrades DI Rebus, DI Jack Frost and Detective Harry Bosch are all loners and loose cannons who don’t work well within the structure of their police services. It has become something of a cliché for modern American detectives like Harry Bosch to be taken off a case, or even have their badges confiscated, during the process of an investigation. Detective fiction still seems to have a compulsion to keep its heroes from becoming normal members of the police, to force them outside the official structures and demand that they investigate without the approval, or even the authority, of the police. We may not be so concerned with the need for an officer class these days, but we still seem very uncomfortable with the idea of putting justice in the hands of professionals. Evil cannot be fought with efficient staffing policies, detective fiction insists – you can’t get the truth by paying for it.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, November 2007