The Ordinary Detective

For today’s blog post, I thought I’d give a brief update on my police citizen’s academy program as we just completed two sessions focusing on the detectives. As far as  research goes, it was a fascinating study in contrasts. We had the hardboiled vice detective who had previously worked undercover – he was full  of colorful anecdotes, expletives and jargon, and had an almost stereotypical demeanor and backstory (a divorced Italian American with a dry sense of humor and total disdain for petty criminals). The other was one of the two female detectives on the force. She was meticulous, low-key and calm, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I approached her, you could tell that the other detective was surprised I wanted to ask her the questions, as he was the one that had definitely attracted the majority of interest from the group. Part of the writer in me, however, was quick to dismiss him simply because he represented exactly the type of police detective we see all the time in books, TV, and movies. The female detective in contrast, was almost dull. Her PowerPoint presentation didn’t have exciting crime scenes or drug busts but instead had detailed timelines of burgularies and credit card theft, along with an analysis of a high speed car accident. Not exactly the stuff of movies, but for me, it was far more interesting precisely because it was so…ordinary.

When I approached her to ask her what she thought was the most common mistake made by writers/TV shows about female detectives she had to take a moment to think – because she honestly didn’t have time to read crime books or watch police TV shows.  After work she went home to be with her husband, kids, pets, chickens and horses and, in her mind, did what everyone else did. Being a detective was a job she enjoyed but it didn’t consume her life. So for her the most obvious mistake (apart from female detectives wearing tight clothing and high heels) was that female detectives are often portrayed as being driven, single minded or obsessed with their job. Although it was refreshing to hear such a down to earth approach (given how tortured many female detectives appear in books and movies), she also posed  a bit of a dilemma for the writerly part of my brain – how would I create a character based on her that would be both realistic and interesting? Yet the sheer ordinariness of her world and how she approached crime solving also presented an intriguing challenge. The other, more stereotypical detective would be far easier to portray simply because he represented the kind of detective we see on the screen and page all the time…which got me wondering about writers who have successfully portrayed the ‘ordinary’ lives of local law enforcement in their books…which is why I turn now to you, TKZers for recommendations as well as advice. Who do you think successful portrays the more mundane aspects of law enforcement? Who is the most realistic female detective you’ve read about or seen in movies or on TV? What advice would you give a writer who wanted to portray an ‘ordinary’ detective?

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About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery. http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

18 thoughts on “The Ordinary Detective

  1. Maybe Renée Ballard? She’s certainly very committed. She has some issues–won’t any character worth writing about? And her off-duty life is unique. But she’s not “bigger than life,”either in terms of physique or personality; I don’t think she’s a cliché; and we see her dealing with a lot of the mundane of police life.

    What do others think? At least she’d be a place for discussion of Claire’s questions to start.

  2. Police psychologist and suspense author Ellen Kirschman reveals the inner world of police intimately. In “the right wrong thing” I was impressed with how she reflected the vulnerability and humanity of a woman police officer who faced a nightmarish situation.
    Good writing and what felt to me a unique and authentic view of police characters. Highly recommended – an excellent read and informative.
    Thanks Clare!

  3. I’m glad someone recognized the insanity of wearing high heels for that kind of work! LOL! I don’t have much experience in watching TV so I have no examples of realistic detectives, but I think at first pass we have a tendency to label someone “ordinary” but they have conflicts in their life just like everyone else (possibly more than the ‘extraordinary’). And while perhaps it’s more suited to writing mysteries than novels with detectives, almost everyone has an interest in something that is unique or interesting too.

  4. Joe Wambaugh. No one knows cops on and off the job like he does.

    BK pretty much nailed the rest of my answer above. The Beloved Spouse and I recently completed a complete viewing of the 90s TV series HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET. Not only is it the best depiction I’ve seen of how homicide detectives work, it shows a lot abut their personal lives. The fact is, cops have the same issues as anyone else. Making a cop’s personal life compelling is the same as doing it for a teacher or a butcher or a dentist, though cops have the added “benefit” of being in uniquely stressful situations.

  5. I had a St. Patrick’s Day dinner with a female cop (among others) last night. She was wearing a black wedding ring and I had to ask about it as I’d been studying it at dinner and couldn’t figure out what metal it was composed of (I’ll never make a jeweler). It was her on-duty black plastic ring. She didn’t want to have her real wedding ring gunked up by dirty suspects and the ring had a tendency to rip latex gloves. But, she felt a need to wear a wedding band as both suspects and other cops hit on her. She also said she was unusual in that most female cops were either married to other cops or were lesbians (her words), and her husband was not at all involved with law enforcement. The conversation was devoted a little to her job that day but then moved on to how difficult it was to buy a house as a young couple in Silicon Valley. There was an older male cop at that table as well as he said not one word about his job, nor have I ever heard him say something. In my opinion, it was more an example of an extrovert cop and an introvert cop, then any stereotypes from TV.

  6. Not a book, but the first person that came to mind when you mentioned “ordinary” policewoman was the main character played by Frances McDormand in the Fargo movie.

  7. I can think of two female detectives that seemed more ordinary than the typical loner, work obsessed character. One is D. D. Warren from Lisa Gardner’s series. The other is Elizabeth George’s Sgt. Barbara Havers. I found both characters believable and easy to connect with. They have rich lives off the job, although those lives may be difficult.

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