In the pilot episode of the TV show I worked on, The Bridge, a lawyer says to a cop, “Shouldn’t the police be held to a higher standard?” And he says, “Not when it’s used to screw with them.”
Now, that episode was filmed before the rest of the writing team was hired, but it was something we discussed quite a bit in the writer’s room. The show is about a cop who becomes head of the police union and works to, as the union slogan says, “Protect Those Who Protect Us.”
I kept insisting that the police aren’t held to a higher standard, they’re held to the police standard. The same way doctors are held to their standard and engineers and lawyers and truck drivers are held to their own standards – every profession has a set of standards and all the members are held to it – or should be.
A cop is trained, armed and sent out into the community with the power to detain people, to remove them from their daily lives, bring them to a police station and hold them against their will. No one else can do that. Then the lawyers get involved and sometimes the person is let go and sometimes they’re charged with a crime and held in custody until a trial, or released on bail. Throughout the whole process rules must be followed, there are standards specific to the process – not higher standards than a truck driver has in his/her job, just different standards. They’re different jobs afterall.
Then last week my latest novel received a very negative review in a big US newspaper. Well, that happens, I don’t like it but I understand. In fact, I feel in order for people to like something a lot it has to be specific enough that other people are going to hate it. And this reviewer hated it.
One of the reviewer’s many complaints (I just ignore the stuff about foul language) was, “ On the side of law and order are detectives so beyond hard-boiled that they make a mockery of what they do.”
I’m not really sure what that means, but I think it’s similar to another negative review the book received which said, the cops are “...little more than aw-shucks narrators on the sidelines of a greasy show that's all about the bad guys.”
Okay, I get it, in crime fiction readers want cops to solve the crimes and catch the bad guys.
And then usually they want the cops to shoot the bad guys because we really don’t like all those lawyers getting involved insisting that rules be followed and that standards be upheld. We like lone wolf cops that ignore the rules – and always get the right bad guy anyway.
But I want to write about what I see in my city every day. There are drugs, there is organized crime and there is violence. And, yes, there are cops, but not enough, and with nowhere near the amount of resources they need to do the job properly.
I don’t like the “lone wolf” cop that has to break all the rules to catch the bad guy. I want the good guys to follow the rules and catch the bad guy. And if that means the deck is too stacked in favour of the bad guy and few of them get caught (and how often do we see heads of organized crime syndicates arrested? How often are there drug shortages on our streets?) then I think that’s one thing that crime fiction ought to illustrate. I’d like to see the rules changed so that the good guys don’t need to break them.
Then there’s the issue of women in crime fiction and thrillers.
In an essay called, “Feminist or Misogynist,” on the blog The F Word, Melanie Newman looks into the way male writers “empower” women (and probably a lot of women writers, too):
”So many male visions of female potency resemble cartoons; the kick-boxing girl has become a 21st century literary cliché... These unlikely - and therefore unthreatening - ass-kicking babes may be employed to lend a veneer of legitimacy... Or they may reflect the authors’ belief that if only females would stop acting as ‘victims’ and discover their own capacity for violence, the aggression visited on them by men would disappear... The solution thus lies in women’s hands, relieving men of the responsibility.”
So, again, these are lone wolf characters acting outside the law to get things done – and they always get things done.
Now, I know that kind of lone-wolf stuff happens sometimes, I’ve seen Serpico, there are probably even ass-kicking rape-victims who’ve gone after criminals themselves, but it’s become such an entretched standard of crime fiction that it’s starting to feel like a limitation.
And I don’t think literature should have any limits.
I’d like crime fiction to reflect the reality of the world the same way literary fiction does and not be held to a “higher standard” where justice must always be served. Literature – art - isn’t comfort food, it isn’t a security blanket.
Literature – art – has kick-started many a public discussion that has then led to changes, maybe even improvements, in peoples’ lives. Now, I’m not saying all books should do that – or even try to do that.
But if we never try to do that then we’re supporting the status quo. Our books and stories become, “unlikely – and therefore unthreatening.”
Crime fiction can, and should, be many things but it should never be unthreatening. It should challenge and upset and get people arguing.
It shouldn’t be held to a “higher standard.”