Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Villains Behind the Badges
by Sandra Parshall
I read far more books than I will ever write, so it’s not surprising that I have the same preferences and pet peeves as any other reader. I have a lot of pet peeves. Publicly criticizing another writer’s work, though, won’t make me popular and might create an awkward future moment when I come face to face with that author.
So: no names, no book titles.
But I have to tell you how tired I am of seeing law enforcement officers, from FBI agents to small town cops, appearing as villains in crime novels.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, a couple of people I had previously considered sane spouted the strong suspicion that the FBI and local police planted the bombs, killed and maimed all those innocent people (including children), and framed two young brothers whose backgrounds (Muslim immigrants) would make them plausible fall guys. Oh, and the older brother was unarmed when the two were surrounded, and he was murdered in cold blood by the cops.
The “proof” behind this theory: everybody knows the FBI and most police departments are corrupt, that they are working every angle to subjugate the population and control every aspect of our lives. (Why would they...? Never mind. That’s another discussion.)
One person told me that if I would stop being a blind sheep and do some research on the internet, I would discover ample evidence of this conspiracy. The internet is where we should all look for the truth. Oh wow. After I stopped laughing, I couldn’t come up with an answer to that.
I asked myself: Where do people get such ideas?
A person’s own inner sense of helplessness and hatred of all authority is a big part of his or her willingness to jump immediately to the wildest, most negative conclusion. But I’ve begun to wonder whether crime fiction writers are feeding readers’ suspicions and delusions.
Even in cozies, the police are often portrayed as bumblers who couldn’t detect their way out of a pastry box and have to rely on women with no law enforcement training and loads of free time to solve all the murders.
In darker mysteries and thrillers, it gets worse.
FBI agents or cops ostensibly pursuing serial killers may turn out to be the very killers they’re after.
Brutal, psychotic Sheriffs in rural areas, particularly in the south, have appeared in fiction so often that they’ve become a cliche.
Then we have entire police departments that are in on the drug dealing and prostitution or whatever and do not hesitate to murder anyone who gets in their way.
Another type I’m awfully tired of is the rebel cop, sometimes young and relatively inexperienced, who happens to be the only competent investigator on the entire force. She or he breaks all the rules, goes off alone (without backup or notice to superiors) into potentially deadly situations, and may engage in a bit of illegal activity – but in this case it’s heroic because it’s the only way to work around the system-wide incompetence and corruption. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the poster child for rebel cop syndrome. In his younger days, Bosch was given to throwing office furniture through windows at police headquarters and similar acts of hotheaded defiance. He did things that would have landed any real cop on the curb in an instant, and possibly in jail, but like all rebel cops he suffered few consequences. Now he’s too old to be believable as a rebel, but plenty of younger characters are following his lead.
Do corrupt cops exist in real life? Of course. We’ve read and heard about them following their arrests.
Are some detectives incompetent? Without a doubt.
Are some FBI agents psychotic? I don’t know of any offhand, but I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question, given the prevalence of mental illness in the general population.
Have any real FBI agents or cops ever been exposed as raving lunatic serial killers who managed to function professionally at such a high level that they had everybody fooled? If so, I can’t point to a case. Like anyone else, an FBI agent or police officer is far more likely to kill someone close – a lover, a spouse or other family member.
I’m not saying corrupt and crazy cops don’t exist in real life. I’m saying too many of them show up in crime fiction. Such characters probably reinforce the fear and distrust of police that many ordinary citizens feel. Maybe they feed the delusional fantasies some people harbor. Perhaps all forms of fiction – books, TV, movies – have helped to bring some people to the point where it seems rational that the tragedy in Boston was engineered by law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers were simply two innocent pawns.
All that aside, these characters have committed the cardinal sin of fiction: they have become ordinary and easy to spot. Predictable. And in crime fiction, “predictable” always means boring.