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.


Sheila Connolly said...

But, but...the Internet can't lie! Can it?

I agree that what was probably once seen as a twist to a standard plot--the dirty/rogue cop--has now become a cliche of its own. At the risk of heresy, I also agree that a number of cozies err by making law enforcement officials stuffy bumblers, to the extent that the craft shop owner becomes the only person in town who could solve the crime.

I try to stay away from that. In my museum mysteries the FBI agent is smart and hardworking, but my protagonist has access to information that the FBI doesn't, so they work together in partnership.

Nancy DeMarco said...

Dirty cops make the writer's job easy. What do we need in a villain? Someone with access to information and power over others. Cops fill this need nicely.

I grew up respecting law enforcement and expecting them to be, well, honest. Still do. So the first time someone wrote about a dirty cop, I probably would have been the one saying, "Never saw that coming."

I find myself vilifying medical professionals, especially in the mental health field, since they too have power over others. Meanwhile my police officers tend to be honest, hard-working individuals who sincerely want to help others.

I need to change this up going forward, before I become my own cliche.

Sandra Parshall said...

Nancy, evil therapists in fiction are already a cliche. :-) said...

Love to voice more about our pet peeves. If preferred, no books or authors named, but those who over use devices that test one's patience. Good way to vent spleen--but nothing cruel. Mine is constantly weeping women. Drowning reader in oceans of tears. I am not talking of mystery-romance novels where it is expected, but regular crime genre. Best, Ann

Sandra Parshall said...

Ann -- agreed about weepy women characters. I've heard over and over from female readers that they want to read about women who don't fold under pressure and don't need a man's help every step of the way. A lot of male readers, of course, can't stand women's tears, in real life or on the page.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. In fact, I can't stop cheering and applauding.

James Thompson said...

Your tastes are subjective and everyone has their likes and dislikes, but it seems to me that you're advocating censorship, saying that some books shouldn't be written because of the deleterious effect they might have on readers prone to violence. Writers on entitled to write anything they like, whether of not you think it's dross. Please don't make a case for censorship.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I must have read the article from a different perspective, because I didn't see an attempt at censorship (maybe it was, but I didn't see it that way). Instead, I saw the article as advice for not becoming an author who writes cliche's, such as the bumbling, idiotic, psychotic police officer. I know I'm tired of seeing the same weak and far-from-the-truth characters in book after book after book. But, that's just one person's opinion.

Beth Anderson said...

I'm wondering how many people who go after law enforcement officers even read books. Maybe some, but when you look at news and stats, most cop killers are people who are for the most part uneducated and disaffected and I doubt they spend much of their time sitting around reading books.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and as a former 911 supervisor, it irks me too that so often it seems it's a given that the "bad guy" will be LE of some kind, or that if there's a cop, he'll be dirty. And thank you for realizing naming names and books wouldn't be wise. I recently read an interview with a hugely popular thriller author who openly disparaged two other hugely popular (probably more, which may be a clue)thriller authors simply because he didn't like their politics. He had been an auto-buy for me for a long time, but I thought that was tacky and petty, and left a very sour taste behind.

Pat Marinelli said...

I also only saw this article as advice to writers not to write the really over-used cliché. Great article and so true.

Sandra Parshall said...

Of course I'm not advocating censorship. I'm saying that I, personally, am tired of books in which cops, FBI agents, etc., are the villains. It's not entertaining anymore -- to me. It's a tiresome, grossly overused device -- in my opinion.

But yes, some readers just can't get enough of seeing law enforcement types depicted as lunatics and killers. They are free to read those books, and the authors are perfectly to write them.

A couple of points: I don't believe popular entertainment (and that's what crime novels are) and trends in culture and thought and personal beliefs can be separated. They absolutely do feed each other.

And: It's a mistake to believe all conspiracy theorists and wingnuts are uneducated backwoods types who go around with aluminum caps on their heads. The well-dressed guy sitting next to you on the subway reading the Wall Street Journal might have some opinions that would shock your socks off. Some of these people read voraciously. They read stuff that reinforces their personal ideology. It may be hard to draw a line between ideas brought to the reading of a book and ideas taken away from it.

Many, many knowledgeable people, including a lot of those in the mental health field, believe that violence in films and on TV has hardened us as a society and desensitized us to violence in the real world. I think the same can be said of graphic violence in novels. That's why some women writers, such as Sara Paretsky, have spoken out against the sickening glut of serial killer novels that describe the brutalization of women in extreme detail. They aren't advocating censorship. They are drawing attention to the effects on society of certain types of material. If you think fictional entertainment can't change anyone's beliefs or expectations, I guess you've never heard of The CSI Effect.

To get back to my original point: my strongest objection to the cop-as-villain subgenre (and there are enough of these books to make up their own subgenre) is that they have become predictable and boring, at least to me. Originality is always desirable in crime fiction, don't you think?

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
How did I miss this most excellent thread?
Your post and comments have forced me to consider whether I've committed any of "these sins" in my novels. What I discovered is an excess, possibly, and maybe now a cliche.
Much is made (the cliched aspect) about law enforcement agencies not cooperating with each other--the FBI agent puts the local cop down, for example. After my self-analysis (always good for one's writing soul), I concluded that in my novels this is mostly healthy competition or turf battles. There are a few slip-ups now and then where a few rogue agents help the villains (corrupt politicians "corrupting" their underlings, mostly in my sci-fi conspiracies), but, like others here, I have a healthy respect for what law enforcement does for us in this country. My father once worked as a dispatcher in the county sheriff's office and had inside info on what some of these guys and gals have to go through. Like our fallen military heroes, we owe our fallen cops and agents a heartfelt thanks and respect on this Memorial Day weekend.