Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Due Procedure

The book I'm reading at the moment, Graham Hurley's One Under, is what is known in the trade as a Police Procedural. It's not a bad book, so far, though I have to admit I only picked it up because I'd run out of things to read and it was on the pile of freebies I got for being shortlisted for last years debut dagger.*

I'm slightly uncomfortable with the whole genre marker thing. Labelling anything just makes me want to go and muddy things up by crossing the boundaries, but that's a subject for another post. One Under is a story about a police investigation following a murder, and its central characters are all police officers, so Police Procedural fits near enough.

Now I have to admit to having a bit of a problem with this kind of book. In order to do it justice, you obviously have to know a great deal about how real police procedure works. I've heard many an author go into exhaustive detail about the time he or she has spent shadowing their local police force. Crime novels are awash with dedications to innumerable serving officers who have helped with the preparation, answered questions that might otherwise get the writer locked up, pointed out the obvious flaws in otherwise wonderful plot lines. This is all well and good, but when the finished book is full of asides about day books, little paragraphs explaining what an incident room is or artfully contrived conversations designed to tell the poor uneducated reader some carefully researched but ultimately unimportant fact, then it all starts to get too much.

RD Wingfield's wonderful Frost novels are, technically, Police Procedurals. But the only time any kind of procedure is laid on is when Frost is fighting against it - or just plain ignoring it. I've not asked, but I suspect that any modern day police officer would laugh at the factual inaccuracies that fill the books. But does it matter? Not to me it doesn't. And I suspect not to 99.9% of readers, which is to say all of them who are not directly connected to the police force (sorry, service).

I can understand the need to get certain things right. If you're going to base your story around the workings of the police, then at the very least you need to know that an inspector is more senior than a sergeant who in turn is more senior than a constable (but not the Chief Constable, who's the daddy of them all). It helps to have a basic understanding of the law, and the mechanisms of arrest, questioning and so on. If your story is set in a real-world location, then getting the name of the force (sorry, service) that covers that area can help.

But beyond that, how necessary is it to exactly follow proper procedure, down to the last possible detail? Your readers won't know and probably won't care about much of it. What they want is a believable story, well crafted plot, and possibly a satisfying conclusion where good triumphs over evil in the face of adversity. What they don't want is a lecture about the HOLMES computer every other page.

Some writers are worse that others for laying it on thick with the detail, (and some genres attract it more than others). Some worry about it far more than is healthy. I remember Ian Rankin going on about the reorganisation in Lothian and Borders Police, when CID was moved out of the St Leonard's station, necessitating a move for Rebus and the team. It struck me then as a rather strange thing to be bothered about. Rebus doesn't really exist; the Edinburgh he works in is a fictional representation. Does it really matter all that much if that one small detail deviates from reality? And how many readers know that St Leonard's Police Station doesn't have a CID unit anymore? How many care? Sure there are some who will write in and complain - like the reader who complained to Stuart MacBride that there wasn't a coffee machine on the third floor of Aberdeen Police HQ in Queen Street - but many thousands (hopefully) more won't notice, or won't find it important.

Which is not to say that Ian Rankin is a poor writer, far from it. He's one of those gifted individuals who can drop the research in without you realising it's there. At least most of the time, anyway. He took the change of stations as an opportunity to show another side of Rebus' character, and he didn't make a song and dance of it. What really spoils a good story for me, is when the research spatters across the page like some sixth from Geography essay.

One of the things I try to do with my own writing is to take the reader into the world I have created and keep him there. I've written before about my problems with sudden switches in narrator point of view because of the way it brings the reader to a juddering halt. The same can be said of poorly inserted research material. If your narrator has assumed the voice and characteristics of your main protagonist, for instance, then unless he has a habit of explaining things to his underlings that they must surely already know, any clunky description of a piece of procedure is going to sound out of character. As a reader, I hate it when this happens. I'm trundling along quite happily and then suddenly - bam! the writer intrudes into the story and the flow is broken.

I worry sometimes that my dislike of research is more to do with an innate laziness than anything else. Over the years I have developed complex and compelling arguments to justify not doing something that everyone else seems to think is essential. But whilst there is some truth in the slothful explanation, I do still believe that there is room for a lot less procedure in police procedurals; a lot less technical detail in thrillers; and a lot less forced conversation in all literature. If you want to learn about something, read a text book or manual. Anything you learn from a novel should only be there because it's important to the development of the story.

I think it was Iain Banks who said that the best research for writing is that which you don't know you're doing.** I would add to this that the best research for writing is that which your reader doesn't realise you've done.


*I've also got two copies of Simon Kernick's book Severed, both freebies, one from 2007's goody-bag and one from 2008's. I guess the organisers give out whatever they can get their hands on.
** I could be wrong there. I remember him going on about using maps as a starting point for his stories, and I think the quote was from the same interview. It was a long time ago, though, and it might have been something else I read at the same time. My memory has an odd way of linking things together that haven't any place being there.

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