Friday, September 3, 2010

Sept Dare Day 2 - Policeman As Community Member

I'm a little behind on the critiques I meant to do yesterday. That's partly because the first one was tough. (It was a case where the author had a good thing going, and the problems were subtle but important. Hard to explain without making it sound worse than it was.)

In the meantime, I want to wrap up my series of posts on different kinds of police characters in the amateur sleuth story. (Most of these archetypes also apply to private eye stories too.) I'm talking about supporting and secondary characters, here.

The last archetype I want to talk about is the police officer as community member. Often police are depicted as outsiders, or at least someone in a position which strictly separates personal and professional. We assume that they have homes and families, and yes, a particular policeman may take things personally and not be perfectly armored and separated from society. But on the job, their position is to be a little detached.

But that's not always the place of the policeman in fiction. We can start with the negative stereotypes of the town sheriff who is also the town boss, or a corrupt cop who represents a community of gangsters instead of the law. These are common in hard-boiled detective fiction. Sometimes those policemen are bosses, and sometimes errand boys - but wherever they fall in the pecking order, they aren't about the law or the rules. They're about the clan.

And there are positive versions of these guys. From Andy Taylor to most of the sheriffs in westerns - these are the guys who take care of their community and protect it. I was just watching the wonderful Altman flick Cookie's Fortune. Like all Robert Altman films, this is a joyful story about community (even if there is a pot-boiler crime story driving the plot). At one point in the story, the smart detective from the state shows up to take over the investigation, and the local deputy insists he's wrong about the chief suspect. "How do you know it's not him?" asks the smart guy from the state . "'Cause I've fished with him," says the deputy.

When I think about it, I realize that this is the model used most outside of mystery fiction (which makes sense - the police as characters, not positions). And it's the model I use the most myself. It's very flexible. You can mix this model with just about any of the others. You can have any kind of character at all.

In my work-in-progress, Sheriff Walter "Rosie" Rosewalt is definitely the protector of the community type. I wanted to make him a chief of police, but I realized that this town is too small for it's own police force, and that in similar counties in the region I'm writing about, the only police are usually the county sheriff's office. As this town is the county seat, it works out in terms of location of the office as well.

Rosie has certainly fished with any number of local suspects, and been mushrooning, and donated stuff to the local rummage sales, and his wife undoubtedly has provided cassaroles for the funeral suppers of any number of victims of local crimes and accidents. (And probably was their teacher in school too.)

But more importantly for the story, Rosie is also the protagonist's uncle. And since Karla is the daughter of Rosie's hippy-dippy younger sister, the whole concept of authority is right out the window. (Not that she doesn't respect him, it's just that he's "Uncle Rosie" and besides he's The Man, and there are things you can't tell The Man about.) This gets around one of the problems with the police as a more fully rounded character who is tied up in the community: you don't have as much excuse for your amateur sleuth getting involved.

It's easier to use this kind of model in the more suspense type story. With suspense, the main character usually gets wrapped up in something that involves deep dark secrets, and often can't simply step back and let the police handle it.

I think Rosie will provide some good cozy conflict for the series. Both Karla and George like Rosie, and even look up to him, but Rosie knows that neither one of them can be trusted. He knows that whatever it is they are up to, it's probably benign (at least on Karla's part) but certainly misguided and possibly illegal.

And that's needed for this series. Unlike some sleuthing pairs, neither George nor Karla disapproves of the other's sleuthing and risk taking. They encourage each other altogether too much. They're like the original Chip and Dale. (Not the Rescue Rangers.) Any conflict is playful bantering. Rosie, I think, completes the model by providing a little balance.

Of course, this is the first story, so these elements are just developing. But for any series, you have to think ahead to where it is going. And I think in this case, the supporting cop is definitely a part of a sleuthing trio.

( The other entries in the series are Columbo Ex-Machina, The Dismissive Policeman, and Policeman As Nemesis.)

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