I was going to title this post "Writing the Police Procedural," because I am a traditional kind of guy. I think the term procedural has fallen by the wayside, however, because it connotes a book heavy on legwork/forensic detail and light on characterization.
I have to say, I think the police book is at a crossroads. Looking at the types of books that are really selling these days, I can't say that I see a lot of straight police stories, along the lines of what Dell Shannon, Georges Simenon, and Ed McBain did. The lack of such books may seem counterintuitive, given TV's obsession with CSI and Law & Order-type shows. This may be just the ebbs and flows of the market, or it may have to do with increasing resentment of police in many areas of the country. From what I understand, different cities/counties/areas have widely differing perceptions of their police forces. New York City police are generally considered friendly and helpful, Los Angeles police quite the opposite.
That said, I still do see plenty of queries and police-based manuscripts, so today's installment will be my two cents on writing the police novel.
1. WOW US WITH TECHNOLOGY. Certainly law-enforcement agencies have developed a pretty amazing, and interesting, set of tools to aid them in bringing perps to justice. We've moved far beyond the Identi-Kit and into DNA analysis, crime scene computer simulations, international databases, and the like. The more interesting police novels I've seen lately take advantage of opportunities to impress the reader with some of these technologies and how they work. Of course, the novel shouldn't devolve into a technical textbook. And the technology itself does offer good opportunities to explore social and ethical issues, as well as character-based development. For instance, in most police forces there is the "old guard" and the young Turks; the availability of technology offers the older set the ability to solve crimes based on good, old-fashioned policing skills and show the young hotshots a thing or two (and this is but one example).
2. GIVE US SOME CREATIVE CRIMES. By "creative crimes," I'm not talking about some crazed serial killer who leaves a bizarre calling card (such as an exotic species of tulip, or a page from an 18th century novel--you get the picture) with each disemboweled body. I mean crimes that seem to have no rhyme or reason, no motive, no easy suspects. The late great Dell Shannon always managed to work in a crazy crime among the rapes, murders, and stabbings: in Cold Trail, for example, she tried her hand at a locked-room mystery; and in Felony at Random she had a case in which an unknown tipster keeps turning in the same hapless man as the perp for any crime committed in the city of Los Angeles. For those who read crime fiction, the typical crimes can become part of the scenery; Shannon understood the need to shake it up. As Ms. Shannon herself once wrote, "If my fictional people seem to see more offbeat cases than real-life police officers do, well, first and foremost, fiction's purpose is to entertain the reader."
3. WORK WITH AN ENSEMBLE. While a strong central character is a must, a good supporting cast can really make the book work (and provide you with ample plotlines for a series). I'd like to see the supporting cast move beyond the usual types--you know, the wise-cracking girl in the file department; the morbid weirdos who work in the morgue or the M.E.'s office; the tough, world-weary cookies who work in Forensics. One of Shannon's cops was a devout Christian, which brought an interesting perspective to some cases. And Steve Carella's wife was deaf, which added depth and interest to the Carellas' relationship.
4. EXPLORE THE DARK SIDE. Something that Shannon never really did - or McBain either, if memory serves - was explore why these people chose to become cops or detectives. Where I live, for example, a lot of people do it for the salary, the benefits, and the early retirement age. There's not much desire to serve the public or see justice done, but there is a lot of politicking for benefits and salary increases. I'm not suggesting that all cops are like this, but some are -- and this type of conflict (between those who do it because they're justice-oriented, and those who do it because it's the family business) could make for some provocative reading. And let's not forget, too, that some cops (again, not all) are bullies on a power trip, or have entered the force because they have authority issues, and so on. Mixing up the various types in your fiction can have explosively good results.
5. DON'T GET OVERLY BROODY. A lot of today's cops are depressive/depressed loners, sometimes alcoholics or drug addicts. A little of that is fine, but I don't think that depression keeps a lot of readers coming back for more. I think one can write serious crime fiction without it becoming a morass of sadness with no rays of light. The guys of the LAPD and the 87th precinct had their share of laughs and wackiness over the years; and I can't think of too many jobs where people don't find a way to share some fun.
6. BRING CLOSURE. This is true for all of crime fiction, not just police books. Ambiguous endings can be good, but for a lot of people, I think they are a source of frustration. Most readers do need to see the main plot resolved and tied up with a neat little bow, in order to feel that they haven't been gypped. I think there can be subplots that go from book to book in a series, but that the book's main plot must be resolved by the final page. Though he's not a police novelist, F. Paul Wilson, author of the Repairman Jack series, does a nice job with this. Each book has some supernatural elements that follow Jack from book to book, but the main crime to be solved in each novel is completely taken care of by the end. Look, too, at Eve Dallas and Roarke - after 30 or so "In Death" books, we're still learning about Eve and Roarke's pasts. But the main crime is brought to a satisfactory resolution in each and every book.
7. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Just as there is no excuse for sloppy policework (criminals get off because of it), there's no excuse for sloppy research if you're going to right about police and their procedures. There are plenty of good books out there to help you with the details; and in most cases, local police forces will be happy to answer your questions. Please get the details of the court system right, as well as things like the Miranda warning and what types of searches/seizures are legal and which are not.