Following is a guest post that I shared recently with Omnimystery News. If you love mysteries, check their website out. You’ll find book reviews, author interviews, trailers for mystery TV shows and movies and more. It’s a great site.
Police procedurals are my favorite mysteries to read because the foundation of the story is reality based. The crime may be fictional, but the police work should be factual. As a reader, it’s easier to drop into a story if I know it’s plausible. I suppose it’s the ability to live vicariously through the eyes of a cop which appeals to me most.
As a writer of procedurals, it’s important to deliver a realistic portrayal of the police work. Obviously the mundane parts of the job are removed from the story, but the actual investigation should ring true. I’m married to an investigator with the Indiana State Police, so I have a fantastic resource for my own series. Most importantly, I have my husband’s perspective on the emotional aspects of being a cop: the fear, the anxiety, the thrill, the heart pounding dread of walking into a dark home where shots have been fired with no knowledge of what lies around the corner.
I once read that Joseph Wambaugh, another writer of police procedurals, said that his main purpose is less to show how cops work on the job, than how the job works on cops. I think of that often. When I began working on my series, I developed my main character, Josie Gray, to show the humanity in police work that is often missing from the sixty minute cop drama.
I mentioned my husband is a police officer; my father in law was also a lieutenant for the Indiana State Police. Police officers see things in their line of duty that we don’t have to. Movies and TV shows give us a glimpse, but the shows don’t show the long term toll the job takes. Shows like CSI and NCIS miss the smaller dramas. Imagine walking into your neighbor’s house and finding the wife lying bruised and crying on the living room floor, begging you not to arrest her husband. Imagine arresting a fellow church member for purchasing heroine from a high school kid. These aren’t worthy of an episode of CSI, but they mentally exhaust the men and women that enter into the middle of these family dramas on a daily basis.
Six months of service on a federal grand jury a few years ago helped round out my knowledge of the criminal justice system, and it provided another real-life glimpse into the lives of law enforcement officers. It was fascinating to watch a multitude of agencies work together with the United States Attorney’s office to prosecute federal crimes. I came to understand not only what the various agencies do, but the high degree of professionalism that the officers bring to the job.
As jurors, our job was to hear cases every other week for the 6 month period to decide if there was enough evidence to indict. It was a fascinating experience for me as a citizen, but especially as a writer watching the legal system in action. We saw a surprising number of child pornography cases. Because child porn is typically transported across state lines via the internet, it can be prosecuted as a federal crime (thus making the penalties harsher). One case in particular involved a group of five girls who were brought in to testify in front of the grand jury to see if they could hold up under the pressure of a trial. The man that abused them was a monster and watching those little girls on the stand was an experience I will never forget.
What affected me almost as much as listening to the little girls, was listening to the testimony of a female FBI agent who spent several weeks with us testifying. She was in her late twenties, professional, she never broke down or showed her emotions on the stand, but her eyes haunted me for weeks. As a writer you wish you could capture that depth of emotion in words. She was a young woman who had already seen too much bad in her life. And, she goes back to that every day.
I’ve found most law officers to be fairly quiet people who don’t boast, they don’t talk about the horrors that they see, but they definitely sacrifice something of themselves for the job. My main character, Josie Gray, the Chief of Police in Artemis, Texas, is a tribute of sorts to that FBI agent and the sacrifices she makes for the rest of us.