I’m currently mid way through a very stimulating course at the University of Liverpool; Crime Fiction Under Investigation. As an avid reader of crime fiction I’m finding that the course is giving me much food for thought.
Up until the mid 20th century most crime novels were set in country houses and featured characters who were all frightfully rich. Hardly surprising then that Raymond Chandler talked about his intention to “take the body out of the vicarage garden and give murder back to those who are good at it!”
In most of these novels the mystery is solved not by the Police but by an amateur such as Sherlock Holmes or Lord Peter Wimsey. These gentleman detectives have two main things in common. Firstly, their motivation for solving the crime is intellectual curiosity rather than any social or moral responsibility. Secondly, they are openly contemptuous of the Police, often dismissing them as incompetent and socially inferior.
This patronising attitude to the Police by The Establishment was by no means confined to fiction. Up to WW2 it was quite common for Chief Constables to be recently retired military men (colonels, admirals etc) because career policemen were seen as having neither the education nor the social standing necessary for the job.
It seems to me that many members of the chattering classes still look down on the Police. Just this month the Government was considering a proposal that all new Police entrants should be graduates, presumably with a view to making the intake more middle class.
Even in modern crime fiction, the Police are often not sympathetically portrayed. Fictional Police detectives such as Rebus and Morse are shown as mavericks who succeed in solving crimes without much help from their colleagues and in spite of interference from their superiors.
In the real world, public sector budget cuts mean that Police forces are increasingly being asked to do more work with fewer resources. It will be interesting to see if our attitude, and the attitude of crime novelists, to the Police changes as a result.