John Grisham and Stephen King
Many media outlets treat law enforcement positively. Among the reasons? They rely on the police for information, and they know that mostly avoiding negative coverage about law enforcement is the “safe” thing to do given that most of those in power and a significant percentage of the public have positive views of the police.
Of course, law-enforcement people deserve admiration to an extent, but there are too many instances of cops being untruthful, corrupt, racist, far right in ideology, guilty of using excessive force, etc. Interestingly, a number of novelists haven’t hesitated to take a warts-and-all approach when law enforcement is part of some of their books.
I was struck by this when just reading John Grisham’s page-turning Rogue Lawyer, which is chock-full of police misbehavior that will make your blood boil. The 2015 novel offers some wish-fulfillment of law enforcement not totally getting away with dismaying deeds (justice that rarely happens in real life) yet there is not always punishment in Grisham’s book.
In the early pages of another recent novel, Angie Thomas’ 2017-published The Hate U Give, a white police officer needlessly shoots an unarmed young black male who’s a childhood friend of the book’s teen protagonist Starr Carter. The rest of the excellent novel explores the impact and aftermath of that awful murder.
During the 1990s, among the novels that were no fan of some law-enforcement people were Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, with its very likable “Untouchable” character Velutha being savagely beaten by police; and Stephen King’s Rose Madder, in which Rose’s policeman husband Norman Daniels is viciously abusive to her. King’s 2002 novel From a Buick 8 takes a more positive view of law-enforcement officers.
In the back story of James Baldwin’s 1953 classic Go Tell it On the Mountain, we learn that the biological father of young African-American protagonist John Grimes was brutally beaten by racist police after being wrongfully arrested for stealing and refusing to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.
Les Miserables? Grimly obsessed Inspector Javert doesn’t exactly leave Jean Valjean alone in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.
Of course, detectives are frequently the heroes or heroines (albeit often flawed ones) in crime novels. But they tend to be lone-wolf private investigators or amateur sleuths rather than directly aligned with the police. Among the many examples of those characters are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, and Lee Child’s former military police guy Jack Reacher. (Reacher is not a detective per se but is certainly great at investigating things.)
Any literary works you’d like to mention that fit this theme?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which comments on a local hotel with rich ownership not paying what it owes to my town — is here.