Police Misconduct in Literature

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.

139 thoughts on “Police Misconduct in Literature

  1. Mrs. Pollifax. Like Mrs. Marple, only she travels. Also, I have seen cases on TV where the case was very, even to my untrained eye, VERY obviously a homicide classified as suicide because the cops were to lazy to investigate. Grrrrr………..

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  2. Dave…read The God of Small Things received stellar reviews in major American newspapers such as The New York Times
    So I decided to read the book, Arundhati. Roy’s debut novel . It was a story of sad and bitter souls of miserable people. In the World there are sad people who become healing sould trying to change the World, but not in this book.
    In this one Baby Kochama became a bitter soul decided to ruin other peoples lives.
    One sad book altogether, that was the only book I read of Roy. !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have not read any of Stephen King `s book of creepiness as I have heard, but have seen the movie Misery. But like his political views.

      John Grisham is another story, I have read most of his thrillers .
      Rogue Lawyer`s police misbehavior would make one`s blood boil.
      BUT then there’s the one thriller The Racketeer,where Malcolm Bannister is an African American attorney in a small-town, who was wrongfully sent to Prison for the crime he never committed.
      Oh what a book, but Mr. Grisham was so hungover on Denzel Washington, the movie was never made.
      Now there are so many excellent Black actors ( not Will Smith, sorry Dave I couldn’t help myself) One young actor is Michael B. Jordan…awesome A list actor..

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe!

      “The God of Small Things” is also the only Arundhati Roy book I’ve read, and I agree that it’s VERY sad — and a terrific novel. Definitely deserved the stellar reviews you mentioned.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Albert Campion – as he likes to be known, – though it’s hinted that he might be even posher than Wimsey.
    Add Magersfontein Lugg, ex-burglar, and other criminals, ,
    Prefer Lugg to Harriet Vane.

    Miss Marple ? Should head every single official,inquiry, in any country, never believes what she’s been told. .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther, for those interesting mentions — two of which I wasn’t familiar with. Harriet Vane is okay, but, if I’m remembering correctly, she was more a writer than an investigator.

      Like

  4. You must read a Dorothy Gilman Mrs. Pollifax novel if you haven’t already! Mrs. Pollifax accidentally becomes a widowed octagenarian CIA operative. Such a fun read! There are several of them to choose from.

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    • Thank you, Susi! Two terrific mentions! “Invisible Man” is quite a novel and quite a depiction of American racism — which has always had a law-enforcement component. 😦

      Like

  5. I was hoping you would mention the Hate U Give. That book has stuck with me even to this day. I often find myself thinking about it and the many lessons I drew from it. Perhaps more than any other, it taught me a great deal about race and the police force. I also might mention Colson Whitehead’s newest book, “the Harlem Shuffle,” which has many police officers corrupted through bribery in the criminal underworld of Harlem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, “The Hate U Give” is a powerful novel — for its social commentary, its plot, the characters, Angie Thomas’ writing style, and more. Definitely memorable.

      And bribery of some police officers is indeed a problem. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • You have the best topics Dave – ones that challenge us to consider our value systems. This one deals with “trust.” A quick internet search speaks to the issue of trust of public institutions, those that we hold to be accountable and for the public good. We have come a long ways since the days of The Andy Griffith Show. As you know, 2022 is my year for reading books that fall outside my usual range of reading. So far, It has been a wonderful year of reading:

        1) Tarquin Hall’s “The Case of the Reincarnated Client.” (I just downloaded The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken)

        2) Lawrence Blocks’s “The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza.” (The name Spinoza was a draw)

        3) Ann Cleeves “Raven Black” – this is part of the Shetland Series. I also want to read Ann Cleeves “Vera Series.” I have watched the TV adaptations of both and I am compelled to read her books. Brenda Blethyn is a fantastic Vera. I have read that Ann Cleaves is involved in the productions! https://youtu.be/lBUlwGAtAJ0

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  6. (Spoiler alert) In Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” the inspector Colonel Julyan covers up a murder to protect the reputation of Maximillian de Winter.

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  7. A couple of the comments under this topic heading are in a small way an homage to the late Philip Spitzer, literary agent, who specialized in representing literary detective fiction writers. Among his clients: James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly. And, though not a crime writer, Andre Dubus, himself a fine writer of short fiction, and father of Andre Dubus III, author of “The House of Sand and Fog”.

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      • Yes, he was. In fact he sent out Burke’s first book to over 100 publishers before finding him a willing one. Connelly chose Spitzer because he’s heard of his tenacity re Burke.

        He was my beloved Amanda Moores’ agent too, who, after Simon and Schuster signed and then dropped her first novel “Dream Palace”, sold it to publishers Carroll and Graf– and she was entirely unknown, having nothing in print previously– so he managed to sell her book twice!

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Wonderful post and so true re how heroes of crime novels are mostly lone wolfs.A great point. I was thinking about Sam Spade, Marlowe and Rowlins on the way down the post and there they were. Maybe there’s more ‘bad’ than ‘good’ cops in literature about cos, let’s face it, it makes better reading.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. It would be a very short list indeed– examples in crime fiction in which the main protagonist is a policeman, and does not bend the rules, insist on persisting after told to move along to other matters, does not strong-arm suspects, suppress evidence, plant evidence, etc., etc.—
    all of which stems from a decidedly unliberal trope: that the police cannot fight crime without resorting to sketchy, if not illegal behavior themselves, so constrained they are by overly-permissive laws and effete pols out of touch with real life on the mean streets. Against which, often bloody but never unbowed, one man stands– at odds with regulations and societal de-evolution.

    This of course is pure fantasy– one need only see the lack of accountability for US police violence to see it. But as the readers of these things are likely to be as out-of-touch with those mean streets as the fictional pols, it makes for a sort of comforting experience: to be all toasty-warm in one’s bed while reading about iconoclastic lone-wolf cops with a streak of independence a mile wide going after bad guys worse than any we’ve seen on perp walks during the evening news.

    I expect that a study of the history of American police fiction would show that it derived out of Wild West dime novels, which set the tone for rugged individualist lawmen in lawless cattle and mining towns, facing down anarchic cowboys and miners on benders, and the occasional gunslinger or gambler with a grudge against authority– to the delight of local shopkeepers, aspiring upright citizens and, once in print, adolescent boys with ten cents to burn.

    Readers, I should know: I read these things myself, most of the time between bouts of literature. In my defense, I recognize the fiction as fiction.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! MANY terrific observations, vividly said! Yes, there’s the massive trope of the bend-the-rules cop in fiction doing what has to be done. Of course, in real life such a cop will often grievously harm innocent people, and “punch down” rather than “punch up” as the rich and powerful (often crooks themselves) are protected.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Your last sentence is one big reason I like Donna Leone’s Brunetti and Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano. The first investigates crime in Venice, the second in Sicily. Throughout their respective series, the detectives run up against corruption and entrenched criminality in high, even unreachable places– and wisely see it for what it is, and only occasionally risk lives– their own or others– or careers, in (futile) opposition. Cynical, sure, but it’s how they stay healthy.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Interesting, jhNY. Their hearts are in the right place, but they have some self-preserving caution. In contrast, the heroine and hero (not detectives per se) of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” etc., are real risk-takers as they expose corruption in high places.

          Liked by 1 person

  10. Dave, you have this covered quite well.
    The only books I can think of are the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Garner.
    Okay, he was a lawyer, not a cop. He was a good guy, but could be sneaky, especially with his questioning, and telling Della what to say as to not get herself in legal trouble, while not giving the exact information.
    Anyway, your last paragraph deals with “other” sleuths, and I think Perry fits in nicely.
    Fab post!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Resa! Lawyers can definitely be investigators in a way; I see how Perry Mason has sleuth-like qualities. (“‘Isn’t it true’…that Perry Mason has sleuth-like qualities?” “Yes, it’s true.” 🙂 ) I’ve never read any of the Erle Stanley Garner books, but did see a number of “Perry Mason” TV reruns back in the day.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I am a fanatic re “Perry Mason” the teevee show– I own the series on dvd, and watch its weeknight broadcasts on cable. I have probably seen each episode literally 6 times, possibly more– and there are well over 200 hours of the show.

      But only once have I encountered Erle Stanley Gardner in print, and it was long ago, in a Salvation Army used book section, and only for a few minutes. At the time, I wasn’t bowled over by the prose, but I would be happy to learn his stuff is worth a second look.

      Is it? (By the way, Gardner’s papers reside at the University of TX Library in Austin, should you live close or wish to visit).

      Liked by 4 people

        • That is certainly my suspicion, but I would be happy to be wrong, adding though that might be to the TBR pile tottering dangerously overhead.

          Gardner despised all screen attempts to put his Mason onscreen before the series, most ably produced by teevee pioneer Gail Patrick Jackson (She herself had a career playing stuck-up rich girls in the movies, most memorably in “My Man Godfrey.”. I’ve seen some, and Gardner was right.

          An aside: both Burr and Talman, Mason and Burger respectively, had enjoyed some successes on the silver screen– as creeps and heavies almost always. That’s a transition few have made, then or now.

          Liked by 3 people

      • OMG!
        You are the biggest fan I have ever met.
        I need to know:
        Okay, apparently there was 1…. only 1 episode for tv ever made where Perry lost the case. There are 3 in the book series.
        Trying to remember what I’d read, more than once. It aired on a Friday 13, or Hallowe’en.
        Have you seen that episode?
        I also read that it was never aired again,after that.
        I like ESG’s writing.
        For me it’s the cases and the characters.
        So, before I say to you, it’s worth another read, (prose wise) I’m going to read The Case Of The Velvet Claws.
        I just found where we can download all of the Perry Mason books.
        So excited!!!
        Unfortunately, I live in Canada. I would adore to see his papers.
        Thank you for that bit of info!
        Will get back to you!
        I’m a turtle reader, so don’t hold your breath… but I will get back!

        Liked by 4 people

        • Perhaps the case to which you refer is “The Case of the Terrified Typist”, in which Mason defends a man who is, after all, guilty of murder as charged. BUT the guilty man has been operating under a false name, assuming the identity of another, who is, after all, innocent of the crime– and that’s the man Mason had assumed he was defending. But I may be wrong, since this episode airs regularly.

          Another one-off: there is a single episode in living color: the very last one, made during contract negotiations for the next season, which had been planned to air in color form that point forward. The series was cancelled altogether by CBS.

          I am not the biggest Perry Mason fan that I know. That place of honor is reserved for an old bandmate of mine, who has seen it all more often than I have, and loves it without reservation. The series has proved a durable subject of email correspondence between us over the last two years, right up till yesterday when he revealed the wonders of LA’s Angels’ Flight, world’s shortest rail service, which has operated with but one interruption since the first decade of the 20th century– incidentally, Angel’s Flight is the setting for a scene in a “Perry Mason” episode– the very last one!

          I look forward to your re-assessment of that “Velvet Claws” novel!

          Liked by 3 people

  11. “The Bat” was the first book in the Nordic noir series by Jo Nesbo about the police officer, Harry Hole. Although interesting and well written, I was surprised how the story showed him threatening many people (good and bad), getting into somewhat unrelated physical altercations, and generally acting in a rather outlandish manner even though he was a “visiting” police officer from another country. Not sure if this type of behavior continues in the later books…

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Thanks for another interesting perspective of the books we love. After my early initiation into crime fiction by Agatha Christie, I fell in love with the genre. Since moving to the USA, my favorite crime novelist is Michael Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times. In his Harry Bosch series, a Los Angeles police detective who later becomes a private investigator, Connelly is not shy of revealing the corrupt elements within the LA police force and its political intrigues.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Great mention of that Michael Connelly character! The one novel I’ve read by that author is “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which I liked a lot. It’s not a Harry Bosch book, but it apparently stars Bosch’s half-brother.

      Liked by 4 people

  13. Hi Dave I need to think about this topic a bit more but Mr Goon from Enid Blyton’s Five Findouters series sprang to mind. The children repeatedly humiliate and outsmart Mr Goon. Mr Plod from her Noddy series is also shown often in an unfavorable light.

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    • Hi Dave, I am not much of a read of detective stories or thrillers so my interactions with ‘bad cops’ are limited. I have read all of Aggie Christie’s Hercule Poirot books and all the Miss Marple ones too. I do like dystopian books so I have read several that aim to discredit governments and their policies including 1984, Brave New World and the like. Stephen King is very critical of certain departments of the US Government and select aspects of politics and the functioning of government and elections, and this is highlighted in several of his books. Firestartere and The Stand, in particular, come to mind, as well as The Dead Zone. I never finished reading The Dome, but that one too included this sort of critisism.

      Liked by 1 person

    • That new series, Bia? I haven’t seen whole episodes, but watched a bunch of clips on YouTube. It looks fantastic! And the actor who plays Reacher is a MUCH better fit for the role than Tom Cruise was.

      Have you seen the series? If so, what did you think?

      Liked by 2 people

  14. In a crime series by James Lee Burke, Dave Robicheaux is a detective affiliated with the Iberia sheriff’s office. He was formerly a homicide detective in NOLA. He’s also flawed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Leah! I’ve had James Lee Burke on my to-read list for a while, but have yet to try his work. (My local library has a number of his Dave Robicheaux books, but not the first one in the series — “The Neon Rain.” 😦 ) I will get to him; I’m very interested.

      Liked by 3 people

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