Have crime writers fallen out of love with their maverick detectives?
When I started writing my Hate Crimes series I knew I wanted a DI who would put being a good man ahead of being a good detective, because as much as I have loved reading about those hard-fighting, hard-drinking, whoring bad boys of crime fiction, they have increasingly come to feel like an anachronism and nothing whips me out of a story faster than seeing a 1980s character walk into a 2016 scene.
And I’m not alone on this. An interesting trend is emerging among a new clutch of authors, that of the detective as a thoroughly ‘modern men’. These are ordinary guys, more thoughtful than brooding, loving partners, attentive fathers, who bring the sensitivity they show in their personal lives into the station with them. They’re the kind of coppers you’d hope to have on your side if you were a victim; decent enough to genuinely care, tough enough get your vengeance.
Sarah Hilary’s hugely successful Marnie Rome series features a DS of rare sensitivity. Black and gay, Noah Jake is something of an outsider in the fictional crime landscape but an absolutely credible and right product of contemporary London. While lesser writers might have played his race and sexuality as a source of angst, Hilary ‘consciously wanted Noah to be untroubled.’ In some ways he is the emotional core of the books, the character who often reflects the reader’s own discomfort at the unfolding horror. Happily coupled-up, a steadying influence on his wilder younger brother and, sadly for him, an occasional victim, Noah is one of the most modern men in the genre.
Helen Cadbury has created a male lead who we follow through the early years of career as a PCSO and into uniform in the latest book, Bones in the Nest. Newly minted PC Sean Denton is, like Noah Jake, from a tough background on a council estate, and he defies the stereotypes too commonly laid on working class men. A generation ago he would have been a head breaker, utilising the lessons learned from his violent father, but Cadbury takes a more original route with Sean, creating a young, enthusiastic copper, whose sharp eye and good sense allow him to overcoming the challenges of his early life.
That softer, more measured intelligence is the great draw of Susi Holliday’s ‘feather-haired mod’ copper, Davie Grey. Holliday ‘consciously tried to make him just a normal man, not someone with any particularly odd quirks, or someone who pushes any boundaries, but just tries to do his job and live a quiet life.’ He stands as the stable core of Holliday’s novels, taking in waifs and strays, attracting dangerous women, and his calm allows her swirl up a maelstrom of dark and deviant motives around him. Davie also drives a vintage scooter, which I think we can all agree is very cool and totally metrosexual.
If you’re starting to think ‘oh, well, that’s just women writing the kind of men they think should be policing the streets,’ you would be dead wrong.
David Mark, creator of gentle giant DS Aector McAvoy, said he envisaged his leading man as someone ‘more like the coppers I knew as a journalist. Decent enough, a bit baffled, generally aware of their ineffectiveness but no less eager to help, and overall very keen to get home for a shepherd’s pie and a box-set with their families.’ He is a character readers have quickly come to love and root for and I think a large part of his appeal lies in his dedication to his family.
Howard Linksey’s DC Ian Bradshaw in No Name Lane is another man beset by self doubt, uncertain about his capability to do the job to such a serious degree that he suffers through anxiety attacks and depression. It doesn’t make him a lesser copper, it just shows that he is a better man who can step back and analyse his role, working through his demons without falling into alcoholism or recreational brutality.
Even in period series like William Shaw’s, set in 1960s London, the new man gives a fresh perspective on a culture riddled with casual racism and sexism. Shaw acknowledges that DS Cathal Breen is ‘a man out of time,’ but his original life as a bit of a blokey bloke was derailed by the need to put aside drinking and brawling to look after his father, who was suffering from dementia. That caring role, followed by the loss of his father, allowed Shaw to explore ‘how men who don’t fit the stereotype might actually be stronger.’
So where has that impetus to find a different kind of detective come from?
I believe it’s mainly because crime fiction tends to be at the cutting edge of social change and the falling away of the mavericks is a reflection of how men live now. They increasingly expect a better work/life balance, they want to spend more time with their partners and children, rather than doing a ten hour shift and then another four in the pub as their fathers’ generation would.
But perhaps increasing mistrust of the police plays a part in this too. After a series of high-profile and suspicious deaths in custody, exposure of institutional racism after the Stephen Lawrence murder and revelations of undercover operatives embarking on improper relationships with their targets, authors and the readers are in no doubt what a danger the ‘loose cannon’ police officer poses.
Crime fiction needs its heroes to bring the world back into balance as the final page is turned and, while we’ll tolerate a little bit of rule bending, the characters who think the rules just don’t apply to them no longer pass for good guys.
After You Die by Eva Dolan is published by Vintage