Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.


I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.









37 thoughts on “Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

  1. curtis evans says:

    I don’t know how many comments you’ll get on this one, as it’s such a painstaking and detailed post in and of itself. I’ll just add on the Crofts matter that, while I think his police tecs, especially Inspector French, are very important as “everyday man” type police sleuths, Crofts by his own admission isn’t trying to do police procedurals.

    As Chandler said, Crofts was the best detail man in detective fiction, but he’s interested in things like timetables and alibi construction, not realistic police procedure. Jane Vosper is his best effort on the latter score–you do get more of a sense of a working police force and not just Inspector French tootling around–but a lot of Crofts’ books are actually rather weak on police detail (there’s one where Crofts wishes in vain the police had an expert like Dr. Thorndyke to do an analysis of the dust in a car compartment–surely there was someone to whom he could have gone!

    Also, Henry Wade wrote two novels that can legitimately be called procedurals, I think, one of which Lonely Magdalen, has been reprinted. There’s a caveat that it has a middle “flashback” section that is more like a straight novel.

    Simenon surely wasn’t interested in as “mundane” a matter as police procedure. I can recall reading only book by him, Madame Maigret’s Friend, that really felt much like a procedural. A French author of a book on Simenon did an amusing catalog of all the errors in police detail in the investigation Maigret conducts in The Crossroads Murder (or whatever the exact translation is).

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Thanks, Curtis, for “painstaking and detailed”; I hate not having access to all the books I talk about so that I can do a really thorough job, but I did try to chew the topic to the bone as best I could. And thanks for your comments on books and authors that you know a lot more about than I do! It will help people come to their own conclusions more easily.

  2. davidsimmons6 says:

    Having read the bulk of the 103 works in the Maigret series, I’d say they are not police procedurals except for the fact that the protagonist is a policeman.

    Thanks for a great essay!

  3. Albert says:

    The police procedural is a subgenre of the mystery story. I would define the police procedural as follows:
    1. It is a story concerning a detective who works for a governmental investigative organization
    2. the direct focus of whose plot is the description of standard investigative routine
    3. of criminal offenses.

    The important point which differentiates the police procedural from other types of mystery stories is that the focus of the plot is on the investigative process itself. All types of investigative characters, the Great Detective, the amateur, the private eye, the spy etc., use logical thought and investigative techniques, but in those cases the focus of the plot will tend to be on the various types of interactions between the characters: the situation in the country house, the presentation of the clues, the problem of the femme fatale, the double cross or what have you. But in the police procedural, the focus of the story is on the investigative method itself.

    Let me explain what I mean. In “The Aluminum Dagger” by R. Austin Freeman, Dr. Thorndyke is called to the scene of an apparent locked room murder via dagger. Thorndyke examines the body, makes a few observations, and the tells the police they need to search the grounds of the house for a peculiar metal washer of which he draws a picture. The police search the grounds and find the washer. This confirms his hypothesis as to the manner of death and a few more deductions net the murder.

    In the case of Inspector Burnley, the principle investigator of Croft’s The Cask, I can guarantee that he would never make the expert deductions of Dr. Thorndyke. He hasn’t got either the intelligence or the training. Nonetheless, he would still solve the case. The reason why is that in a murder case it would be routine procedure for the police to search the house and grounds of the site of a murder and pick up any object which appeared to be out of place. Burnley would then determine that the washer seemed odd, and send it for chemical and microscopic analysis, from there chemical residue and pertinent markings would be detected, and then even Burnley would be able to determine the solution to the case.

    In other words, in the scientific field there are two types of investigators. The first type is the genius. The apple falls, and from a few immediate facts Newton at once leaps to the big picture, to the law of gravitation. He moves instantly from induction to deduction using very few facts. The other kind of scientist is the ordinary working scientist. He can grub for many years making more and more experiments and determining more and more facts, until finally no one can deny the evident conclusion. The great detective, Holmes, Thorndyke etc. is the genius. Inspector Maigret also fits into this camp. A few facts enable the great detective to leap at once to the truth. The pleasure in this sort of story is the awe induced by the intellectual feat.

    The police, on the other hand, do not have the intellect of the Great Detective. What they do is to substitute method, tenacity, manpower and teamwork in place of genius. By stretching the sieve wide enough they anticipate they will gain enough facts to make the hidden truth more evident to the average intellect. In fact, you have to; Real-life great detectives are few and far between.

    Part of the definition of the police procedural is that it generally employs a team of detectives. I think this is probably the case. The reason why is that realistic police investigation in the modern world involves a number of specialties and the operation of the sieve requires manpower. Even if your protagonist is the single sheriff in a small town, he will still need the services of the county coroner, the county lab specialists and so on. Even Dr. Thorndyke, who is an expert physician, lawyer, investigator and artisan, cannot do it all: he had to rely on police manpower to find the washer.

    The next question is, to whom should we attribute the invention of the novel of police method?
    1. Freeman Wills Croft, The Cask (1920): A suspicious cask disappears from a ship. Initial investigating officer is Inspector Burnley. Crofts describes him as doing the following:
    1. Searches the ship and the wharf
    2. Obtains all the paperwork relating to the cask.
    3. Questions the captain, the engineers, and then every other member of the crew.
    4. Obtains a description of a person who might have obtained custody of the cask.
    5. Obtains notification from a plain-clothes office named Ralston that he had succeeded is tracing the cask to a particular location and then lost it, the receives another notification from a police station they had also had a sighting of the cask. He then plots the sightings on a map in an attempt to determine probable location.
    6. Burnley consults with a number of other officers, including an Constable Walker and a Sgt. Hastings.
    7. There is more of this sort of thing. The cask is located. Examination discloses it contains a dead body.
    8. The body is inspected by a physician and arrangements are made for a post-mortem examination and a toxicology report.
    9. The body is photographed and measured and the cask and clothing are examined.
    10. Burnley now has to determine the identity of the corpse. Since it is believed the cask has been consigned from Paris, Burnley goes to Paris to enlist the aid of M. Lefarge of the Surete. Burnley brings with him a description of the deceased and the autopsy report. He begins the search by attempting to trace the decedent’s clothing and the origin of the cask.

    I could go on and on, but I think the point is plain. This novel involves the efforts of a group of police officials to solve a criminal case by the employment of the standard police investigative procedures available at the time. The focus of the book, indeed the entire focus of the book, to the exclusion of everything else, is the description of the investigative procedure. This is the entire book and there is nothing else there. Characterization is minimal. Description is only of what is needed. There is dialogue, but no one would say it sparkled. Of humor there is no trace. Romance picked up the hem of her gown and fled precipitously a long time age. This is the first such book I can trace in point of time. It may be somewhat crude, but what can you expect: this is both the Author’s first book and the first book of its type. Burnley is no genius, but he is an honest, hard-working, thorough and tenacious investigator. I see nothing wrong with the procedure itself. It appears to me to be both realistic and logical. I don’t see anything here that the police would not do today. Burnley is not one investigator; rather, he is a team player with other investigators both in England and France. All the usual investigator modalities are employed, and not in an amateurish way, either. For example, when Burnley goes to question the crew, he questions the entire crew.

    I conclude that this is indeed a police procedural. If anyone wishes to dispute the point, then they must first demonstrate that the procedure displayed in the book is incorrect or not consistent with Scotland Yard procedure in 1920. I have not seen anyone do this.

    2. Henry Wade: I have all his novels except one. Of the ones I have read, I think at least three of them are procedurals: The Duke of York’s Steps (1929), Bury Him Darkly (1936) and Lonely Magdalen (1940). I am not the only one who thinks so. Barzun and Taylor state of Bury Him Darkly that it “is surely one of the early police-routine stories … and done with fine attention to a great variety of details.” Wade was a justice of the peace and a High Sheriff, and apparently had the opportunity to become involved first-hand with criminal investigation.

    3. Q. Patrick (Patrick Quentin) File on Claudia Cragge (Crimefile number 4) (1938): This is the second Lieutenant Trant novel. It is in the form of a case file or epistolary novel. The entire book is correspondence, interview reports, interrogation reports, lab reports, evidence tags, actual evidence in bags, photographs, etc. The official correspondence and tags are so realistic I am convinced that the authors got hold of the real things. This appears to me to fall squarely in the field of the police procedural.

    4. Stewart Sterling (Prentice Winchell): According to Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories ed. by Otto Penzler, Sterling was a journalist and author. I think he knew how to do research. As you stated, he wrote the “Special Squad” stories about various bureaus in the police department. The story (dated 1940) in the Black Lizard book involved the Lost Property Division, of all things. He also wrote 40 stories and nine novels about Fire Marshal Pedley. The Pedley books appear to me to be realistic as to arson investigation. I have read that Sterling was friends with the Tom Brophy, the then Chief Fire Marshall of New York City and the books were reviewed by Brophy for accuracy. The books read that way to me. As far as excluding Pedley from the scope of the police procedural because he was not employed by a police department, I note that under New York State law a fire marshal is a police officer. In New York State law, the term “police officer” encompasses many different types of criminal investigators, not just police department employees.

    5. Lawrence Treat, V as in Victim (1945): Altogether there were 9 police procedural novels and one short story collection written about officers Taylor, Decker and Freeman. In an introduction to the short story collection P as in Police, Ellery Queen stated that he thought that Treat had made the most significant contribution to the development of the contemporary police procedural story, while citing the contributions of Emile Gaboriau’s Lecoq, Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke, Croft’s Inspector French and William MacHarg’s O’Malley stories which had appeared in Collier’s magazine. Any opinion by Ellery Queen needs to be viewed with respect, and I have no problem with the idea that the field has been advancing over time. Note that Queen is not stating that Treat was first, just that his work advanced the field. But whether this was actually the case, I do not know. As far as I can see, none of Treat’s books are now in print and I rarely see his work mentioned.

    6. John Creasey: Inspector West and Commander Gideon: I would agree with your assessment that the West books are not much in the way of police procedurals; they feel to me to be more in the nature of thrillers. However, the Gideon books are undoubtedly procedurals, and very fine ones too, starting with Gideon’s Day (1955), a full year before McBain’s first 87th Precinct novel. In fact, McBain is really very late in this developmental process, and I don’t particularly care for his work. Creasey won the Edgar for a book in this series, Gideon’s Fire.

    7. Elizabeth Linnington: I have always enjoyed her Luis Mendoza books. I think she brought a certain amount of imaginative vigor to her work. Obviously, she was not an artist for the ages, but I think she was as good as the next writer and better than most.

    See also the critical study The Police Procedural by George N. Dove.

    Reasonable men may differ, but that was fun to write.

  4. Albert says:

    I would not differentiate between the police procedural or the proto-police procedural on the basis of when Anthony Boucher decided to coin a phrase. I think authors may be conscious of the sort of work they are doing without giving it a name, For instance the originator of the science fiction field was Jules Verne in 1863. Verne knew that he was doing something new, even if he did not bother to give it a distinctive name. In fact, the term which finally stuck, science fiction, was only invented by Hugo Gernsback in 1930. I don’t think we would say the Wells’s War of the Worlds is not science fiction just because Gernsback had not yet gotten around to giving the field a name. I think people can understand what they are doing without bothering to give it a name. Also I note that even Cornell Woolrich was using the term “Police procedure” to describe what policemen were doing at least as early as 1945. See the chapter headings in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1945).

  5. Albert says:

    I would also state that it does not seem to me to be an essential part of the police procedural that the police investigate a number of different crimes in the course of a single book. The reason why is that the detective novel is just that, i.e., a novel, or a work of art. I do not believe, then, that complete realism is the goal of a novel. If complete realism is what people want, the they are wasting their time with novels, they should be reading true crime nonfiction, or go down to the courthouse and read trial transcripts. The purpose of a novel is to permit the author to bring his imagination to bear on the stuff of real life. He should avoid the absolute depiction of real life to the extent it inhibits his imagination as long as it does not interfere with the integrity of his procedural structure. I find that the presentation of multiple cases often serves to diminish the quality of the book. Instead of getting one good detailed case, we get three watered down shallow cases. I think this is often a lazy author’s way of not having to plot a really intricate case. We are reading a book and we know we are reading a book, so I don’t think we need to take realism that far. We just need to imagine that our detective has other cases at the same time or the author can mention it. Further, I don’t think it would be at all unusual even in real life for the boss to assign a detective full-time to an important breaking case or to a task force focused on a particular crime or criminal.

    I would further state that I think that Wikipedia is written and edited by a pack of amateurs who do not scruple to add their prejudices and bigotries to their articles. I would not believe anything they have to say without independent verification, including their definition of police procedural or the details of their biography of Elizabeth Linnington.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Thanks for your comments, Albert, as always they leave me with a lot to consider. I just have to say that (a) some time ago I was granted administrator status on Wikipedia (I’ve since set it aside) and so, while I agree that people don’t hesitate to add their prejudices and bigotries to articles, I can guarantee there are thousands of dedicated people working hard to add appropriate content and remove inappropriate material; (b) one of the basic tenets of Wikipedia is that you should not believe anything it has to say without independent verification, which is why everything in Wikipedia is meant to be confirmed with a citation from an expert third-party source. “Original research” is removed when it’s tagged and assessed by an administrator. I’m not sure what part of the details of the biography of Elizabeth Linington met with your disapproval, but if it’s her membership in the John Birch Society, that used to be in an “about the author” paragraph on the rear back flap of all her dust jackets, at least the ones I read. I agree that there are problems with the article that need rectification — I can’t think of why Tony Hillerman would be considered a writer of procedurals — and most often the best way to move forward is to go into the article and fix it yourself, citing your sources as you go. You may find it a rewarding experience. If you have a copy of the book you mentioned, The Police Procedural by George N. Dove, that would be a very useful citation to add to the article to leave people better informed.

  6. Curtis Evans says:

    Forensic science as we know is a part of the investigative process. When you have Inspector French forlornly wishing he could consult a scientist and not doing so you are not in the realm of strict realism. When Crofts has police detectives entering anywhere on earth they want by means of skillfully employed “bent wires” you are not in the realm of strict realism. But let’s quote the master himself, Crofts:

    “French I made an inspector of Scotland Yard rather than a private detective because I hoped in this way to gain realism. But at once a horrible difficulty loomed up: I knew nothing about Scotland Yard or the C. I. D. What was to be done? The answer was simple. I built on the great rock which sustains so many of my profession. If I knew nothing of my subject, well, few of my readers would know more.”

    I find the honesty in this statement quite charming!

    He adds: “I found this rock not quite so steadfast as I hoped. It has been pointed out to me that French has at times done things which would make a real inspector of the Yard shudder.”

    Again, I talk about the matter more in Masters, so I will urge people to look it up. It is in libraries. Or you can buy a copy of course!

    I’m certainly glad to have people highlighting Crofts, however. I think French and Crofts’ earlier police detectives are important correctives to the view a lot of people have that English sleuths in the Golden Age were always aristocratic amateurs.

    If we see Crofts as writing full-bore police procedurals, however, we should be adding J. J. Connington while we’re at it, and arguably John Rhode (at least when Dr. Priestley becomes strictly an armchair adviser). I wrote about all these people in Masters.

    I also wrote about Henry Wade, about 35,000 words, and am publishing that separately with a chapter on the Coles. If you classify Wade’s Duke of York’s Steps as a police procedural, you would have to categorize most of Wade’s books as police procedurals. But I think there is a significant difference between Bury Him Darkly and Lonely Magdalen and Wade’s other Golden Age works. It is these two novels that really give one the full sweep of a police investigation in motion. Michael Gilbert has written very persuasively about Lonely Magdalen in this respect.

    I interviewed Henry Wade’s surviving son and he confirmed that Wade took the police detail very seriously in his books. People often assume because he’s a baronet he must have been some idle landlord, but in fact he was, as Albert says, much involved with civil administration and was very familiar with his local county police force.

    Whether we think of these books by such authors as Crofts, Connington, Rhode, Wade, the Coles, Punshon, Lorac, full-bore police procedurals or not I do think they are clearly important in that they depict policemen as the lead sleuths. This is a very important strain in Golden Age English mystery and it tends to get ignored, outside of a mention of Roderick Alleyn, who is treated as basically no different from Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion. Anyone who writes of Golden Age English mystery as essentially the province of aristocratic and spinster sleuths (and Poirot!) and ignores the cops is not getting the period right.

    So, however, we come down on the definition of police procedural and who meets it, I am very glad we are talking about these writers. They were very important to the genre and if we ignore them we do not get a real understanding of the Golden Age and what is was about.

  7. Curtis Evans says:

    My blog piece on The File on Claudia Cragge

    Here’s a comparison of Crofts and Ian Rankin. this comparison always seem to surprise people, but they both have important cop sleuths!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’ve had a couple of the original British dossier novels pass through my hands, and also a bunch of the reproductions from the 90s (as I recall). My first reaction at hearing the suggestion that they qualified as police procedurals was horrified, because I regard them as operating at the level and with the intent of a difficult crossword puzzle, but then … I think it’s a tenable proposition. I think the aspect of procedurals where one learns about the personal lives of the detectives is minimized here, and certainly there is only one case being shown at a time, but other than that, I suppose I was merely prejudiced because the medium was not what I would have expected.
      I dimly remember seeing a “CSI”-branded computer game in a store; does anyone have any experience with them? Is this a kind of police procedural that really approximates the experience of detection from a first-person standpoint?

  8. Albert says:

    The style of Crofts’ books is orderly and logical to an almost abnormal degree. Indeed, (and I find it unbelievable), there seem to be some out there who have found his books to be humdrum or boring. Maybe they just need to go back to reading Green Eggs and Ham or something more suitable for their interests.

    I find it difficult to believe that a man could write the sort of books Crofts wrote without also possessing an orderly and logical temperament. The logical temperament finds it difficult to theorize without facts. Crofts was of the same school as R. Austin Freeman, and Thorndyke will deliver a lecture about the value of keeping an open mind and gathering all the facts until the day the earth drifts back into the sun. I find it difficult to believe that Crofts would write his books without gathering his facts first. For instance, I know that he had read Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (by Alfred Swaine Taylor) because he quotes from it extensively in chapter 13 of Death on the Way (1932). In his chapter in Six Against the Yard (1936), Crofts goes into his usual detail, with drawing, on how to construct an anti-personnel bomb, and ex-Superintendent Cornish late of Scotland Yard gave him good grades on his entry in the book. In other words, I don’t think that Crofts was in the habit of rolling out of bed and deciding that that was a good day to wing it in his writing. I am not aware that Crofts had any particular reason to have acquired expertise concerning the law relating to ships, but it appears to me he did a credible job in getting his ship investigative procedures straight in The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936). When his criminals get involved in fraudulent business schemes, Crofts always seems to have his facts straight.

    If there is any feature that comes across in his books, it is that Crofts is an honest workman. When a man such as Crofts informs me that he deliberately turns out shoddy goods because he expects that he will not be caught, I think I would decide that he was having his little joke with me. When one is honest in small things, one will be honest in large things as well.

    As far as French sometimes breaking the law in the course of his duties, I don’t see anything unrealistic about that. In fact, it is unfortunately all too realistic. Every time you hear that a case was dismissed due to “a technicality,” what that means is that somewhere in the case a police officer screwed up and did not properly follow the law relating to criminal investigation. In fact, we have been informed that recently the National Security Agency has been involved in wholesale violations of the law relating to search and seizure of a magnitude that almost defies belief. French’s actions don’t seem at all unrealistic after that. What interests me is the statement that Crofts was talking to Scotland Yard inspectors. He must have picked up something from them.

    For the rest of it, I would assume that Crofts’ library has been dispersed, but I would be very interested to find out what was in it.

    To summarize, I don’t expect of Crofts, writing in 1920, that he produce a perfect product. I think at that time the science of criminal investigation was still in an immature state, and I think that Crofts’ work was accurate enough for the time for us to conclude that he was actually writing police procedurals, as crude as they might have been. I think the thing which separates the subgenre of the police procedural from the other mystery subgenres is its emphasis on logical method, and this Crofts has in spades.

  9. Albert says:

    I think there is an interesting moment in chapter 2 of The Cask. Inspector Burnley is speaking to an official of the shipping company in charge of the stolen cask, and he has gotten a description of the men who took it and he is about to send out an all points bulletin. He says the following: “A description of the men and cart will be wired round to all the stations immediately, and every constable in London will be on the look-out for them before very much longer.” “Very good that,” said the managing director. The Inspector looked surprised. “Oh no,” he said, “that’s the merest routine.”

    In other words, I think that Crofts understood very well that what he was trying to write was a novel of police routine.

  10. Albert says:

    I would distinguish between the police procedural on the one hand and the fair play mystery on the other. In the fair play mystery, of the sort written by Connington, Rhode, et al., the clues are generally fairly easy for the investigator to obtain; the problem is to determine their significance.

    In the police procedural, on the other hand, a very substantial portion of the number of pages is taken up by the hunt for clues. So in The Sea Mystery, for instance, a lot of time is taken up in trying to determine how the body in the box wound up on the sea floor to begin with. In The Cask a lot of time is taken up in trying to establish even the identity of the corpse. So just figuring out the basics of what occurred, just searching for clues, can take up a lot of time.

    In the fair play mystery, the larger part of the story is not to obtain the clues and gather data, as in the police procedural, but rather to figure out what the data means. to figure out what those clues mean, what the dying message means, how someone got into and out of the locked room.

    This is not to say you can’t have mixed forms. So when Waghorn is gathering clues, the book is like a police procedural, but most of the book’s running time is devoted to the Great Detective attempting to figure out what the clues mean in the larger context.

  11. John says:

    I’ve read only one Elizabeth Linington book — GREENMASK! — and there are absolutely no scenes dealing with actual police procedure in it. There are policeman and they talk about their work but they don’t do anything but talk. The book I read wasn’t a Luis Mendoza book. It was that other series with the cop, Ivor Maddox, who is oblivious of his own sex appeal. (Help me!) Linington gets far too much credit for being the first woman writer of police procedurals. She wasn’t.

    No one has mentioned the Thatcher Colt series begun in 1930 by Fulton Oursler (aka “Anthony Abbot”) which is very much about police procedure. Oursler was especially fascinated with cutting edge (for the time) police techniques like the paraffin test and other tools used in ballistics. The books are loaded wtih poplice business on all levels, from routine legwork to the lab scenes to the politics and bureaucracy of bringing a case to court. He’s usually lumped in with the Van Dine school by critics. I’d call him a subgenre blending of GA fair play puzzle and police procedural.

    I’ve read enough of Helen Reilly to consider her a pioneer in the development of the authentic American police procedural. Apart from Isabel Ostrander she was the earliest American woman writer who focused on actual police work and did it realistically. I won’t count any of the detective casebooks by Emma Van Devanter who wrote as “Lawrence Lynch” in the 19th century. Those are more adventure novels hevy on melodrama, some action, but sometimes hardly any mystery plot. Certainlyno real police work. The Thirty-First Bullfinch, the first inspector McKee novel, was published in 1930, BTW.

    I think, however, the subgenre didn’t really take off in the US until it was made popular by Ed McBain and Jonathan Craig (who you also overlook and who predates McBain by two years) in the 1950s-early 1960s. I’ve learned more about police procedure reading the Jonathan Craig books than in ANY of the McBain books.

    Something else not mentioned that is I think an essential element of a genuine police procedural is the exploration of the policemen as colleagues; the culture of police work and how the camaraderie (or lack of it) can aid or impede the criminal investigation. In the modern police procedural this element of the story is almost paramount and often supercedes any mystery element of the plot.

    And in passing I’d like to say I share your opinion of David Caruso as an actor. What an insufferably vain and self-important bore he is.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I actually have a mapback copy of Abbot’s “The Creeps” at hand; I’d thought of it for a piece for my “bingo card” since it has a creepy title. This will move it up my TBR (in my case, To Be Re-read) pile considerably. I also have tracked down all three of the Thatcher Colt films and was thinking about a piece on them, since I found “The Night Club Lady” to be hard to find. “The Panther’s Claw” is mostly low-budget nonsense; “The Circus Queen Murder” has some interesting points. Of course the films don’t make one think of a procedural one way or the other.
      Mike Grost’s bibliography of Reilly disagrees with your suggestion — as near as I can tell, he doesn’t think “The Thirty-First Bullfinch” is a McKee book. But I’ve never seen a copy so I can’t say one way or the other. Mr. Grost has an interesting footnote that suggests that Reilly’s publishers wanted the public to think that “Mckee of Centre Street” was the first one, but you both agree that it wasn’t, so I’ll certainly follow along.
      I don’t ever remember reading a Jonathan Craig novel and I thank you for this contribution; another author to track down. I had rather thought they were 50s private eye novels, probably because of the paperbacks’ covers.
      I think it’s hilarious that we all agree on David Caruso — perhaps we should all collaborate on “Death of a Redheaded Ham”!!!

      • prettysinister says:

        I made a big error about the first Reilly book. My addled memory at work –or rather *not* at work — again. I thanked Albert below for the correction.

        For the past three years I’ve been posting reviews on my blog of Jonathan Craig’s 6th Precinct series featuring Pete Selby and Stan Rayder. I think for the most part they are top notch examples of the subgenre and excellently plotted detective novels as well. They have the added bonus of kinky sex and characters with odd sexual fetishes that must’ve been very daring to publish back in the day. One of the books features autoerotic strangulation in the plot. Not something you expect to find in a book from the late 50s. I’ve been reading them in order and the earliest are the best. The first real clunker was Case of the Laughing Virgin, so don’t start with that one! I have only three left to go before I’m done with the lot.

        THE CREEPS was not written by Oursler. It was ghost written by another writer. Hubin and his research team say it’s Oscar Schisgal. It’s not at all like the original Thatcher Colt books. It’s more in line with the old dark house trope. In fact, it’s sort of a pale imitation of THE RIM OF THE PIT — snowbound house of guests, psychic phenomena, apparently supernatural events, etc. … If you want to know Thatcher Colt in the police procedural mode you need to read any of the books that start “About the Murder of…” in the title. About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Womenis probably the best for police procedure and politics.

        I thought the police procedure elements in MURDER IN SHINBONE ALLEY were pretty darn good. There were two or three supporting police characters who played instrumental roles in the story. I mentioned it in my review on my blog. I’d have to review my notes at home about other Reilly books worth reading for the police aspects.

      • Noah Stewart says:

        Thank you for the information on “The Creeps”!! I do have a copy of Hubin somewhere in a box (sigh) but haven’t dragged it out in a few years. I also have a copy of “About the Murder of the Circus Queen” somewhere nearby, so perhaps I’ll start with that. I’ve never seen a copy of “About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women”; possibly it wasn’t in paperback.
        I’ve already put out the word to a local dealer/friend that I’m looking for Jonathan Craig novels and expect to hear back soon. Thanks for the tip; I would not have bothered to pick these up, based merely on their looks.

  12. Curtis Evans says:

    “The style of Crofts’ books is orderly and logical to an almost abnormal degree. Indeed, (and I find it unbelievable), there seem to be some out there who have found his books to be humdrum or boring.”

    You’d better believe it, Albert! There are quite a lot of those people, sadly. In Masters, I tried to turn “Humdrum” into a virtue, not a failing. I do agree that the mastery of detail in The Cask was unprecedented at the time. Crofts, however, like his murderers, does make mistakes sometimes on various matters, legal and scientific. Again, see Masters. It happened to all Golden Age writers at times, I’m sure (I once saw a copy of John Rhode’s Tragedy at the Thirteenth Hole where a person had written marginalia attacking Rhode’s treatment of golf detail).

    Actually, since we are talking about Crofts so much, I should add another hugely important aspect, which I analyze at great length, is his religious temperament. It greatly infuses his work. Something I found virtually no one had written about (Routley mentions this in The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story). I find this becomes more prevalent in his work over time.

    On the break-ins I was thinking in part about the miraculous efficacy of the “bent wire.”

    On the Rhodes, I think a lot of the later ones become very police proceduralish, because Dr. P. only appears for some short consultations and it would have been easy to rework the books so that Waghorn actually solves the cases himself. Even the in earlier ones there is a tremendous amount of time spent on investigative detail. This is true of the Conningtons as well. Even a Ngaio Marsh has a lots of investigative detail (Robert Barnard referred to tedious “Marshy inquisitions”), though this is balanced by strong emphasis on character.

    By the way, it’s a misconception that Crofts never has any interest in character situations. Look at Sudden Death, for example. A lot of his later books have significant section seen through the eyes of non-police characters.

    In all the reading I’ve done I have felt that there is a qualitative difference between police investigations these “Humdrum” books and those in a couple of the Wades and the Waughs and the McBains. When I read those two Wade, for example, I find one of the most immediately striking things is not just the investigative detail but the authority with which the panoply of the police investigation is portrayed. Michael Gilbert writes about this very well, I will have to dig that up. But of course opinions naturally differ.

  13. Curtis Evans says:

    “And in passing I’d like to say I share your opinion of David Caruso as an actor. What an insufferably vain and self-important bore he is.”

    Finally, somethign on which everyone can agree! 😉

    John, can you recommend some Reilly titles, I’ve read only a handful and none of them really did much for me. I reviewed The Doll’s Trunk Murder on the blog. Agree about Thatcher Colt, at least the two I have read.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think I’ve read all the Reilly titles that were published in paperback; I can say that “Murder in Shinbone Alley” was sufficiently memorable to allow me to recall some detail more than 20 years after reading; for someone with my reading habits, that indicates a very good novel. I have a cherished copy of “The Doll’s Trunk Murder” with the infamous Belarski “bondage/nipple cover” but it’s in such lovely condition, I’ve never dared open it more than to give it a quick and careful reading; didn’t enjoy it. I looked through Michael Grost’s bibliography ( and anything from 1940 to 1950 I think is worth a look. “Murder at Angler’s Island” has some interesting wartime material, as I recall.

  14. Albert says:

    As far as Helen Reilly goes, I would certainly agree that she wrote police procedurals. Both Allen J. Hubin and John M. Reilly confirm that The Thirty-First Bullfinch is not a McKee book. Hubin states that its locale is Maine, not the usual New York City. I never bothered to buy a copy because I did not think it was a McKee, so I cannot tell what type of book it is. However, her next book is The Diamond Feather, also dated 1930. It is a McKee and a police procedural, and I thought a pretty good one. At the back of the jacket of my hardcover copy of Mourned on Sunday (1941) there is a humorous “interview” between Mrs. Reilly and Inspector McKee in which he refers to all the research she had been doing at police headquarters. By the 1940s, however, the police procedure was throttled back a good deal. McKee was still in the books, but the thrust of the plot was more in the nature of a romantic suspense novel.

    • prettysinister says:

      My memory failed me, Albert. Thanks for the correction. I knew it was one of those 1930s titles from Doubleday’s Crime Club. As usual I mixed them up in my cluttered warehouse of a memory.

  15. Albert says:

    When some people refer to a book as “humdrum” or “boring” what they really mean is that it requires the “application of some mental energy” to get through it. What they tend to forget is that the brain is a physiological organ, and like a muscle it will atrophy if you don’t exercise it regularly. I have long thought that sets of Rhode and Crofts and plenty of the other Golden Age authors should be sent to the old age homes for use as therapy, so that the patients can keep their minds limber and youthful.

  16. TracyK says:

    Since one of my favorite subgenres is the police procedural and I have tried to figure out some definition myself with little success, I will certainly come back and read this more carefully later. I have found that I like most mysteries that center on a policeman and his investigation, even if they don’t all fit within the strict definition. I agree that the Helen Reilly books that I have read don’t feel like police procedurals, but I like the inclusion of Inspector McKee. It is like they are a fusion of romantic suspense and police procedural. I envy you your boxes of her paperbacks. I only have a few but I love paperbacks of that vintage.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Thanks for your comments. I like your definition of “a policeman and his investigation”; I think there might be two kinds, “police procedurals” and “policeman procedurals”. The “policeman procedural” would take in Inspector French and Alleyn and a lot of Golden Age books from Great Britain. I also think you are on to something with Helen Reilly. “Fusion of romantic suspense and police procedural” is a much better way of what I was describing somewhere here as “brownstone mysteries”. I’m not sure how many of her paperbacks I have squirrelled away but I would generally buy the old sixties editions whenever I saw them, they have a look all their own.

  17. […] in this blog I published an essay about the origins of the police procedural, found here, which collected further comment from some very well-read individuals who had read both this post […]

  18. […] when I’ve discussed groups of books; my posts on the general topic of cozy mysteries and police procedurals have attracted a lot of attention and comments. I am very fond of reading reviews of individual GAD […]

  19. JIM DOHERTY says:

    First of all, I’ve read the NYTBR article by Boucher in which he talks about the rise of realistic police fiction. I don’t have the exact date, but it would have been on either the 2nd, 9th, 16th, 23rd, or 30th of December. The whole issue was a year-end retrospective, and Boucher’s regular column was following the lead of the rest of the publication.

    Second, I can’t understand why any piece prior to this that fits the definition can’t be referred to as a “police procedural,” but rather by the odd-sounding title, “prot0-procedural.” Boucher was using it describe any crime story that tried (or at least appeared to try) to depict law enforcement accurately. Any crime story that fits that description whether it comes before or after, must, perforce, be a police procedural, whether the phrase was coined at the time it was written, or not.

    That would be like saying that any hard-boiled private eye story that was written before Captain Shaw applied the adjective “hard-boiled” to that type of crime fiction (I’m not absolutely sure he was the first, but he did edit THE HARD-BOILED OMNIBUS, which may be the first time it was used). Would you say that the earliest of Hammett’s Coninetnal Op stories or Daly’s Race Williams stories are NOT hard-boiled, but once the term comes to be applied as a modifier to that speicific type of crime fiction, then all those written subsequently are hard-boiled.

    Something has to exist before it can be named. Saying that anything that came before the term was coined is like saying the phenomenon of fiction that accurately described police work didn’t exist until there was a term that encompassed it. And your whole article argues rather convincingly to the contrary.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Yes, I still think it’s unwise to apply a WORD to things that existed before that word was used. Obviously those Continental Op stories were what gave rise to the term “hard-boiled”, but you get led into logical category errors if you try to apply later words to earlier material; for instance the embarrassing spectacle of Dorothy L. Sayers trying to claim bits of the Bible as detective stories. To my mind, the creation of a definition coalesces people’s thinking about what is and isn’t within the definition, and it’s not especially fair or useful to go back and try to say that work that existed before the definition should be assessed with the critical standards that you’d use to assess the “self-aware” work. But you’re welcome to apply whatever words you like to whatever you like; I may in the future relax so much as to call things “early versions” or “precursors”, but probably I’ll stick with “proto-” as a useful way of making it clear that whatever I’m speaking about preceded the definition of a genre or sub-genre.

      • Noah Stewart says:

        It occurs to me that I’ve been a little bit inelastic here. When Boucher made his definition, he was referring to a group of fictional works that existed at the time he created the definition, and given the way that book reviewing operates, they were recent works. I cannot say that upon whatever date in 1956 Boucher published his definition, a dichotomy appeared that divided works into pre- and post-definition. I’d be willing to accept that Boucher was talking about works from, say, 1955, and that those works gave rise to his definition and thus fall within it. Where I have a problem is going back to 1945 or 1935 or 1925. And I’d probably still use the equivalent of an asterisk to talk about things before that date in 1956, simply for precision.

  20. JIM DOHERTY says:

    In fact, he was talking about works that went back at least as far as 1945. He noted that DRAGNET seemed to be the root from which the style grew, and DRAGNET was first broadcast, at least on radio, in 1945. He specifically mentioned Lawrence Treat’s V AS IN VICTIM, which was published in 1945. In fact, in his review of Treat’s book, Boucher came close, but did not quite, coin the term. You can find the relevant passage in the 1945 volume of BOOK REVIEW DIGEST.

    He also mentioned Ben Benson’s carefully researched novels about the Massachusetts State Police, the first of which, ALIBI AT DUSK, appeared in 1949; and the novels about federal law enforcement by former FBI Agent Gordon Gordon and his wife, Mildred, as “The Gordons,” the first of which, F.B.I. STORY (not to be confused with the later non-fiction history by Don Whitehead that was made into the Jimmy Stewart movie) was published in 1950.

    He might also, if he wanted to, have mentioned Sidney Kingsley’s stage play DETECTIVE STORY (1949, which obviously as much of an influence on McBain’s 87th Precinct as DRAGNET); historical novelist MacKinlay Kantor’s inside look at the N.Y.P.D. in SIGNAL 32 (1950); Hillary Waugh’s novel LAST SEEN WEARING . . . (1952), about a small-town police force in a college town investigating the disappearance of a student from the women’s university that is the center of the New England community, apparently inspired by the similar real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Weldon in 1946; and the many “semi-documentary” cop films, usually fictionalizing actual cases, that were so prevalent in movie houses in the years immediately following the war, like THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (1945), T-MEN (1948), THE NAKED CITY (1948), and HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948, which featured a young actor named Jack Webb in his first screen role; a conversation with the police technical advisor, who’d been involved in a shootout with the killer fictionalized in the movie, eventually led to Webb’s creating DRAGNET).

    All of these works, in their various mediums were making a point of trying to get it right. Trying to show how it was actually done. The point wasn’t the crime, nor even the solution to the crime, so much as it was the attempt to immerse the audience in a world with which it was not familiar, the world of law enforcement professionals. They were already trying to do something different;

    Boucher was just the one that put a name to it. But to, for example, “put an asterisk” on the seasons of DRAGNET, the quintessential police procedural, that were aired prior to 1956, but not on those aired after 1956, strikes me as needlessly picayune. It’s the kind of thing that makes ordinary folks impatient with professional academics.

    Oh, and by the way, the French books are not police procedurals precisely because there is not real effort to depict the profession with technical accuracy, and Croft admitted as much. He made French a cop so he wouldn’t have to explain what he was doing investigating a murder, something the creator of Ellery Queen, Miss Marple, and Lord Peter Wimsey all had tospend a few pages doing in their books. McBain’s editor, Herb Alexander, called the element that set what Boucher would ultimately term “police procedurals” as something he called “clinical veity.” The French books don’t really have that. A series from that era that does, however, is Henry Wade’s novels and short stories about Scotland Yard Inspector John Poole.

  21. Noah Stewart says:

    I think we’ll agree to disagree — although you seem to be agreeing with me in many respects. Just one point that I wanted to mention; I’m not a professional academic, merely a high school graduate with heavy-duty reading habits. I’ve learned from reading academics, though, that they value precision in definition and I think I understand why.

  22. JIM DOHERTY says:

    In ther interests of precision, DRAGNET started on radio in 1949, nor ’45. A typo on my part.

  23. […] Elsewhere I have talked about the “police procedural” form as being novels about the activities of a group of police officers, who work together on one or many cases simultaneously. Their personal lives are usually intertwined with their cases. This series is a long-running one about the activities of Chief Superintendent Masters and his team who investigate murders in a matey and jokey way, except when it comes to the crunch. Many of their cases have to do with strange poisons and scientific/pharmacological backgrounds. […]

  24. […] of Patrick Petrella’s rise through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police in a set of police procedural […]

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