Magazine article World Literature Today

He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Rise of the Police Procedural

Magazine article World Literature Today

He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Rise of the Police Procedural

Article excerpt

Films, novels, and television episodes featuring realistic policemen and women as main characters are so common today that it is odd to consider how relatively uncommon they were in the first century of modern crime writing. As is usual with these "who's on first" discussions, one can argue endlessly about who created the police procedural and propose various candidates, but 1948-107 years after the publication of Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"-is the year in which a definite tipping point was reached. In March of that year, director Jules Dassin's The Naked City was released. Filmed in a documentary style on location in New York City, the film begins with the narrator (producer Mark Hellinger) almost apologizing for its unusualness. This seems odd today, now that we are blasé to location shooting and the subsequent convention of unsteady, handheld cameras to simulate documentary realism, but the style of Naked City, perhaps realism in movies in general, was very edgy in 1948.

In rapid succession in other media, successful police procedurals appeared. In March 1949 the drama Detective Story opened on Broadway. Written by Sidney Kingsley, the play centers on detective Jim McLeod and his ruthless attempts to bring down an abortionist. It all takes place in the detectives' squad room and is less focused on the crimes than on the price McLeod pays in his marriage and soul for being a detective. In June of the same year, the legendary Dragnet presented its first episode on radio, shaping all forms of fictional law enforcement to this day. Two years later in December, Dragnet debuted on NBC television and by 1954 was in a battle with I Love Lucy for the top-rated TV show. One Nielsen rating indicated that 16,332,000 out of 27,000,000 TV sets in the United States were tuned to the show on Thursday nights.1

An initial look at the differences between what is often called the hardboiled or noir detective story and the police procedural doesn't reveal much. The police hero is a man moving down the mean streets, as Raymond Chandler puts it. He is a man of common background in quest of justice, but can only exact a small portion of it out of the unfragrant world we live in. Usually, the police hero is also as scarred as the hard-boiled private eye in his battles to make something, anything, right. Sam Spade pays an emotional price for turning Brigid O'Shaughnessy over to the police. There's an ongoing ruefulness in Philip Marlowe's loneliness. All this is in contrast to the joyful revelations that characterize the traditional puzzle-solving detectives of Agatha Christie, S. S. Van Dine, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Chandler points out how unrealistic the traditional mystery is, but by the late 1940s it was also obvious how unrealistic the hard-boiled private eye had become. By focusing on the police, creators hoped to reveal the real work of solving crimes. Naked City showed the police examining the crime scene methodically, reprimanding citizens and cops for moving the body or otherwise altering the crime scene. We see police taking photos, dusting for fingerprints, and doing the footwork to locate suspects. Dragnet adapted true stories from the Los Angeles police department. Creator Jack Webb rode with the police and listened to their language and professional terminology. "As director, story editor, casting chief, and star of the show, [Webb] purposely refrains from dramatic artifice," Time wrote, "and thus achieves a different kind of dramatic effect." Many of the stories Webb used were very slight; one episode involves the apparent theft of a baby Jesus from a crèche. There was little shooting and onscreen violence by private-eye standards.

The usual definition of the police procedural is a crime story in which the ordinary processes and limitations of the police force are used to resolve the story question. Note that I did not say, "discover the criminal." Many police procedurals hinge not on the discovery of the malefactor, who is revealed at the beginning of the story, but on preparing enough evidence to arrest and convict him. …

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