Just a quick intro from me: this is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog and I couldn’t be more delighted. If you’re serious about writing crime, former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, is the ultimate go-to man. Vastly experienced, he’s also skilled in recognising the dramatic imperative, which is so important for crime and thriller writers.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, as with any profession, cops are part of a structure, they have a certain way of talking, addressing each other and a very distinctive sense of humour. Now, as crime writers (I mention that here so if you are penning the next great dystopian sci-fi blockbuster, I’ll waste no more of your time) you might like a little insight in to the coppers’ mind and what happens when they open their mouths.
First of all, though, here’s a huge caveat to everything that follows. In all my advising, teaching and critiquing I bang on about how it’s your story, they are your characters and everything I say needs to fit your WIP. Unless you want to bore your readers to death, never (ever, ever) copy and paste a procedure in to your manuscript. Wear your research lightly.
Right, health warning out of the way, here goes.
Ranks, but not as you know it
The police service is a hierarchical, disciplined organisation where officers all have a rank and are crystal clear where they are in the food-chain. That said, it’s not the army. Sure, senior (not superior) officers give orders – sometimes – and junior officers (not subordinates) carry them out. But, as police powers are invested in individual officers, rarely can they be ordered to make an arrest, search anyone or use force, on paper at least. They are operational decisions for that officer, and that officer alone. It doesn’t mean in the real and fictional world bosses can’t cajole, encourage and very strongly ‘suggest’ their staff use their powers, but in most circumstances, they don’t instruct them to.
When I was a Chief Superintendent running firearms raids or the policing of protests or football matches, I’d deliberately surround myself with junior officers who were comfortable questioning my decisions and offering up alternatives. Tactical Advisors, for example are Police Constables – the entry rank – but with far more training and experience of guns and shields than I had. All the decisions were mine but each and every one would have been mulled over with these sages who had been there, seen it and got the tee-shirt. So, don’t invest all the knowledge and wisdom in your senior officers, or if you do make sure they have the background or make it go wrong.
All friends together – sometimes
Many of the people I joined with chose different career paths to me. Some stayed constables, either as detectives or uniformed officers and some gained a couple of promotions and settled there. One of my closest friends was Detective Inspector Bill Warner. An ex-boxer and cabbie, he was a formidable cop but one of the funniest and most talented people I knew. When I was running a briefing, he would address me as ‘sir’, ‘guv’ or ‘boss’ and to others he would refer to me as ‘the Chief Superintendent’ or ‘Mr Bartlett.’ Behind closed doors though, one to one, it was Bill and Graham. And, believe me, if he disagreed with something I was doing he would tell me – loud and clear.
Use these dynamics to add depth to your characters. So often, senior officers – such as my old rank – are shown as being penny-pinching, operationally inept, career chasers. Some are – not me obviously (!) – but most have rich operational histories and equally complex relationships with officers of all ranks. Think of Peter James’ Roy Grace and Glenn Branson characters. They go back a long way and the way they are in public versus private is very similar to Bill and I. Glenn is forever ripping into Roy about his taste in clothes, music and just about everything else, while Roy gives as good as he gets when it comes to Glenn’s driving and success with women.
What’s in a name?
Here’s something else about rank dynamics. No one ever bellowed ‘Bartlett. My Office,’ across a crowded incident room at me. In fact, I can’t remember ever being called only by my surname. It just doesn’t happen. Leaving aside the public v private relationships juniors and seniors who are mates, most senior officers address their juniors by their first name. And junior’s call anyone senior to them – above the rank of inspector – ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘guv’ or ‘boss.’ PCs call sergeants ‘Sarge,’ ‘skip’ or ‘sergeant.’
And, while we are at it, detectives never just refer to themselves as ‘detective.’ It’s meaningless and the equivalent of a police constable calling themselves ‘police.’ How daft does that sound? It’s the rank that’s important, so they say ‘detective constable’ or ‘DC’, ‘detective sergeant’ or ‘DS’ etc. Oh and, to avoid confusion Detective Superintendents are never referred to as ‘DS’ – that’s for the real workers; the sergeants. They are D/Supts or Det Sups. Have a look at this chart to help navigate your way round the ranks.
Laughing policemen/ women
Let’s end on a lighter note. Gallows humour is and always has been the safety valve for a profession whose stock in trade is human evil and misery.
Some of the acronyms that describe the various states or liabilities of those involved in road crashes may seem insensitive. FUBAR BUNDY – F*&$£@d Up Beyond All Recovery But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet and DODI – Dead One Did It are both examples of the dark wit of all emergency service workers, but they serve a purpose in keeping them sane amid the horrors we face.
In the mortuary, both police and morticians describe the cadaver, mid-post mortem, as being ‘canoed’. Why so? Well, that is what a human body resembles when it’s been slit from neck to groin and all its internal organs removed.
More generally, police officers never miss a chance to share their colleagues’ faux pas with the team. That could range from being late for work or an assignment, mistaking someone’s gender, right through to allowing a prisoner to escape or bumping a police car in the back yard. Some of these indiscretions have formal sanctions but all are punished with more summary justice – the provision of cakes. Fines are paid in doughnuts – or other more luxurious pastries – and are due within the same shift or the following one, at the latest. The penalties double on default. If no one has erred for some time, the sergeant might invent a lapse by one of the team and fine them anyway. Cops have to eat you know.
The deeper the better
There is nothing worse in a great crime novel than a cliched or shallow cop. Police officers are human beings with the same strengths, weaknesses and relationships as anyone else. Both of my non-fiction books, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton and Babes in the Wood, specifically show what it feels like to police a busy city.
Cops experience fear, dread, pain and PTSD the same as everyone. They also have to show gargantuan restraint to stem the giggles and they take the mickey out of each other to get through the day.
You will want your readers to really care about your characters so showing these states, maybe through ‘close point of view’, is essential. Don’t be afraid for them to laugh, cry, get angry or make mistakes. They all have and that’s what makes them fascinating.
Matt Jackson in G.S. Locke’s Neon is a fabulous example. The situation he finds himself is a shocking as it is bizarre. His wife has been murdered and he hates Browne, his replacement. Despite the extraordinary series of murders he finds himself investigating, then being personally involved in, his character, the way he operates and behaves is genuinely authentic in those circumstances. The author has made the reality fit with the story. It’s a masterclass!