Friday, July 30, 2010

Good Cops, Bad Cops

I didn’t have to look far in July to find intriguing crime headlines. Several local news stories (“local” as in Alberta, Canada) drew national and international attention. This month, my blog focuses on crime fighters, rather than criminals.

Please respect those involved in these headlines. Remember the accused are innocent until proven guilty and victims and their families may not find the crimes as entertaining as you and I might.

Even though it was not the most important news item, this witty headline captured my eye and held it—“Internal probe reveals naughty Mounties.” This CBC article by KATHLEEN HARRIS, Parliamentary Bureau starts off great, too: “OTTAWA -- From masturbating in a cruiser and surfing porn on the job to drunk driving and sexual assault, Mounties from all ranks have been busted for bad behaviour...”

Headlines that cast a pall over law enforcement or the justice system always catch my eye as I’ve had several professional readers complain that the cops, lawyers, and judges in my stories say, think, and do things that real ones would never say, think, or do. Headlines that prove even Canada’s world-famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police are as human as the rest of us, make me feel smug, self-righteous, and justified. (Because, I, too, am human!)

I respect all those in the law enforcement and legal professions and admire the great work they do. I know that both news headlines and fiction exploit the unusual to spark interest. Just as rain in Vancouver isn’t newsworthy, neither would the missteps and mistakes of members of the RCMP if it was a corrupt police force. It’s because we greatly admire the men and women in scarlet serge that their weaknesses fascinate us.

One of my favourite writing strategies is combining news stories to create a backdrop to my novels. This lends my stories a semblance of believability. If one were to combine the ‘naughty Mountie’ headline with another July headline, “Alberta man unarmed when shot by RCMP” we have the possibility of a great tale.

Of course the unarmed Alberta man allegedly made a great pretence of being armed and there is no indication that the officer who shot him was at all naughty, but the lovely thing about fiction is that one can ignore such facts and create excitement that rivals that of the truth. If it’s the truth that Mounties can get caught masturbating in their squad cars, it’s not too big a leap of faith to have a fictional cop shooting an unarmed rival who perhaps was after his woman or who had video evidence of him surfing porn something equally sordid.

A sad headline, but one that has many facets was: “Accused Mountie in deep depression Charged with second-degree murder in wife's death.”

The fact that the Mountie and the victim were immigrants from India, tinges the crime with the issue of culture shock and the stress it puts on relationships. Some neighbours reported seeing the victim assaulting her husband in the past--an interesting twist to domestic violence. Mental health issues often play a role in crime. Although it is usually schizophrenia that peaks reporters’ and novelists’ interest, in real life, depression has toppled many more a fine man—and woman.

Most Albertans would agree that most intriguing story in July was the case of the missing elderly couple, the discovery of their burnt out motorhome, and the search for the SUV they’d been towing.

Adding to the mystery is the reluctance of the police to discuss the case, which is normal while they’re investigating. However, the tidbits of info they did release in order to enlist the media and public help in locating the couple, sent active imaginations, racing. It won’t be until the investigation is concluded or (if police make arrests in connection with the case) until the evidence is unveiled in court that we will know what happened.

Meanwhile, the police are unwilling to defend themselves against accusation that the investigation was botched from the beginning. Reportedly the burned-out motorhome scene wasn’t investigated thoroughly until the family reported the couple missing—several days after the motorhome had been found. It’s also alleged that police initially dismissed witnesses who reported sighting the missing SUV across the provincial border in Prince George, B.C.

The way the investigation is being handled has sparked almost as much public interest as the mystery itself—an angle that I like. The main characters in my crime novels are not the criminals but law enforcement officials. The criminal mind, as fascinating as it is*, still plays second fiddle to the men and women who can outwit it.

I try to imbue my novels with social comment, giving them some value aside from pure entertainment. Inspired by these July news headlines, crime writers could weave into their plots information on culture shock, domestic violence, depression, the aftermath of a wrong split-second life-and-death decision, investigative errors, and the value of hindsight. We could also reveal to our readers some basic human behaviours which transcend career choices and uniforms.

Stories that explore such issues enable readers to better understand and empathize with people affected by them. In the past, such enlightenment has been known to inspire positive societal changes. In addition, well-written fiction has always served to strengthen readers who find themselves facing challenges similar to those faced by their literary heroes and heroines.

Until next month, may Crime be on your side.

*If the criminal mind fascinates you, I invite you to read my website articles, “I met a man with empty eyes” and “Empty eyes, empty heart”

Eileen Schuh is the author of “Schrödinger’s Cat” a novella to be released by Wolfsinger Publications in 2011. Agent and publishing rights are available for her Back Tracker series of crime novels, the parallel novel, “Noraebang” and her adolescent crime novel, “Aerdrie”. More information about her published and unpublished work is on her website.


Catherine Astolfo said...

i love this way of approaching the crime/mystery novel. Not only is it fascinating reading, but it proves that we Canadians are anything but dull!

Angela said...

Sometimes, you just cannot write fiction as good and juicy as reality. It's amazing just how many plot ideas I pull from real headlines.

Thanks for sharing!

Eileen Schuh: said...

Thanks, guys. Your appreciative comments are wonderful proof that people are actually reading what I write. And...that's a thrill!