Keeping the Police Out of the Plot

I write mysteries, not police procedurals. Jeffrey Flint, the amateur sleuth of my first series, is an archaeologist so as a writer I must address the challenge of keeping the police out of my plots. If there is an unusual murder in modern Britain it is headline news and the full might of the regional crime squad, CSI and the rest is thrown at the crime. There is little room for the maverick copper with a hunch, never mind an amateur. As a nod towards reality, Flint is regularly dressed down for his presumption that he can crack the case.

The problem needs to be disposed of in a metaphorical shallow grave, unobtrusively, so as not to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Even authors who write police procedurals skate over the organisational complexity of modern investigations because procedure is boring. By introducing the pressure of the ticking clock, isolating our hero beyond assistance or introducing a rift between the detective and his Angry Lieutenant the cast list can become manageable and the reader can invest in the single-minded pursuit of justice. We don’t want the reader thinking ‘Why doesn’t she call for back up?’ or ‘Why is an officer of her rank at the crime scene?’. The only Inspector/Sergeant police team I’ve ever createdin a yet unpublished novel – are thrown into investigating a case because they are closest to the scene and events are moving too quickly for the whole apparatus of a county police force to lurch into action.

Another trick of course is to move continents or go back in time. The average reader’s knowledge of police procedure in the 1930s or colonial India is probably hazy, and the lone detective and trusty sidekick might realistically be the only hope of solving a murder. Bribery, corruption, laziness or snobbery become more plausible excuses to keep a large crime squad out of the picture. The further removed the writer is from us/here/now, the greater the scope to create a realistic lone wolf scenario through research or by simply making things up.

Flint’s mysteries are multi-layered, much like an archaeological site, and the layers need to be picked away to reveal the truth. Obscure historical details confuse conventional investigation and throw doubt on the idea that a crime has been committed at all. Darkness Rises begins as a missing person enquiry, and the victim in Lady in the Lake most likely suffered an accident, so neither case is of interest to the police at the outset. In Byron’s Shadow the police are under political pressure to treat a historic crime as closed, while inter-force politics hobbles the investigation of a ‘who nearly dunnit’ in Blood and Sandals.

This brings me to Shadesmoor, my third novel. It’s the closest I’ve come to writing a conventional whodunnit and was sold on the basis of a synopsis alone as part of a three-book deal with Severn House. Flint is appointed to a post at a Yorkshire university, in part because his predecessor was murdered and he has by now acquired a reputation for inquiring into such things. Here I use the devices of the police chasing the wrong suspects and not linking crimes together, leaving Flint space to probe the motives and opportunities of characters who are not even on the police radar. I had of course worked on excavations in Yorkshire and in the uncertain world of developer-funded archaeology, so I found Shadesmoor the easiest to write of all my novels­­­ – once I’d kept the police out!

Shadesmoor is now republished as an ebook by Lume Books.

Read More about Shadesmoor.

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