The Peculiar Structure Of Police Procedurals

So Police procedurals are weird ducks.  The shows they have most in common with are things like CSI, but they are… different.

First of all, what you’re aiming for with a police procedural is “realism.”  Please remember that realism isn’t really real.  What I mean is, I’ve known enough policemen to know some amount of their job is “just a job.”

They go to work, they do what they have to do, they patiently gather clues, they file paper.  In a big department, they might be working on three or four cases at once.  I’m not saying they don’t care about catching murderers or thieves.  I’m saying that the best ones do, but it’s still a job.  You don’t put your entire life on hold to solve a crime, and it’s not existentially important to you.  Let me rephrase that: no more than a good writer puts her life on hold to finish a book, and no more than that is existentially important to her.  There are people insanely dedicated to their jobs, but still not like in the books.

Police procedurals make policemen into heroes, (and I don’t mean real policemen aren’t heroic, I mean, heroes like in comic books) and that means the structure and the required beats are much like a super hero story, melded with a mystery.

-often starts with trauma in childhood (or early case) that makes the policeman wounded and vulnerable.

-scenes at the station are interspersed with scenes at home, and none of them has a happy marriage, ever.  The atmosphere is “gritty” and pseudo realistic.

-Immediately after the childhood trauma, dream, whatever, you will have the body found.  Bodies are more realistic than in cozies, less so than in “For the gore” type of brutalistic mysteries.

After this there’s often a chapter that shows this person’s position in the force is precarious, either because of sex or past mistakes, or just because superior doesn’t like him.

Morgue scene.

Inquest scene.

There might or might not be interrogating suspects in between.

There will also be scenes of people bringing information to the detective: forensics, fingerprints, etc.

Because otherwise it would all be in the office and static, procedurals often have the lead investigator actually go out and question people OR work another case at the same time one that for some reason gets him in physical fights. This is not exactly believable, but it is within the universe of the mystery.

The breakthrough will come, as in private investigators’ mysteries through the investigator putting the info together in a new way and seeing the path to the solution.

If there is a love affair with a fellow law officer, it will often end in the woman (if there’s one) being jeopardy.

Oh, and where other mysteries have one other murder along the way, to clarify clues/solution, police procedurals often have two or three.

Most of the ones I read are British.  The latest one which is pretty good, starts with the victim, instead, because he’s a shady character, and takes us through his preparing blackmail before cutting to his being found.  It’s also told multiple person, so there is no one “detective.”  Works very well, actually.

Next week I’ll move on to Fantasy, unless you have questions I need to answer.

In the meantime, if you’re going to write police procedurals and have never been an officer or in a related profession: research.  People who read these by preference are PICKY.  (I’m not one of them.  I read them as well as most other things.)  Find out how the police is organized in that particular city and state. If you can get a ride along.

And do not, under any circumstances, call your police department and ask where to hide the body.  I knew someone who did.


  1. As much as I respect my local PD, I would never call them to find out where to hide the body. Park Rangers, maybe; they know where all the mine shafts are.

    Although if the body is properly hidden, how do you expect to get the ball rolling?

    1. As long as you can make sure nobody looks where it is, the true crime shows indicate that there are some really stupid places to hide bodies that nevertheless work for decades or centuries.

      The scary thing is how many people have managed to just keep a body in a chest or barrel in their garage, basement, or trashy area of their property. Heck, sometimes several bodies.

      Kids and hunters seem to be pretty good at accidentally finding bodies that are hidden out in the open or in shallow graves somewhere. Animals are even better at it, of course.

      1. My mom once avoided getting a geocache because of a strange shape near it that made her think that she didn’t want to be the subject of the headline “Geocacher discovers body.”

      2. I spent several years as a contractor for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming (Rawlins/Carbon County–so lots and lots of pretty desolate countryside), and while–rather to my surprise–I never found a body (though I’ve got LOTS of great places to hide one now), there was something I found one summer…

        Several (torn open) trash bags worth of women’s and kids’ clothing and toys had been dumped off a two-track road near a reservoir. I was out looking for saltcedar (found that, too) when I came across it. It was just…really eerie, because this wasn’t broken stuff. It wasn’t particularly old, either. It gave me chills, because I couldn’t help but think that this was someone hiding evidence. Or setting up a “she took the kids and left me” situation.

        And maybe she really had, and this was an upset/angry/grieving person getting rid of their stuff. But…why drive all the way out there to do it? Why not just throw it in the town dump, if one didn’t want to take it to the thrift store…?

        I always have wondered if me and my companion at the time had wandered a bit further afield, we might not have found bodies, too. :/

  2. John Creasey’s Gideon series featured a fairly happy marriage, as I recall. Goodish kids, too.

    The ones that kill me are people trying to put English police procedural together with romance. Gothic romance. Gothic romance with lords. And heroines with psychic powers.

    So yeah, you get the lord high Scotland Yard guy doing all this super-dubious-legality stuff, with a very junior constable or inspector heroine, and pulling strings all over which is totally okay because he’s a good guy. Meanwhile, there is usually some other crooked Scotland Yard higher up, who is pulling strings and doing dubious procedure that is much less dubious, but that is totally corrupt and bad because he is a bad guy. And he doesn’t like the heroine because she is always doing strange stuff based on the unrevealed-to-him psychic powers… so he is totally beyond redemption.

    And none of a heroine’s rivals at work can possibly just be disagreeing with her. They always turn out to be Super Evil Villains. And heroines having psychic powers and police training still don’t stop them from doing stupid Gothic romance things.


  3. Loving these tear downs of what makes genre X go and work. I wonder how many big city police departments allow ride alongs for research purposes these days?

      1. Sarah, there are an increasing number of departments that will also let you walk through their laser tag “deadly force” training, so you have a better idea of what that looks like.

    1. there are ride-alongs, and citizen’s academies. Lots of police forces have ’em, city and county, because they figure the more the public understands who they are and what they do, the better everyone will rub along together.

      Your average cop in a ride-along is more interested in helping you understand when it is and isn’t legal to call cops on somebody, and why it’s a really bad idea to drive drunk, and that you never, ever, ever should threaten your child with “I’m gonna call the cops and they’re gonna arrest you if’n you don’ eat yours carrots!”

      My friend Kaylee did a ride-along, and came back with the impression that the police wre basically babysitters for adults, mostly those who were drunk, stoned, or throwing temper tantrums. They’d certainly prefer that to the impressions hollywood and BLM are peddling.

  4. for instance in my area, the report is taken by someone who is not-actually-a-cop, and the detective calls you back…. maybe. (this was for a $900 laptop)

    1. You’re lucky if the cops will even look for evidence if they recover a stolen car. Some friends of my parents had their car stolen. It was then used (and recorded being used) in the commission of other crimes. When it was found, it was turned back over to them. The body shop looking it over for the insurance estimate were the ones who found the blank passports and half-eaten takeout the criminals had left in the car.

  5. In a panel at DragonCon mumble years ago, Laurel Hamilton claimed in a panel that for one of her early Anita Blake books, she actually walked up to a cop standing guard over a murder scene in her apartment complex and asked him “If the police were called to investigate a cannibal murder by a group, how would they do it?” Apparently he found her harmless and or attractive looking enough to answer her rather than taking her in….. which wouldn’t really surprise me if it was a true story.

  6. My daughter has been bitten by the writing bug (she’s my co-author in the Luna City series; she does plots and characters, I do the conversation and descriptions) and wants to generate a local police procedural set in a nearby-medium small town which we know pretty well. Having made the contact with the local CID – well, stuff gets in the way. And yes – if you have not been a police officer yourself, extensive research is key.

    I always rather liked the British series Midsomer Murders – it was based on a very good book series – because the head detective had a normal family life and an affectionate marriage. This was a twist which had the charm of the unusual, given the usual angst-ridden police detective of most other series of this kind.

  7. Thanks. As luck would have it, I have a police procedural short story that won’t quite gel, despite have a clear start, middle, and ending. Problem A is that I need to learn about investigation procedure. Problem B that it involves a bit of old, but hard, science, and I need to bring that out early enough for the resolution to be fair to the reader. So it looks like I’ll be doing research in Problem A, and hope for the best with Problem B.

  8. Quick Off Topic Question:

    Something has happened, which does not directly involve me, that has me utterly disgusted with the culture than manifests on Facebook. I don’t maintain my page there, anyway, but is there any reason for a writer to maintain a Facebook presence anymore?

    1. Now this sounds like one of the questions that could have been posted in the topic request posts a week or so ago. I too would be interested in this since I have cut down my use of Facebook significantly over the past two months.

    2. I don’t have a specific writer’s page, although I mention everything I publish on my page (over and over). But what seems to pay off is being actively and intelligently engaged in various threads on open pages. Without, mind you, mentioning any of my books.

    3. Judging by the Author’s Notes of the 28 gadzillion Kurtherian books, it certainly helps. (And I thought Pam was prolific with Wine of the Gods.)

      On the other hand, I can easily see it doing more harm than good if one cannot walk away without posting on some topics, which is exactly why I’m not on Facebook – I want to be able to get another job.

  9. You know, I *just* started a police procedural (combined with Woman In Peril thriller), and I keep stopping and giggling, because so far–and I’m about halfway through–it has hit EVERY point Sarah described above. EVERY point, precisely. (And also every point for Woman In Peril.)

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