If your books showed readers what detectives really did all day, no one would ever read them.
How many times have you seen a variant on that sentiment? Real-life detectives admitting that their day job is largely office-based and mostly dull.
If you were to write a story that truly documented the ins and outs of a murder investigation, it would consist mostly of teams of officers and support personnel staring at computer screens for hours on end, punctuated by team briefings. Interviews are largely conducted by detective constables and sergeants with specialist training, arrests are usually made by uniformed officers, many of the leads followed by the team are generated by the Artificial Intelligence that underpins the HOLMES2 case management system, and decisions about charging a suspect are made by the Crown Prosecution Service. Once the criminal is successfully apprehended and charged, there are months of work still to be done preparing for the upcoming trial.
If you watch one of the excellent fly-on-the-wall documentaries that follow a murder investigation from the emergency call through to trial and conviction or acquittal, one of the most striking things is just how long everything takes. Keep an eye on the timestamps that appear on screen periodically, and even in a relatively straight-forward case, you will see that the gathering of evidence prior to the suspect being charged or released can take months or years. Of course it is entirely possible to write a story that takes place over such a long time span, but if you write an ongoing series like I do, my detective and his team needs to solve a new mystery each book - which means that they need to have gone from murder to charging in the space of a few weeks or months; that way they have time to go through the pre-trial procedure etc (usually after I've finished the story), before discovering their next body on page one of the following year's novel!
That's not to denigrate what can be an immensely satisfying and rewarding career. Rather it a realistic description of what the job really entails. The same is true for any profession. TV series such as Educating Essex would have us believe that teachers spend most of their day teaching, and that lessons are non-stop teenage drama. In reality of course, teachers spend longer planning lessons, marking work, sitting in meetings, taking part in training, writing tests, making new resources, supervising detentions, doing break duty, running extra-curricular activities and swearing at their laptops than actually teaching. And much of that work is done in the hours before or after school, or at home in the evening or weekend. And most lessons, in my experience, are usually fairly low-key affairs. Sure there are some drama queens who like to disrupt everything (whether or not there is a camera to play up to) and there are fantastic lessons where the kids are dancing around with the teacher like something out of a Hollywood movie. But typically a well-taught lesson will have most of the kids on-task, most of the time. The atmosphere will be calm, professional and generally friendly and the teacher will be instructing, cajoling and admonishing in varying proportion. But that's boring telly!
The question is: How can we as writers weave a compelling story that is both realistic AND exciting? The aforementioned TV documentaries create a sense of pace by clever editing, deciding what to leave in and what to exclude, and how much detail the audience needs to actually see. As writers we can also do the same, and for fiction we have one big advantage that documentary makers don't - we can also use poetic licence to fudge what might really happen to make our story more enjoyable.
So what should you fudge? I once saw Lee Child give a talk, and he said that readers will accept one big implausibility (I paraphrase). For him it is that roughly once a year Reacher stumbles into a town that just happens to need an over-muscled stranger to solve a problem for them.
I ask my reader to accept that Warren Jones, a Detective Chief Inspector working in a small CID unit in a fictional market town, chases down suspects and interviews them himself. And that furthermore, he does so in Hertfordshire - a county whose police force merged all of its serious crime units with those from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire so they could efficiently operate out of a single large HQ in Welwyn Garden City.
Unfortunately, I had already started writing The Last Straw when I found out about this consolidation, but for narrative purposes, I needed Warren to be part of a small team. He had to have some foot soldiers below him, and a senior officer directly above him and DCI seemed to fit that role. So I made Middlesbury a 'first response CID unit' - the location of my fictional town is geographically about as far from Welwyn as it is possible to be without crossing into the adjoining county, so they use local knowledge to deal with crimes on their patch, and call in additional personnel from Welwyn as necessary. The advantage of this fudge, is that Middlesbury CID is constantly under threat of closing; a useful source of narrative tension. I once asked a retired detective what he thought about my compromise and his response, accompanied by a shrug, was 'sounds like something we'd do.'
As to Warren Jones interviewing suspects - it is very unrealistic that an officer of his rank would do so. As Senior Investigating Officer, he would eventually visit the crime scene but long after it has been secured. He would lead briefings etc, but most of his time would be spent managing the highly-trained specialists that work for him. And he certainly wouldn't leg it after a serial killer into a darkened forest :-) . I'm certain it is possible to write a compelling story whose protagonist fits that criteria, but that's not the story I'm interested in telling. I want Warren to be the central character. So, like many of my peers, I break the rules.
So here are my thoughts and tips. Know the rules to break the rules Most readers (and in my experience, coppers) are pretty forgiving. They recognise that strict accuracy may need to be sacrificed to tell a good story. But you need to be careful which rules you bend or break, and which you should stick to. Day-to-day policing in England and Wales is covered by the Police And Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE 1984). It is an evolving piece of legislation, so double-check your facts are current for the time-period your story is set. It is a bit dry, but it is a gold-mine. You can easily find it online - in fact Wikipedia has a fairly good summary. The advantage of it is that it covers everything from arrest to charging, securing of evidence and the rules that police officers have to follow regarding searches and warrants etc. My advice, is that unless rule-breaking is a specific part of the story, follow this legislation. For example a custody or desk sergeant simply will not authorise your hero to detain a suspect without good justification, or to extend the legally-mandated 24 hour custody limits without the correct authorisation. This may seem arduous, but the good news is that these rules may improve your story - often authors are at their most creative when forced to work their way around a problem. The same goes for forensics. There are countless books, websites and documentaries that can help you write an authentic forensic scene. Make the effort - readers are forgiving but still discerning. A modern-day UK copper stomping all over a crime scene or using a pen and handkerchief to pick up a vital clue looks embarrassingly naïve these days. Follow the rules for your jurisdiction There are some excellent US-based documentaries out there, but they do things differently. It is common for a suspect to be interviewed without a lawyer present, and for the officers to be disappointed when they finally request one. In the UK, suspects are rarely interviewed without a solicitor (not a lawyer - use the correct language). In fact I was once told by a solicitor that he had seen officers shut down an interview and beg a suspect to take advantage of the free duty solicitor- it really is best for all concerned. If you are writing in the UK, don't forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly different rules and systems to England & Wales.
If you need to break a rule - consider meeting critics head on and explaining why. I explain (in the prose obviously), that Middlesbury is unique and that the approach of Warren's team is successful enough that they have been allowed to continue operating independently. I also make a point of mentioning at some point that Warren is probably the most senior officer in any force that still interviews - I've made it a plot point, with Warren sometimes questioning if he should still do it, junior officers keen to work in his team to observe him, or his peers expressing jealously that they spend all their days in the office. Do whatever sounds plausible.
Watch documentaries, not dramas for accuracy! Obvious really - if you are taking dramatic liberties, with a TV show that has itself taken liberties, then you are just playing Chinese Whispers.
Final Thought: Within reason, story comes first. If you were to nit pick everything to the nth degree, then some of most highly respected crime writers would fall short. Alas, you can't please everyone, so do your best and trust your instincts.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul