In recent months, book groups on Facebook have seen a lot of comments focussing on authenticity in crime writing. As a crime writer myself, I have my own views. For instance, I don’t really see the point in striving to get every protocol and procedure correct and then write a series in which your main detective encounters a serial killer in every book. You’d be hard pressed to find a copper who encounters a single serial killer in their entire career, let alone one every year or so. That’s why it’s fiction and not fact. Also, how many readers out there actually know what the specific procedures are in general, not to mention the differences in how regional areas operate?
My own approach to this is fairly simple: I begin with the basics: I’m writing fiction. My DI Bliss series follows the Major Crimes unit at Thorpe Wood police station in Peterborough, UK. So, yes, there is a real UK, in which there is a real city called Peterborough, the city’s main police station is at Thorpe Wood, and they do have a Major Crimes unit. I’ve seen the outside of the building and its surroundings, so I can describe it well. I’ve seen the inside because I once had to report a crime there. I also know someone whose job takes them there on a regular basis, so I know a fair bit about the interior beyond the security doors, and if I need to know something specific about legal procedures or how detectives work, I can find out within days. That’s a pretty authentic baseline to work from. However, my cops and villains are fictional, the situations are fictional, the crimes are fictional. And as far as I am concerned, within those boundaries of fiction a certain element of imagination aligned with occasional necessity is perfectly acceptable.
Now, if I had my UK-based cops tearing around the streets in a souped-up muscle car, leaping over the bonnet in pursuit of a bad guy and mowing them down with a Smith & Wesson, I’d deserve everything I get by way of criticism. But if I sometimes ignore a minor piece of procedure or speed up the process of crime scene investigation, then does it really matter? Many of those who did or do work for the police accept the fact that crime fiction cannot – and probably should not – follow precise protocols and procedures, because to do so would be tedious for the reader.
I get quite a bit of mail from current and ex-police officers, and have yet to find one critical of what I put on the page. They seem to agree that striking the right balance is more important than strict adherence, and I think the key is adding authenticity and not allowing your work to drown in it. I mean, those of us who know Colin Dexter’s Morse either from the books or the TV show, realise that Oxford did not suddenly become South Central Los Angeles. Once again, it’s fiction... it’s allowed.
As authors we are always going to have readers tell us we got something wrong – even when we haven’t. I had one US reader complain about my first Bliss novel being ‘typically British with no car chases or guns’, when in fact it featured both. In my second, several readers scoffed at the notion of two detectives being sent to the US to carry out an investigation, when in fact I knew this to be true as I’d read a newspaper article about that very thing. Book three came along and somebody insisted my plot fell down because no RAF base would allow non-military vehicles into the grounds, even though my media liaison at the very base I wrote about told me how often it occurred and for what reasons. Sometimes readers don’t know best, although you can’t afford to slack too much because many of them really do know their stuff.
There’s also the fact that one man’s authenticity is another man’s error. The UK does not have a national police force as such. The NCA does cover the UK, but it has a specialist role. Instead, our policing is divided into regional areas, and while the fundamental rules and regulations may be the same, each has their own method of achieving desired outcomes. It’s entirely possible, therefore, that the main police station in one area will function differently to a neighbouring one, and will interpret standard procedure in slightly different ways, including how they use their officers. So, getting everything 100% right 100% of the time is virtually impossible, and to be perfectly honest, undesirable.
After all, does the great British public care that much about accuracy? In 2018 the TV show Bodyguard won plaudits galore and was one of the major successes of the year. Now, I have to tell you that the moment I saw the lead character playing the lead role doing his duties as a bodyguard with his jacket buttons fastened – thereby preventing him from grabbing his gun in an emergency – and also walking around with his hands in his pockets, I rolled my eyes and knew we were not in for something special. But not everybody would have noticed, not everybody would have cared had they done so. The show was a hit – so did that lack of authenticity matter?
My approach, therefore, is to make as much of the story as I can feel authentic, while allowing myself the liberty of applying a fictional spin as and when the story calls for it. At the same time, I try hard to remain within the bounds of feasibility. Personally, I’m happy if readers feel they’ve enjoyed an experience containing sufficient authenticity regarding the procedural element, while also benefitting from any practical fictional aspect of the story. It’s the combination that works, I believe, not the sole focus on accuracy.
When serving officers, ex-officers, and a solicitor tells me they enjoy my DI Bliss books and have no issues with the procedural element, then I feel I’ve met my self-imposed requirement of striking the right balance while still – hopefully – telling a compelling work of fiction. But I won’t be taking it for granted. Research is invaluable, and while it’s not possible to gain specific information in every circumstance, you can always get close enough to make sure that you stay within those practical boundaries and carry on delivering authentic fiction.