If You Want To Do The Time, Ask A Policeman

I was reading the other day about how a nineteenth-century Frenchman named Vidocq invented the idea of publicising fictitious crime waves in order to create a market for the police services he was offering. He was a master con artist and police double agent turned top national crimefighter – which not even Dr. Moriarty managed in real life. Vidocq invented forensics, criminal databases and much else, inspiring many fictional crooks, policemen and detectives including Sherlock Holmes. Given the essential corruption of his ruling idea, we may question whether he ever stopped being a criminal mastermind. His conversion to the alleged forces of law and order looks very like what the economists call “regulatory capture”.

We have continued as Vidocq began. The notion of the police telling us honestly what criminals are out there and faithfully combating them falls on its own absurdity. The police have no economic interest whatsoever in fighting serious crime. Their budget rests on keeping minor crime on the boil, sufficient to justify their own existence but not so much as to attract reproach. In this way they resemble not the hunters they pretend to be but rather farmers. They live off their stock, a more-or-less-fixed circle of petty criminals subject to endless bureaucratic and judicial procedures, in and out of court and jail but never disappearing altogether. Pay-offs are then additional to this public income. Sudden homicide from unexpected directions can bring political pressure and thus upsets them, but the only thing in which they have any real emotional investment is violence against colleagues.

Perhaps this is easier to see in the relatively peaceful Nordic societies than in the United States, where the underlying economics of animal husbandry seem obscured by the police habit, whether driven by hatred or entertainment, of shooting unarmed black people and even the occasional white tourist. In the UK, too, racketeering and gratuitous assault has periodically dominated the culture at least of the London force, and in some other countries the police are all too obviously a paramilitary drugs cartel doing territorial battle with unsanctioned rivals. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, the police role in drugs distribution and political violence is so much less obvious that the bureaucratic imperatives to call meetings and generate paperwork become all the clearer. Where I live, the police are so water-soluble that they are rarely seen outside their warm dry headquarters and vehicles. Like the rest of the state sector, they seem to spend all their time writing reports about how they lack the resources to do anything other than write reports about lacking resources.

And yet there is a large sector of home-produced whodunits, with a sizeable export value, famous for both sadism and a social critique ultimately derived from Ibsen. For here everything is the fault of “society” – it is a kind of anti-Agatha Christie, in which middle-class order is not something to be disturbed and then restored but rather the root of all evil. This reader, however, is struck not only by the sheer nastiness of the serial killers but also by the extreme unrealism of the police-procedural aspects. As a resident and former translator, I am simply unable to buy the novelists’ picture of the police detecting. Why, that would be hard work!

I cannot speak for certain about the whodunit-prolific Swedes, but the Norwegian method in actuality consists of pre-trial detention until the victim confesses. After months of such detention, nota bene in isolation, most people would confess to having done anything, just to get out. There is not the slightest equivalent to the ACLU, and the citizenry is united in imagining that a conviction rate over 99% is proof of their own superiority, inasmuch as members of the Master Race (so unlike those Russians next door) would never prosecute an innocent person. It is to laugh – and yet the Scandinavian noir authors have built an international reputation not only on the man next door being a paedophile sadist but also on police officers being lonely alcoholics nevertheless capable of astonishing feats of intuition and deduction.

In my youth the English police were polite to members of the middle classes, who never saw how they treated their inferiors. That being so, one can easily understand how what one might call “Scotland Yard fiction” was possible for its time, although the quaint notion of an unbent copper has survived until Discworld. Perhaps the same holds true of small-town America, at least if you have white skin. Although the Scandinavian police rarely murder innocents on the street, not even coloured ones, the disjunction between the fictional assiduity and the universal experience of utterly incompetent police forces is startling. When they tried to stop the worst one-man shooting spree in history, the Norwegian police had no helicopter but piled onto an inflatable, which then sank beneath them. The Keystone Kops could not have done it better. To us it seemed merely characteristic.

The questions in my mind are, first which model will prevail, the American armoured-car and kick-the-door-down (hey, at least the Gestapo knocked) or the Scandinavians’ automatic regret that they are unable to assist you; and when, if ever, the crime fiction of either culture will desist from describing a wholly imaginary response, investigation and detection.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2012)

Posted on April 1, 2020 at 11:20 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Odds And Ends, Miscellaneous

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