Bully Pulpit by Sheila Simonson

Last week, I read a mystery written in the early nineties in which the viewpoint character (first person, a police chief) not only kills three innocent bystanders in the course of bringing a killer to justice but also trashes six of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, or would have, had the story been set in the U.S.  The novel was set in Canada, which has similar protections.  Since it was first person narrative, the reader was apparently supposed to empathize with the cop and even admire him, nor was there any sense that the book was porno-violence aimed at a scofflaw audience.  It was an ordinary, almost traditional mystery, not even particularly noir.  I threw the book at the wall.  I think I may be jurisprudish.

We all know the conventions of the genre.  How many times do we smile and nod as an aristocratic detective of the Golden Age permits a culprit (usually another aristocrat) to go off and commit suicide sooner than face arrest?  The detective is not a cop, so that’s okay.  Right?  One law for the connected, another for the disconnected.  The suicide gambit makes me queasy but doesn’t induce book-throwing.  Still there are limits, even with amateur detectives.

Here’s another example of the felonious sleuth.  I just read the latest in a best-selling, hardcover-in- Costco-and-Walmart series that features a cuddly amateur detective.  This sleuth is not only cuddly, she’s pious, loyal as a Labrador retriever, and endearingly klutzy.  Her cell phone battery is always dead.  She runs out of gas or trips over her galoshes at crucial moments.  She takes apple turnovers to shut-ins.  Lovable is the word.

Now, one problem professional investigators have is getting a search warrant so they can make a case against malefactors.  For a warrant they need evidence that a crime has been committed, but the evidence is locked up in the bad guy’s stronghold.  Frustrating.  So what does the cuddly sleuth of the previous paragraph do?  She sneaks into the villain’s house, breaks into his safe and office files, and steals the relevant evidence.  Fruit of the poisonous tree, you say?  Nonsense.  This cookie makes apple turnovers, remember?  Her boyfriend just happens to be a cop, duly armed, and just happens on the scene in time to blow the villain away as he foolishly objects to being robbed.

I have no quarrel at all with writers portraying bent cops or stupid cops or even vicious cops, and amateur sleuths aren’t bound by the rules of evidence.  What I have trouble with in these books is viewpoint.  The authors have used the first person viewpoint and the agreeable persona of the series sleuth to bully me into applauding acts I would despise in real life.  I detest being bullied.  Anybody else feel that way?



7 Responses

  1. Sheila, you make a good point. I’ll be more aware of this in the future. I recently reread the collected works of Sue Grafton, A thru U, and I was surprised by the number of times Kinsey broke-and-entered. I think that is a PI convention, but it should leave us with a queasy feeling, regardless of how much we empathize with her.I’m not trashing Grafton, and I’m at the top of the hold-list for V. Nevertheless…
    (I’d love to know the titles of the books you wrote about above!)

    • I’d rather not post the titles, and I suppressed some plot details to disguise who wrote the books, because these are common faults and the writers are not by any means the worst offenders. In the case of cops who break the law, the hypocrisy factor adds to the problem. I think breaking and entering is almost of convention of the amateur sleuth mystery.


      • Thank you, Sheila. I do feel that way. Not holier than thou, but I want to like a protagonist if I’m to spend a whole book in her or his head.


  2. I have my amateur sleuth “break and enter” in my last mystery, but she does feel very upset about it. The cop in the story informs her that he absolutely can’t do this with her because all evidence they found would be “tainted”, which is what my cop friend told me. i think its nice when even amateur sleuth stories aim for believability.

    • A very original, provocative blog, Sheila. I’m sure my protag has broken and entered now and again in my books, always feeling guilty, but I don’t write in first person. I prefer to write in third person, with more than one point of view so that one can see the pros and cons of a situation, the flaws in the protagonist’s character, and evaluate accordingly. In this way, I hope, I won’t be a bully.

      • I agree completely. First person has its attractions, including intensity, but third person with several viewpoints is a good solution for the problem of authorial pressure. I’ve used both and liked both.


  3. It’s going to be ending of mine day, however before end I am reading this fantastic paragraph to increase my know-how.

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