The fictional British policeman, in all his (or her) vulnerable glory

June 14, 2007 at 2:12 pm (Film and television, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

What are the traits that make the British police protagonist so uniquely appealing? In some cases, I would say, it’s the mixture of bravado and vulnerability, possibly including a back story that contains a secret – or not so secret – sorrow. Then, there are the times when the desire for justice trumps, or nearly trumps, the need to do things by the book. In other words: conflict, and potentially more conflict, with co-workers, witnesses, (alleged) perpetrators, even victims – and of course, with oneself.

Some examples:

Adam Dalgliesh, created by P. D. James; Morse (oh yes, despite the smokescreen of smug superiority!), created by Colin Dexter (whom I met last September – What joy!); John Rebus, created by Ian Rankin; Commander John Coffin, created by Gwendoline Butler; George Hennessey, created by Peter Turnbull; Thomas Lynley, created by Elizabeth George (Yes, I’ve had issues with these novels; they have, at times, seemed to me to constitute a long running soap opera masquerading as a mystery series.); Alan Banks (for many readers, including this one, a long running favorite), created by Peter Robinson; DS Stella Mooney, created by David Lawrence – the list goes on, and of course there are plenty of others that I haven’t read – at least, not yet!

This profile by no means applies to all the fictional creations that populate the subgenre of the police procedural. Ruth Rendell’s Reginald Wexford, for instance, is blessed with a wife he loves and depends on, and has two grown daughters he is devoted to. There is no hidden pain in his past, at least none that we readers are made privy to. He does feel guilty about having more intense paternal feelings for one of his daughters – the beautiful, free-spirited Sheila – than he has for the somewhat tight-lipped, judgmental Sylvia. Naturally, he works hard to right this imbalance and sometimes overcompensates; it is an extremely humanizing touch in the make-up of this appealing copper.

The best site for obtaining up to date information about the order of the books in series such as these and others is Stop! You’re Killing me ( )! Also, the proprietary database Novelist provides this information. (You may have access to Novelist through your local public library’s website – Check it out!)

Of course, some of these detecting types have made it to the small screen, almost always with with rewarding results; the Brits have such an uncanny knack for choosing just the right actors and setting the tone in a way that is both subtle and effective.

georgebaker4.jpg john-hannahjpp.jpg roymarsden01.jpg

[Left to right: George Baker as Reg Wexford; John Hannah as John Rebus; Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh]

The Inspector Morse films have gained classic status at this point. The TV series ended in 2000 with the death of Morse – an episode which I have never been able to bring myself to watch, although I have read the final book in the series, The Remorseful Day. Morse’s passing was followed two years later by an even sadder loss; namely, that of the actor who portrayed him, the deeply revered John Thaw. By all means, watch these films (as I have done several times over!), but don’t forget the novels, which still sparkle with Dexter’s trademark wit and mordant observations concerning human nature.

morse-lewis.jpg colin-dexter-autographing-book.jpg

[John Thaw as Morse, with Kevin Whately as Lewis; and Colin Dexter autographing a copy of The Jewel That Was Ours for Yours Truly at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Our tour group had the impression that he was enjoying himself hugely. Someone asked him why he had to kill Morse, and he responded, sounding – and looking – somewhat injured: “But I didn’t kill him – He died of natural causes!”]


  1. Peter said,

    I found your blog while looking for comments about Gwendoline Butler, and I appear to have stumbled onto something more than that.

    The topic of police protagonists and conflicts bleeds over into that of the problem-ridden, middle-aged male crime-fiction protagonist, a subject I have discussed on my blog and some length and which crosses national borders right and left.

    But back to Britain. My favorite conflict-plagued British detective is Peter Diamond. I regard The Last Detective as the finest crime novel about a police officer who simply cannot abide his colleagues.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. Roberta Rood said,


    Thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with you about the angst-ridden middle-aged detective syndrome not being confined to British crime fiction. Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander springs to mind as an example.

    Thanks also for alerting us to your outstanding blog!


  3. Peter said,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’ll now have to make a it a project to determine how, if at all, an angst-ridden British detective differs from his continental or non-European counterparts.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  4. Bo Lundin said,

    A good starting point for the project could be re-reading the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Already in the late ’60s TIME Magazine had a headline about “Policeman Beck’s Stomach”, correctly assuming that readers around the world would connect Beck’s tummy with his disappointment about the Swedish political situation. Mankell’s Wallander trods in the same footsteps – and is not alone along that path, at least not in Swedish crime fiction.

    Bo L

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