The police procedural is a close relative of the detective story and the thriller. It’s a variety of mystery that focuses more on following the day-to-day work of a low to mid ranked cop on the beat as they go about their business, solving cases with persistence, connections and shoe leather more that brilliant deductive logic and the power of observation.
These days the definitive police procedural is probably CSI, which focuses on crime scene forensics and, like many mysteries, it focuses heavily on the crime of murder. Other crimes are frequently involved, murder rarely happens without some serious prompting to encourage it, and that prompting isn’t always legal either. But the CSI franchise works with the premise that the best mystery stories always wind up with murder involved somehow.
This isn’t saying that all police procedurals work like that. Some of the definitive police procedural TV series such as CHiPs, Hawaii Five-O and of course Dragnet rarely involved homicide, perhaps in part because Homicide is it’s own division in most police departments and the star characters would probably get shut out of investigating homicides they uncovered. Also, those were all shows with a shorter running time, so there may not have been time to brew up a good murder mystery.
So, with those basic ideas in mind, what are the hallmarks of the police procedural?
1. It’s an ensemble cast. While one character inevitably takes the lead, because human nature demands a focal point, police investigations are major team efforts. The one character simply cannot be on point for everything. Rather than one incredibly brilliant character who is constantly leaps and bounds ahead of one or two sidekicks who help him with legwork, the typical police procedural features a medium to large group of equals, some of whom are semi-regulars rather than appearing in each episode or book, in cooperation and competition, sharing work and success.
2. Things are character driven. A police investigation is actually kind of repetitive. There’s lots of interviewing people over and over again, picking over paperwork and staring at crime scenes and photos of those crime scenes. Police procedurals rarely have complicated, locked-room puzzles to crack, that’s not the strength of an investigation unit, but with less bizarre crimes to track it falls to the actual investigators and their personalities to keep us interested. Not that that’s a bad thing.
3. The rule of “fair play” cannot always be honored. Fair play is the idea that mysteries exist as much for the readers intellectual stimulation as their diversion. Some people feel that all the clues the brilliant detective uses to unravel a puzzle should be offered to the reader before the parlor scene reveals whodunnit, so the reader can have the satisfaction of seeing if he was right or wrong. But, of course, police procedurals don’t always have brilliant detectives or ingenious crimes. Sometimes all it takes to catch the crook is turning over the right rock and finding a document that makes everything as clear as day. Sometimes it’s obvious who’s guilty from minute one, it’s just a question of proving it to a judge. And frequently authors will hold facts back from the audience to help build suspense. As with the point above, that’s neither good or bad, that’s just they way the genre works.
What are the weaknesses of this genre? Police procedurals aren’t great at building longterm plots. While TV series can often get away with leaving one major, open-ended case as a running plot element the audience often gets frustrated if there is no real progress over the course of many seasons, or the larger case has no real bearing on most of the episodes, making it largely superfluous. This is because the status quo is god in many TV series, and the writers don’t want to mess with a working dynamic. If a major, overarching case is solved it tends to lead directly to an even bigger mystery to keep things moving along, which can quickly grow tiresome and unbelievable.
Written stories in this genre go to audiences who have an expectation of finding most things wrapped up by the end of the story. That leaves the characters themselves to creating large story arcs through their evolution and growth. However this also runs up against the wall of status quo – if you have a series going already, you and/or your publisher are probably going to be wary of tinkering with something that’s already working well. Striking a balance there requires a great deal of skill.
What are the strengths of this genre? Probably the greatest strength of the police procedural is character growth – yes, it’s very hard to do right and is frequently done badly. But if you do it right, the result is incredibly satisfying.
Also, the genre’s solid grounding in reality let you use a number of popular, believable and likeable archetypes to quickly draw in your audience. The naive rookie, the jaded cynic (with a heart of gold), the cranky doctor and the almighty janitor are all examples of the kinds of characters you might expect to find in a police procedural and, no matter how many times we’ve seen them before we’re likely to wind up rooting for them all over again.
Police procedurals are a kind of variation of the workplace comedy/drama that follow a simple formula: show us a bunch of strange, quirky people doing their jobs and let us build up a real affection for who they are and what they do. The addition of crime solving makes it easier to root for them and creates a thousand natural story hooks. It may not be your cup of tea, but at the very least the genre is a great example of how the basics of storytelling will always pay out. Worth looking at for the character building, if nothing else.