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The Police Procedural: a mystery story written from the point of view of the police investigating the crime. —Merriam-Webster


I’m not really into cop stories. When I accidentally watched Die Hard(the Hub insisted it was a Christmas movie) I wished Bruce Willis had a cellphone, so the movie would have been about ten minutes long. “Hello, 911-operator? I’m in the bathroom of the Nakatomi Plaza and Snape has my wife, well actually I’m not sure she’s still my wife because she’s gone back to using her maiden name and all, but I’m sure we can work on that and have a swell Christmas with our adorable children as soon as you have a few snipers pick off the terrorists who are conveniently sitting with their backs to large windows. Ciao.” Roll credits. 

So before I review the first book of Kassandra Lamb’s new C.o.P. on the Scene spinoff police procedural series, I decided to revisit the tropes and conventions of the genre. Sure, I could have done real research, but that might have involved watching and reading actual police procedural stuff. And (as I’ve already pointed out) I’m not really into that. 

Instead, I’ve picked through the detritus of a long life of accidentally observing bits of the genre, from my father’s inexplicable fascination with the trope-defining Dragnet to a couple of long-haul trips where my choices boiled down to the Hub’s selection of reading/viewing material, or engaging him in deep, meaningful philosophical discussion. Thanks to our joint trips and his abysmal taste in reading material, I’ve got this.

The Police Procedural Tropes: (example) The Case Of the Mangled Buttocks

The Crime. There are a couple of requirements here, but basically it has to be something small, something that one or two people perpetrate and can be arrested for, and something that can be solved locally by people who are, frankly, not that well-educated or particularly intelligent.

Mangled buttocks have been turning up all over the police station and the janitors are complaining that their contract doesn’t include getting macerated butt out of industrial carpet. Ten murders in ten weeks, all committed with a Chef Tony Miracle Blade (“As Seen On TV!”), and still the only thing known about the killer is that she takes calls in the theater and is a very poor tipper.

The by-the-book-cop. This officer speaks in a monotone, takes meticulous care of their uniform even though they are usually in a suit, and possibly lives with their mother. Deeply buried, and only revealed after the ultimate buddy-bonding, the detective has a tender heart. Nobody can know this. If the detective is a woman in the UK, she might be an impossibly cool lesbian, but she will definitely wear her hair scraped back in a tight french braid. If it’s in a Scandinavian country, the detective will wear a thick sweater and be an alcoholic. If it’s a European detective, they will smoke, dress much better, and need a shave. (Men and women.) Americans will, of course, just swear a lot and form unlikely brothers-in-blue bonds.

If the detective somehow managed to sustain a love interest long enough to propose marriage, and (even more unlikely) procreate, that partner is now part of the detective’s dark, tortured past and only communicates via terse phone messages and the odd flashback. At some point in the series, their ex will of course be kidnapped and probably murdered, adding to the detective’s bottomless swirl of darkness and guilt (although it’s nice not to have to pay support). If the procreated spawn survives, she will be a teenage daughter who is in for a world of kidnap and assault. 

Detective Stick Uphisbutt is a well-ironed and terse detective with a dark secret addiction—he can’t stop peeling labels off beer bottles— and a bone-deep fondness for his shiny badge. He doesn’t know it yet but he is the only one who can stop the killer before she kills (or stiffs a waiter) again.

Of course Detective Stick is a by-the-book cop who speaks beige, irons the creases of his stakeout disguises, and only pets small dogs if he’s off duty and nobody’s looking. Stick is sense of humor-deprived, has zero personal life, and probably spends his nights plugged into a charging terminal in the police bathroom.

But over the years he’s become friendly with Dolly Heart O’Gold, a sweet hooker who brings him homemade chocolate chip cookies and is (unbeknownst to him), his long-lost sister. When Dolly is kidnapped, Detective Uphisbutt is thrown into the investigation, despite his close personal relationship with the victim and the fact that it’s been three days without a chocolate chip fix so he’s got the shakes. His only clue is a blunt rolling pin (spoiler: it turns out to be a red herring because everyone knows you don’t use a rolling pin to make chocolate chip cookies. Just saying.)

Teamwork. If By-the-Book is the lead detective, they will of course need a team. The Captain will force them to partner up, and the remainder of their team will include:

  • a crusty pathologist who somehow has access to scientific equipment and diagnostics that would make NASA weep,
  • a police lab so high spec it does tests that haven’t actually been invented yet and they can instantly identify a single micro-fiber as being produced in the last week by Columbian drug lords staying at an exclusive nearby country club,
  • a teenaged computer expert with state-of-the-art tech that can pull a complete facial recognition from a blurry nighttime shot of a crowd at Burning Man and instantly tie it to a partial crime scene fingerprint, and
  • a rookie looking to learn from the grizzled vet.

Although everyone knows Stick works alone, the Captain forces him to partner with a snarky clerk from internal affairs called Rookie Newbie who has excellent grammatical and one-liner skills. Rookie would really love to learn from her grizzled partner, but frankly this is Los Angeles and nobody except George Clooney has been allowed to legally grizzle since 1953.

Because this is a relevant, contemporary police procedural, Rookie might be ethnic. Detective Stick is, of course, gay—although nobody (except possibly Dolly) ever realizes it and he himself has no idea, even though he drives an expensive car he couldn’t possibly afford on his police salary and listens to jazz so cool it has only four notes and zero melody. Even then.

Cowboy Cop.  One of the team is a maverick willing to bend or break rules. But that doesn’t stop them from delivering a lecture on what it means to Be A Cop, or from being devastated when the Captain suspends them and demands they turn over their badge and piece. It also doesn’t stop them from continuing to do all the shit that just got them suspended because hey— there’s a killer out there. 

Despite the fact that Detective Uphisbutt is a police officer and thus never ever wrong, every member of the public hates him. (Probably all that illicit grizzling.) But he still gives Rookie the obligatory monologue on What The Badge Means.

Detective Uphisbutt shoots his gun constantly, and at least once a week gets shot himself. (When that happens, he switches his gun to the arm that wasn’t shot, tells Rookie it’s a “through and through” and keeps running after the bad guy. That’s how we know he’s really tough, possibly because of all that grizzle.)

They fight crime. The Captain tells the team to check on the word on the street. Each and every cop has a list of Confidential Informants who are perfectly willing to rat on their fellow criminals for ridiculously paltry sums. Meanwhile one member of the team will start a white board with pictures of everyone they encounter in their investigations. Despite the fact that a computer (or even an etch-a-sketch) could do a better job, they stick with the board pix connected by lines and bits of string.

Pretty soon the board and string approach of any complex crime investigation would look like this.  [image credit: John Nash’s schizophrenic office from A Beautiful Mind]

Can Newbie help Uphisbutt overcome his chocolate chip dependency, come to terms with his own sexuality, and face his beer bottle label peeling addiction? As if! What would they do for the next 47 volumes of the series? But maybe they can at least find the (probably former) owners of all those mangled buttocks before the killer and their deadly Chef Tony Miracle Blade (“As Seen On TV!”) strike again. 

And most important of all: will Stick save Dolly’s buttocks in time for her to share her chocolate chip cookie recipe (causing him to recognize that it’s the same as his mother’s recipe which must make her his long-lost sister so I guess we can all be glad he’s gay because otherwise ewwww…).

NOTE: Luckily for all of us, Kassandra Lamb pays a sincere tribute to the police procedural genre while at the same time turning its tropes upside down. Not only did I love it, but I didn’t have to take a trip with the Hub to read it. Please see my next post for my review of Lethal Assumptions. (It will be shorter, I swear.) PLUS a special treat!