Friday, September 21, 2012

Don't Look Under That Rock ... Unless You Can Handle Troubled Dreams: Police Procedural Protagonists

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Several years ago, an acquaintance joined our small group well after dinner had begun. Instead of sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends, he had been called back to work as a social worker in child protection. A mother had answered the voices in her head and tried to kill her child. This time, someone heard the child’s cries and intervened. My friend had just placed the child into the arms of a complete stranger with good intentions but little training.

“I need a different job,” he told us. “I’m tired of walking in the woods and being the one required to pick up the rocks just to see what’s hiding under there.”

None of us had any consolation for such raw human pain. Some said “thank you for doing that work.” Another said, “I’m sorry you have to know so much about the worst in human beings.” Most of us sighed with him.

I think of that man every time I pick up a police procedural featuring a detective with a haunted past. He is typically divorced and somewhat estranged from his children. He has a good heart, one that weeps for the creatures in this world with voices in their head, but he reserves his grit and drive for the victims, brutally and abruptly taken from this life and hurled into another. Living with such emotional tolls drives the detective to drink. He cannot get along with his boss, be he male or be she female. Smart, jaded, and tired, often in need of a haircut or clean clothes or stylish dress, this detective shuffles from work to car to crime scene to witness interviews to pub and finally home to bed. No one likes his methods, but most everyone agrees that he’s very good at what he does.

And what he does is turn over rocks. He sees the human form with all its waste and corruption exposed. He remembers the eyes staring into a truth that none of us knows: the truth that this is indeed the last sight, the last smell, the final sound, the last breath. That detective notices smallest things, things overlooked before, things that only he and Emily Dickinson observe. He sees the family photographs and a still-warm cup of coffee. These mean as much to him as what he does not see: a wallet missing from inside a pocket or a knife out of place.

That occasionally besotted, frumpy detective, sometimes hauling around a beer belly, turns over rocks for the rest of us. He makes us safe by asking the right questions, refusing to ignore contradictory evidence, by taking his time to get it right.

And that’s one reason why I read police procedurals. I don’t want to be the one in the woods required to turn over the rocks to catch a glimpse of man’s dark heart, his evil twin, the beast that lurks in the shadows. I’ll look over the shoulder of someone who will knock over the rocks. I’ll peek into darkness in the pages of a great crime novel, but I’ll do it safe within my well-lighted home, the one with dead-bolts and alarms, the place that keeps the monsters on the other side of the door.

Reading Challenge:

For some of the most flawed police of police procedurals, read Joseph Wambaugh’s satirical novel, The Choir Boys. For a detective so haunted that he often sleeps only after consuming more wine than anyone should, watch the current mysteries about Swedish detective, Kurt Wallander, on the PBS Masterpiece Mystery series. Get acquainted with Inspector Rebus, Ian Rankin’s detective in several police procedurals, or Inspector Banks, Peter Robinson’s protagonist. Or choose any one of 100 titles from a list provided by GoodReads (http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1902.Best_Police_ Procedurals_Mystery_Fiction).

Writing Challenge:

Explain why you enjoy reading police procedurals.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Back to School Basics, Lose and Loose

Elizabeth Bishop wrote in the poem, “One Art:”

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster, . . .

Bishop makes it clear that the act and art of losing relates to loss, to things being lost.

Loose, however, has to do with the fit of clothing, plumbing pipes, and nuts and bolts. Loose means that something is not snug or tightly attached or that something has been freed from its attachment.

Both words have the vowel sound of double “o” as in “moo.” But lose, spelled correctly with one “o,” rhymes with “ooze,” not “noose.”