The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery story which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on one single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal's identity concealed until the climax, the so-called whodunit, in police procedurals, the perpetrator's identity is often known to the reader from the outset. Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.
Lawrence Treat's 1945 novel V as in Victim is often cited as the first police procedural. The genre moved to radio and then television with Dragnet in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the 1980s, Hill Street Blues pioneered the depiction of the conflicts between the work and private lives of officers. In 1990s and 2000s, the Law & Order series depicts the two 'halves' of a criminal proceeding in the criminal justice system: the investigation of the crime by the police detectives and the subsequent prosecution of the criminals by the district attorney's office.
There were earlier precedents, but Lawrence Treat's 1945 novel V as in Victim is often cited as perhaps the first "true" police procedural, . Another early example is Hillary Waugh's Last Seen Wearing ..., 1952. Even earlier examples, predating Treat, include the novels Harness Bull, 1937, and Homicide, 1937, by former Southern California police officer Leslie T. White, P.C. Richardson's First Case, 1933, by Sir Basil Thomson, former Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and the short story collection Policeman's Lot, 1933, by former Buckinghamshire High Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Henry Wade.
The procedural became more prominent after World War II, and, while the contributions of novelists like Treat were significant, a large part of the impetus for the post-war development of the procedural as a distinct sub-genre of the mystery was due, not to prose fiction, but to the popularity of a number of films which dramatized and fictionalized actual crimes. Dubbed "semidocumentary films" by movie critics, these motion pictures, often filmed on location, with the cooperation of the law enforcement agencies involved in the actual case, made a point of authentically depicting police work. Examples include The Naked City (1948), The Street with No Name (1948), T-Men (1947), and Border Incident (1949).
Films from other countries soon began following the semidocumentary trend. In the UK there was The Blue Lamp (1950). In France, there was Quai des Orfevres (1947), released in the US as Jenny Lamour. Possibly the first Japanese police procedural film is Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog in 1949.
One semidocumentary, He Walked By Night (1948), released by Eagle-Lion Films, featured a young radio actor named Jack Webb in a supporting role. The success of the film, along with a suggestion from LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, the film's technical advisor, gave Webb an idea for a radio drama that depicted police work in a similarly semidocumentary manner. The resulting series, Dragnet, which debuted on radio in 1949 and made the transition to television in 1951, has been called "the most famous procedural of all time" by, among others, mystery novelist and mystery historian William L. DeAndrea, mystery novelist and gay literary activist Katherine V. Forrest, speech technology specialist Judith A. Markowitz, and mystery novelist Max Allan Collins.
The same year that Dragnet debuted on radio, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sidney Kingsley's stage play Detective Story opened on Broadway. This frank, carefully researched dramatization of a typical day in an NYPD precinct detective squad became another benchmark in the development of the police procedural.
Over the next few years, the number of novelists who picked up on the procedural trend grew to include writers like Ben Benson,who wrote carefully researched novels about the Massachusetts State Police, retired police officer Maurice Procter, who wrote a series about North England cop Harry Martineau, and Jonathan Craig, who wrote short stories and novels about New York City police officers. Police novels by writers who would come to virtually define the form, like Waugh, Ed McBain, and John Creasey started to appear regularly.
In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase "police procedural" to describe it.
Ed McBain, the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, wrote dozens of novels in the 87th Precinct series, beginning in the mid-1950s. Hunter continued to write 87th Precinct novels almost until his death in 2005. Although these novels focus primarily on Detective Steve Carella, they encompass the work of many officers working alone and in teams, and Carella is not always present in any individual book. Hunter has used many different narrative approaches over the years, and the 87th Precinct novels are often works of great power, depth, and emotional richness, and often contain moments of terrific (if sometimes gruesome) humour.
As if to illustrate the universality of the police procedural, many of McBain's 87th Precinct novels, despite their being set in a slightly fictionalized New York City, have been filmed in settings outside New York, even outside the US. Akira Kurosawa's 1963 film, High and Low, based on McBain's King's Ransom (1959), is set in Tokyo. Without Apparent Motive (1972), set on the French Riviera, is based on McBain's Ten Plus One (1963). Claude Chabrol's Les Liens de Sang (1978), based on Blood Relatives (1974), is set in Montreal. Even Fuzz (1972), based on the 1968 novel, though set in the US, moves up the action north to Boston.
Perhaps ranking just behind McBain in importance to the development of the procedural as a distinct mystery sub-genre is John Creasey, a prolific writer of many different kinds of crime fiction, from espionage to criminal protagonist. He was inspired to write a more realistic crime novel when his neighbor, a retired Scotland Yard detective, challenged Creasey to "write about us as we are." The result was Inspector West Takes Charge, 1940, the first of more than forty novels to feature Roger West of the London Metropolitan Police. The West novels were, for the era, an unusually realistic look at Scotland Yard operations, but the plots were often wildly melodramatic, and, to get around thorny legal problems, Creasey gave West an "amateur detective" friend who was able to perform the extra-procedural acts that West, as a policeman, could not.
In the mid-1950s, inspired by the success of television's Dragnet and a similar British TV series, Fabian of the Yard, Creasey decided to try a more down-to-earth series of cop stories. Adopting the pseudonym "J.J. Marric", he wrote Gideon's Day, 1955, in which George Gideon, a high-ranking detective at Scotland Yard, spends a busy day supervising his subordinates' investigations into several unrelated crimes. This novel was the first in a series of more than twenty books which brought Creasey his best critical notices. One entry, Gideon's Fire, 1961, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Mystery Novel. The Gideon series, more than any other source, helped establish the common procedural plot structure of threading several autonomous storylines through a single novel.
A prolific author of police procedurals, whose work has fallen out of fashion in the years since her death, is Elizabeth Linington writing under her own name, as well as "Dell Shannon" and "Lesley Egan." Ms. Linington reserved her Dell Shannon pseudonym primarily for procedurals featuring LAPD Central Homicide Lieutenant Luis Mendoza (1960-1986). Under her own name she wrote about Sergeant Ivor Maddox of LAPD's North Hollywood Station, and as Lesley Egan she wrote about suburban cop Vic Varallo. These novels are often considered severely flawed, partly due to the author's far-right political viewpoint (she was a proud member of the John Birch Society), but primarily because Miss Linington's books, notwithstanding the frequent comments she made about the depth of her research, were all seriously deficient in the single element most identified with the police procedural, technical accuracy. However, they have a certain charm in their depiction of a kinder, gentler California, where the police were always "good guys" who solved all the crimes and respected the citizenry.
It has been suggested that the Inspector Maigret novels of Georges Simenon aren't really procedurals because of their strong focus on the lead character, but the novels have always included subordinate members of his staff as supporting characters. More importantly, Simenon, who had been a journalist covering police investigations prior to creating Maigret, was giving an accurate depiction, or at least the appearance of an accurate depiction, of law enforcement in Paris. Further, Simenon's influence on later European procedural writers, like Sweden's Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or the aforementioned Baantjer, is obvious.
Though not the first police officer to write procedurals, Joseph Wambaugh's success has caused him to become the exemplar of cops who turn their professional experiences into fiction. The son of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, policeman, Wambaugh joined the Los Angeles Police Department after a stint of military duty. In 1970, his first novel, The New Centurions, was published. This followed three police officers through their training in the Academy, their first few years on the street, culminating in the Watts riots of 1965. It was followed by such novels as The Blue Knight, 1971, The Choirboys, 1975, Hollywood Station, 2006, and acclaimed non-fiction books like The Onion Field, 1973, Lines and Shadows, 1984, and Fire Lover, 2002. Wambaugh has said that his main purpose is less to show how cops work on the job, than how the job works on cops.
Other police officers who have gone on to become police novelists include New York City Transit Police Detective Dorothy Uhnak, NYPD Detectives William Caunitz and Dan Mahoney, FBI Agents Paul Lindsay, Arthur Nehrbass, and Christopher Whitcomb, US Secret Service Agent Gerald Petievich, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff's Detective O'Neil De Noux, Scotland Yard Special Branch Detective Graham Ison, Soviet Prosecutor's Investigator Friedrich Neznansky, and the previously mentioned Baantjer of the Amsterdam Municipal Police.
It is difficult to disentangle the early roots of the procedural from its forebear, the traditional detective novel, which often featured a police officer as protagonist. By and large, the better known novelists such as Ngaio Marsh produced work that falls more squarely into the province of the traditional or "cozy" detective novel. Nevertheless, some of the work of authors less well known today, like Freeman Wills Crofts's novels about Inspector French or some of the work of the prolific team of G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, might be considered as the antecedents of today's police procedural. British mystery novelist and critic Julian Symons, in his 1972 history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, labeled these proto-procedurals "humdrums," because of their emphasis on the plodding nature of the investigators.
See main article: List of police television dramas.
Police procedurals on television include:
British procedurals include:
The comic strip Dick Tracy is often pointed to as an early procedural. Indeed, in his introduction to a 1970 collection of Tracy strips entitled The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy, no less an authority than Ellery Queen suggested that Tracy, predating Webb, Treat, Creasey, and McBain, was the first "truly" procedural policeman in any fictional medium.
Certainly Tracy creator Chester Gould seemed to be trying reflect the real world. Tracy himself, conceived by Gould as a "modern-day Sherlock Holmes", was partly modeled on real-life law enforcer Eliot Ness, and his first, and most frequently recurring, antagonist, the Big Boy, was based on Ness's real-life nemesis Al Capone. Other members of Tracy's Rogues Gallery, like Boris Arson, Flattop Jones, and Maw Famon, were inspired, respectively, by John Dillinger, Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and Kate "Ma" Barker.
More to the point, Gould was making a genuine attempt to portray police work realistically. Once Tracy was sold to the Chicago Tribune syndicate, Gould enrolled in a criminology class at Northwestern University, met with members of the Chicago Police Department, and did research at the Department's crime lab, to make his depiction of law enforcement more authentic. Ultimately, he hired retired Chicago policeman Al Valanis, a pioneering forensic sketch artist, as both an artistic assistant and police technical advisor.
Later stories, in which Gould veered into space opera and extraterrestrial contacts, mitigated somewhat against the strip's being recognized for its early use of realistic police procedure, but any examination of the Tracy strip from its beginnings in 1931 through the 1950s makes Gould's status as a pioneer in the police procedural sub-genre clear.
The success of Tracy led to many more police strips. While some, like Norman Marsh's Dan Dunn were unabashedly slavish imitations of Tracy, others, like Dashiell Hammett's and Alex Raymond's Secret Agent X-9, took a more original approach. Still others, like Eddie Sullivan's and Charlie Schmidt's Radio Patrol and Will Gould's Red Barry, steered a middle course. One of the best post-Tracy procedural comics was Kerry Drake, written and created by Allen Saunders and illustrated by Alfred Andriola. It diverged from the metropolitan settings used in Tracy to tell the story of the titular Chief Investigator for the District Attorney of a small-town jurisdiction. Later, following a personal tragedy, he leaves the DA's Office and joins his small city's police force in order to fight crime closer to the grass roots level. As both a DA's man and a city cop, he fights a string of flamboyant, Gould-ian criminals like "Stitches", "Bottleneck", and "Bulldozer."
Other syndicated police strips include Zane Grey's King of the Royal Mounted, depicting police work in the contemporary Canadian Northwest, Lank Leonard's Mickey Finn, which emphasized the home life of a hard-working cop, and Dragnet, which adapted stories from the pioneering radio-TV series into comics. Early comic books with police themes tended to be reprints of syndicated newspaper strips like Tracy and Drake. Others adapted police stories from other mediums, like the radio-inspired anthology comic Gang Busters, Dell's 87th Precinct issues, which adapted McBain's novels, or The Untouchables, which adapted the fictionalized TV adventures of real-life policeman Eliot Ness.
More recently, there have been attempts to depict police work with the kind of hard-edged realism seen in the novels of writers like Wambaugh, such as Marvel's four-issue mini-series Cops: The Job, in which a rookie police officer learns to cope with the physical, emotional, and mental stresses of law enforcement during her first patrol assignment. With superheroes having long dominated the comic book market, there have been some recent attempts to integrate elements of the police procedural into the universe of costumed crime-fighters. Gotham Central, for example, depicts a group of police detectives operating in Batman's Gotham City, and suggested that the caped crimefighter is disliked by many Gotham detectives for treading on their toes. Meanwhile Metropolis SCU tells the story of the Special Crimes Unit, an elite squad of cops in the police force serving Superman's Metropolis.
The use of police procedural elements in superhero comics can partly be attributed to the success of Kurt Busiek's groundbreaking 1994 series Marvels, and his subsequent Astro City work, both of which examine the typical superhero universe from the viewpoint of the common man who witnesses the great dramas from afar, participating in them tangentially at best.
In the wake of Busiek's success, many other writers mimicked his approach, with mixed results – the narrative possibilities of someone who does not get involved in drama are limited. In 2000, however, Image Comics published the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis's comic Powers, which followed the lives of homicide detectives as they investigated superhero-related cases. Bendis's success has led both Marvel Comics and DC Comics to begin their own superhero-themed police procedurals (District X and the aforementioned Gotham Central), which focus on how the job of a police officer is affected by such tropes as secret identities, superhuman abilities, costumes, and the near-constant presence of vigilantes.
While the detectives in Powers were "normal" (unpowered) humans dealing with super-powered crime, Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10 mini-series, published by America's Best Comics in 2000-2001, centered around the super-powered police force in a setting where powers are omnipresent. The comic detailed the lives and work of the police force of Neopolis, a city in which everyone, from the police and criminals to civilians, children and even pets, has super-powers, colourful costumes and secret identities.
However, just as Gould's introduction of science fiction elements into Tracy made that strip less believable for many readers, the notion of realistic cops working in a world where costumed, super-powered crime-fighters and criminals actually exist is a problematic concept, seemingly at odds with the rigorous, naturalistic realism that is the procedural's hallmark.