Crossroads: The Difficulty of Police Procedural Speculative Fiction

Police procedurals are a complicated genre to explore because they intersect so fluidly with so many other genres. On the one hand, they solidly rest within the mystery tradition: there is a crime that needs investigation, there is typically a primary hero (investigator) and a villain, and over the course of the story the hero must catch (or attempt to catch) the villain.

So far, it sounds pretty straightforward, right?

Yet within those broad constraints we can find a great deal of cross-genre latitude. Police procedurals often rub up against the noir aesthetic or thriller structure (e.g. in the work of Michael Connelly), the espionage novel (e.g. in the works of John Le Carré), romance (e.g. in the work of authors like Nora Roberts or Denise Agnew), or even science fiction romance (e.g. in J.D. Robb’s In Death series).

Yet for the varied aesthetic and structural conventions that police procedurals adopt from other genres, the core at the genre’s heart is always the procedure itself: the realistic demonstration of investigative technique to solve the crime and catch the criminal. And it is this trait which simultaneously makes police procedures similar to speculative fiction, and makes it difficult to integrate police procedural techniques into an otherwise speculative story.

Key Speculative Techniques in Police Procedurals

When we look at procedurals like Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police novels, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, Zo&eumlaut; Ferraris’ Kingdom of Strangers, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, or Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories, we can see the utilization of two critical speculative fiction techniques: estrangement and world-building.

On the one hand, police procedurals are famous for the painstaking depiction of tools and techniques unknown to most readers (and the jargon associated with them). These create a sense of estrangement, a novum entirely comparable to the use of neologism in science fiction or fantasy. To the uninitiated, descriptions of forensic techniques are as alien and novel as those of FTL drives.

On the other hand, the structured and often hierarchical world in which the investigating hero operates requires extensive world-building: the relationships between various positions, the processes and bureaucracy underlying the command structure, and the underlying power dynamics which affect character decisions are foreign to most readers. For the story to be effective, the milieu must be grounded in a fashion not unlike the seedy underbelly so often featured in noir. The story must provide the reader with enough information to ground them in that world, to lend it plausibility and verisimilitude. However, with the long-standing popularity of police procedurals on television and film, many of the world-building conventions are well-established.

Procedural Elements in Speculative Fiction

In the opposite direction, speculative fiction primarily borrows plot structures and character tropes, rather than aesthetic methods. When we consider speculative police procedurals like J.D. Robb’s In Death books, Paul Cornell’s London Falling, Richard Paul Russo’s Lt. Frank Carlucci trilogy, Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher series, or even Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld City Watch sequence, we are likely to find character archetypes and plot structures similar to traditional police procedurals. However the narrative techniques through which these characters and plot arcs are depicted tend to vary significantly, and in the weeks to come I’d like to explore why.

Over the course of June, I’ll be performing an investigation of my own into the relationship between police procedurals and speculative fiction. The main question I want to understand is why the police procedural seems (to my subjective eye) rarer in speculative fiction than the other genres I’ve explored so far this year. Are the conventions and aesthetics of the two genres somehow antithetical? Or does their integration merely present a greater technical challenge for the author to overcome?

Next week, I’m going to dissect the police procedural itself, in the hopes of understanding how it works in terms of its narrative techniques, aesthetic devices, typical plot conventions, and character archetypes. And after that, I’ll apply my forensic scalpel (such as it is) to the relatively narrow procedural corner of speculative fiction.

I hope you’ll join me as I dig deeper into this fascinating genre intersection.

Chris Gerwel is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. Raised in New Jersey, he spent ten years in Central & Eastern Europe in the market research industry, and today when he isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction, he works in the software industry. He lives in northern NJ, with a beautiful wife and a rambunctious puppy, and also writes the weekly blog The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin.

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9 thoughts on "Crossroads: The Difficulty of Police Procedural Speculative Fiction"

  1. Here is where I plug one of my favorite authors, Peter F. Hamilton. His Great North Road is a police procedural set in a spacefaring future (well two of its plot strands are.) He also integrated police procedural elements into his Dreamer trilogy and I think another series, too. Great stuff!

  2. Marilynn Byerly says:

    In the past week, a DNA analysis machine that can produce results in a minute and a DNA vacuum for crime scenes have entered the market. The Supreme Court has just allowed DNA samples to be taken without a court order.

    Fifty years from now, how will anyone but a few tech-saavy criminals be able to commit murder or a crime outside of cyberspace? Crimes will be solved more by machines than by people.

    I think that’s one reason for the lack of police/crime novels set in the far future.

    My reading tastes are more for urban fantasy than SF, and one of the things that fascinates me about this genre is that the mystery is both the structure and the driving plot of the novel. For every type of mystery, there is an urban fantasy hybrid. Even the CSI mystery has a urban fantasy version– Laura Anne Gilman”s “Paranormal Scene Investigators.”

    The mystery format thrives here where it dies in science fiction.

    Next week at my blog, I’m analyzing Jim Butcher’s first “Dresden Files” novel, STORM FRONT, as a mystery and as fantasy. You are more than welcome to come by and toss in your two cents. http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/

    1. Marilynn – why assume that all of the technological advances benefit the state? It is a truism of technological development that “the good guys are always playing catch-up”. I personally presume that those “tech-savvy” criminals will be more than happy to market their tech to anyone who wants it and I have no doubt that the trend will continue to benefit those who are trying to circumvent the law/regulations, whatever.

      1. Marilynn Byerly says:

        Because I imagine that cat suits that block the shedding of DNA at crime scenes and other protective gear will be so expensive that the average criminal will not be able to afford it.

    2. Chris Gerwel says:

      I think you raise one of the main challenges to getting police procedurals right in SF: the “procedures” become very difficult to portray plausibly considering the changing state of technology. I think that’s one of the reasons why traditional mystery structures or hard-boiled crime/noir structures appear more frequently in SF: they don’t focus attention on the detailed techniques/technology the way police procedural structures tend to. Fantasy tends to have a somewhat easier time of it (because the “procedures” can be more imaginative), but even there I find that most tend to follow the “hard-boiled or detective story” approach more often than the procedural one. That being said, I haven’t read Laura Anne Gilman’s Paranormal Scene Investigators yet, but I’m definitely going to check it out as I continue my research for this series, so thanks for that tip!

      And I’m looking forward to your analysis of Storm Front – that’s such an interesting book from both the mystery and fantasy perspective that there’s a lot of cool stuff that can be said about it. I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts!

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