Yes, Police Procedurals Are Character-Driven

by Kassandra Lamb ~ This is our fifth installment in our subgenre series of posts. It discusses police procedurals, which are character-driven most of the time these days, believe it or not.

When I decided to start a new series of police procedurals, I didn’t realize that some people assume mysteries in this subgenre will not be character-driven. I heard comments like, “Oh, I don’t read police procedurals. I prefer character-driven stories.”

This confused me. I much prefer character-driven stories myself, and all the police procedurals I’ve read (or watched on TV) in recent years have been character-driven just as much as they were plot-driven.

I also heard: “I don’t like police procedurals. They move so fast that there’s not enough character development.”

Well, maybe, if they’re thrillers, but not all police procedurals race along at thriller-pace. Yes, they are faster paced and involve more action than say, a cozy mystery. But there can be lots of character development in there as well.

So I decided to do some research into the history of this subgenre. But first, let me define police procedurals. These are mysteries in which the protagonist is a law enforcement officer (LEO), and to some extent or another, the focus is on how the police operate when solving a major crime such as murder.

police procedurals are character-driven

A Little History

Police procedurals date back to the 1920s, when a few LEOs—some retired, some still active—penned stories based on their experiences. But the subgenre really became more popular after WWII. Hollywood began producing semi-documentary films, such as The Naked City, that attempted to accurately depict police procedures. They were usually shot on location with the cooperation of local LEOs. These movies often had a noir quality to them.

The semi-documentary style of police procedural moved to radio in 1949 and then to TV in 1951, via the show Dragnet. And the subgenre became even more popular.

police procedurals are character-driven
Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday.

Sergeant Joe Friday’s “Just the facts, ma’am,” became an iconic catch phrase for my generation.

In the interest of authenticity, the LAPD allowed the producers to shoot scenes of real police cars and officers, and also vetted all their scripts. New York Times Book Review’s Anthony Boucher credited Dragnet for the rise of these stories as a separate subgenre. And he first dubbed them “police procedurals.”

Dragnet also marked a shift toward primarily portraying LEOs as honest and hard-working (although perhaps willing to bend the rules at times) rather than corrupt.

Contemporary Police Procedurals

With the exception of some “dirty cop” antagonists, this trend continues today. As does the attempt to be as accurate as possible regarding procedures.

But the focus has moved away from the total emphasis on procedure of Dragnet, with practically no character development. Joe Friday had pretty much no personality; often he didn’t even laugh at his partner’s jokes (which were usually fairly lame, as I recall).

Today, we have Blue Bloods and the Law and Order shows, where we definitely are invited into the characters’ lives and see their development over time, for better or worse. And some police procedurals are also location-oriented—like Homicide: Life on the Streets (Baltimore) and Chicago PD. They try to show the flavor of their settings.

police procedurals are character-driven
Sheriff Joanna Brady series, Book 1

And all the police procedural books I’ve read in recent times are character-driven. My favorites are JA Jance’s Sheriff Joanna Brady series and JD Robb’s (Nora Roberts) futuristic “In Death” series.

Indeed, the main character of my new police procedural series is, in some ways, a combination of Joanna Brady and Eve Dallas. And I definitely intend to throw in lots of character development. Indeed, I don’t know how to write any other way.

I’m finding police procedurals more challenging to write than I thought they would be, though.

It’s a lot to balance—a more complicated plot than my cozies generally had, a lot of procedure to research, plus getting that character development in there. And my series is also somewhat location-oriented. It’s set in north Florida, near Jacksonville, and the MC is a recent northern transplant. She’s still discovering the joys and tribulations of living in a semi-tropical locale.

I have to get all that in there while keeping the story moving at a fairly rapid pace! Quite challenging, for sure.

In my new release, Fatal Escape, Book 2 in the series, there are some car chases and confronting of the bad guys on their own turf. That ramps things up nicely. 😀

Please check it out below…

And tell me how you feel about police procedurals. Do you prefer them to be character-driven or more plot and action-oriented?

Fatal Escape, A C.o.P. on the Scene Mystery #2, by Kassandra Lamb

The criminals aren’t giving Chief of Police Judith Anderson much time to acclimate to Florida, or even to finish unpacking!

Only two months on the job and barely recovered from a serial killer case, the newly minted C.o.P. is called out to a scene of what looks like a suicide—an abandoned car on a bridge and a young woman’s body pulled from the river. But why is there no ID on her or in the car? And who wiped all the fingerprints off the car’s exterior?

With the help of “Sheriff Sam” from nearby Clover County, Judith’s search for answers leads to the discovery of a human trafficking ring operating in her city—and to the realization that she’s up against more than one ruthless foe, perhaps even someone on her own force.

Can Judith find a killer, weed out the corruption in her department, and stop the traffickers… before more lives are destroyed?

Fans of JA Jance’s Sheriff Joanna Brady and JD Robb’s Eve Dallas will love the second installment in this new series about a female chief of police!


Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida, and the C.o.P. on the Scene police procedurals, set in northern Florida. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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