Truth and Fiction

Sunday, October 07, 2012

 I love mysteries, not that that's news to anyone who knows anything about me. I love reading them, watching television shows and movies about them, and writing them. I even like computer games that are really mysteries in disguise. I love the puzzles and the knowledge that justice will prevail at the end.

Massachusetts Police Officer

 As a member of Sisters in Crime, I've had the chance to listen to lots of members of law enforcement. I attended the Tucson Police Department's Citizens Police Academy and the Pima County Attorney's Office Prosecutor's Academy. One thing that always comes up during these talks is all the things writers and television get wrong.

We've all heard of "the CSI effect." In case you haven't, that's where juries have come to expect that a prosecutor will be able to get DNA evidence analyzed in 24 hours, have all this wizardly equipment that makes the verdict incontrovertible, and, when this doesn't happen, they determine that the prosecutor and/or the crime lab is incompetent.

Guess what? That's not reality. There's usually a waiting list to get DNA evidence processed. Most crime labs can't afford the equipment shown on television. It's not in the budget. And--gasp!--CSI makes some of that stuff up.

Lee Lofland does a weekly review of "Castle." This started because writers wanted to know what parts were done right and what was done wrong. There's lots that's not technically correct in this show, not the least of which is having a civilian trample all over crime scenes, interview suspects, and often be smarter than the police. Lee has a particular dislike for Lainie, the voodoo M.E. It's as if she's psychic because she knows all kinds of things about how a person was killed even before doing an autopsy. Or with no evidence whatsoever.

Crime Scene Tape
Recently a National Park Service Ranger spoke at my local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was really enjoying his talk--until he started picking on one of my new favorite shows, "Longmire."

Mostly this had to do with jurisdictional issues on an Indian reservation. (And, for all you politically correct people out there, the term is Indian, not Native American. The official government term for places on reservations is "Indian Country." Those people who own the casinos call themselves Indians.) Who's in charge when a crime is committed on a reservation gets very complicated because in some ways the reservations are treated as independent nations. This came about because of the separate treaties that were negotiated with each tribe. Tribal authorities have jurisdiction over misdemeanors--if they have a tribal police department. Lots don't have their own law enforcement. If I remember correctly, major crimes like murder and rape are handled by federal authorities. Most of the time. If at all.

The Ranger's point was that Walt Longmire, a county sheriff, would never be caught on a reservation chasing suspects. He has no jurisdiction.

Now, writers usually do want to get details correct. They do an incredible amount of research checking out those details. This includes talking to law enforcement, doing ride-alongs with the police, reading books on forensics and poisons and criminal investigation.

But writers aren't in the business of creating criminal procedure manuals. They're in the business of telling stories. What kind of series would it be if Sheriff Longmire had to go back and sit in his office while the FBI or Federal Attorney did the criminal investigation on the reservation? Viewers would decide that the main character wasn't Longmire, but FBI Agent Smith because Smith was doing the good stuff.

Same thing with Castle. If Richard Castle is sitting in his townhouse typing his next novel on his computer (where he should be) instead of running all over New York with Kate Beckett, they'd have to retitle the show. And probably cut him out entirely. There's nothing more boring than watching a writer at work.

My point is that mystery fiction doesn't have to be totally true to life. It just has to be true enough. Most readers aren't going to notice the "mistakes" like the minutiae of jurisdiction. They're just looking for a good story.

Photo Credits:
Massachusetts Police Officer: qwrrty (Tim Pierce) photostream on Flickr.
Crime Scene Tape: Tex Texin via Flickr

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