RARA-AVIS: The Police Procedural in the 1940s

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 01 Jan 2003

This is the decade that the police procedural starts to coalesce into its own distinct sub-genre, and is also almost (but not quite) the decade that the term
"police procedural" gets coined.

There had been police procedurals in the '20s and
'30s, but these might be termed "procedural by default," by which I mean the authors happened to have inside knowledge of police work and naturally used it when they wrote stories about cops. Basil Thomson in England, and Leslie White in the US, had both been cops. Thomas Walsh and others had been police reporters. They had the straight scoop, or something approximating it, so they naturally put it into their fiction. But no one was actually making an effort to research the subject in order to make their fiction more authentic.

In the post-war era, this changes. Lawrence Treat makes a concerted effort to find out what police work in NYC is really like before sitting down to write V AS IN VICTIM (and in his review of this book, Anthony Boucher uses the word "procedural" but doesn't quite define it as a separate sub-genre, yet; he WOULD do so in 1956). Likewise playwright Sidney Kingsley in his 1949 stage play DETECTIVE STORY. Likewise Stewart Sterling in his novels about an NYC arson investigator. Likewise MacKinlay Kantor in his screenplay-turned-novel SIGNAL 32. Likewise Jack Webb in his 1949 radio series DRAGNET. John Creasey never researched ahead of time, but he would have his books about Inspector West of the Yard read over by a technical advisor so that inaccuracies could be corrected in the second draft.

Suddenly it becomes a point of pride to present the police work accurately, not merely a consequence of being in the know from prior experience.

In the 1950s, with DRAGNET simultaneously the most popular radio drama and most popular TV drama, scores of novelists would imitate the "procedural" model with varying degrees of success, and the term "police procedural" would be used to define a separate, distinct school of crime writing.


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