What’s better? Good cop / Bad cop
Our theme for the month of May is good cop vs. bad cop. There's no right or wrong on which makes a better character but authors William Shaw and Vaseem Khan decided to each go down a difference character path. In this exclusive blog for Crime Files they explain why they chose one over the other.
Posted on May 12, 2016 in Author Q&A
Tags: Vaseem Khan, author blog, bad cop, good cop, police, william shaw
“You have to work out what being good really means”
William Shaw, author of The Birdwatcher, discusses why and how he came to write about a ‘bad cop’
The opening lines of The Birdwatcher kind of give the game away: “There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was September. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast. The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.’
William South is, on the surface at least, a bad cop. Good cop? Bad cop? How do you like your crime fiction?
There are two elements to any crime novel. One is the puzzle. Who did it? The other is the journey. Not just, how is the supposed baddie unmasked, but what is the impact on the the detective and those around as they struggle to uncover him or her.
Some writers lean towards the the first; typically for the writers of Golden Age crime fiction, the biggest part of the fun was concealing who the baddie was and wrong-footing the reader. The true detective of the Golden Age was good personified. Poirot, Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion – these were people with impeccable morals and superior intellects who were stiff-upper-lippedly unchanged by the ghastliness they encountered.
But it was Dashiell Hammett who began the trend to tip the balance towards the second, more nuanced story. Suddenly the detective became a man who wore the scars of his job. Hammett knew, because he had been a detective himself: “For your private detective does not — or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague — want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client,” he wrote in the introduction to The Maltese Falcon.
Post-Hammett, the crime novel became less a crossword puzzle, more a moral puzzle. In that, it was reflecting the real anxieties of the 20th century; this was an era in which we learned again and again that supposedly good people can do monstrous things. As in Jim Thompson’s nails-on-blackboard scary The Killer Inside Me, featuring the sociopathic sadist Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, in which the cop hides behind his role as the good guy to carry out the unspeakable. Or that even supposedly bad people can also do good things – a situation which Thomas Harris took to extremes with Hannibal Lecter.
See, crime fiction is not saying that good and bad are the same thing. Quite the opposite. Even in the most depraved moral drama, you have to work out what being good really means. And the genre delights in forcing the reader to take that journey too.
My detective in The Birdwatcher, William South, is not, in my estimation, a bad man at all. Actually, I have him down as a very good man. But he has done an extremely bad thing, and your journey as the reader is to figure out what that is and for you judge him yourselves.
Why even good cops sometimes get a bad rap
Vaseem Khan is the author of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra discusses what makes a ‘good cop’
The cornerstone of nearly all detective fiction is that the detective in question is, at heart, ‘good’. But what exactly is a ‘good cop?’ Is good simply being good at the job i.e. solving crimes, or is goodness an actual state of being that we expect from the modern crime-buster? And are there different states of ‘good’? After all, everyone knows that the good cop must have some flaws, otherwise how else can readers relate to them? Thus the hard-drinking good cop, the chain-smoking good cop, the thrice-divorced, rule-flouting, renegade-maverick good cop.
We do love our tropes.
But I’d like to argue here that there is room for another kind of good cop, the kind that, sometimes – unfairly – gets a bad rap.
And that is the truly good cop.
Inspector Ashwin Chopra, eponymous hero of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Book 1 in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series), is, first and foremost, a good man. He is resolutely honest in an environment that is renowned for corruption. He is rigid in his adherence to his own set of values, namely, a sense of justice derived from his appreciation that he lives in a society that is shockingly unequal. In my series we see social ills that make anything in the West pale by comparison: incredible poverty, caste prejudice, slums, deprivation and disenfranchisement on a colossal scale. But what really burns Chopra’s moustache is the knowledge that on the subcontinent if you have power, fame, or wealth, you can often escape the consequences of your actions. For Chopra, justice is the birthright of all citizens, and it is the duty of those chosen to serve Lady Justice to do so with a pure heart.
So, yes, he is a man who doesn’t drink, or smoke, and adores his wife; he is a man who adopts a baby elephant in spite of the inconvenience it causes him simply because it is the right thing to do; he is a man who sets an example of righteousness to those around him, in spite of animosity and ridicule. He is good in every way that matters.
Does he have any flaws?
Yes . . . He is fiercely allergic to ginger.
Ah, well, even the quintessential good cop can’t be all good.