Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Novelists Break the law

Interrogations and Warrantless Searches Make for Good Story
Want to kill the action in your crime story? Let the main characters announce they’re going to get a search warrant before barging into the killer’s apartment. Audiences are hissing and groaning. Writers want to slink back into the shadows.  They know ‘waiting for paper’ is a real time waster and a fast way to destroy audience interest.

So is the story twisting the novelist’s arm to break the law?

This is fiction. Everyone should be able to feloniously break and enter—even if they are a cop—to keep the story moving along. In the interest of blind justice, right?

Last week, I realized how many novels and films I’ve seen where breaking the law has become standard operating procedures for the good guys. Where the main character—the good guy—pulls out the handy lock pick set, plays with the tumblers, and in they go. We are conditioned to think that breaking the law in the interest of justice is for the ultimate good. Does that strike you as a little convoluted? Here are few shows that will demonstrate what I’m writing about.

In a recent lawyer show, the law partner directed a private eye to get information on a potential client in the next few hours. Next scene: Private investigator pries open the front door of this potential  client’s apartment using a crowbar. The private eye trashes the place to make it look like a burglary, confiscates a few items that might be evidence, and hacks into her computer before leaving with what he found. The law partners—I think they call them officers of the court—willingly received this information with a wink and a nod.

In another show that same night, investigators raced to find a victim witness who might be in trouble. They reach the woman’s apartment, kick in the door, search the place at gunpoint and find it empty. Mind you, this is the home of a witness to a murder, a lady who might be in danger herself. In some scriptwriter’s mind, the fact that she might be in danger constituted exigent circumstances to break and enter for the good of the show.

Exigent circumstances make prosecutors wince—and judges frown—when these kinds of cases hit the courts. It is a legal term used to describe when law enforcement might be justified to enter a residence or private dwelling without a warrant. Such action might be justified if a person faces imminent danger or when a suspect is likely to flee. One of the most common situations in law enforcement are  domestic violence cases. Neighbors heard a man and woman fighting. Responding officers get to the door, hear a woman scream, a man yelling, and property damaging going on. They boot the door, grab the man and wrestle him to the ground. The woman—black eyes, bloody nose— sees her man hogtied on the floor, jumps on the officer and the whole mess winds up in court.

Stop and think back over the books, movies and television shows you’ve read or seen lately. Can you remember any scenes where the law was abrogated, where civil rights are violated in the interest of the greater good?

Another situation  we see quite often is excessive use of force on suspects. In a recent show—one I actually enjoy watchinga family of cops are working in the same town. One of the sonsa homicide detectiveroutinely violated the civil rights of practically every crook he came in contacted with although the viewers and the cop felt each crook had it coming. The detective’s reason for roughing up the bay guys is that someone might die if certain information is not quickly obtained. The person is saved, the cop gets high-fived from his partners, and he goes to the local tavern for a beer. Finally—after weeks of civil rights violations—this detective follows the law even when the stakes are high. My wife and I gave each other a high five because the detective finally followed the law.

Now, I’m not a card-carrying, flag-waving ACLU member. Far from it. Remember, I once was a cop and suffered alongside others in the department when those legal beagles peppered us with all kinds of legal shenanigans. However, I wonder how much we have become conditioned to seeing the law violated—by the good guys. Real cops would have wound up in a state or federal prison for doing a fraction of the violations  that make-believe cops get away with every week.

I enjoyed—maybe fascinated is a better word—watching the 24 television show season after season. I agonized along with Jack Bauer as he tortured one terrorist bomber after another in order to save the nation from total disaster. He knew the ends somehow justified the means, but I think he generally regretted using those methods. Looking back over Bauer’s career, the viewing public grew to accept just how far Bauer had to go in order to save the country. Many of us grew to condone Bauer’s methods.

As novelists, I wonder if we ought to rein in our Jack Bauer-type of characters just a tad. Maybe we should try a little harder to stay within the law to get the job done while still raising tension. Characters are created to walk a fine line between right and wrong, between good and evil. As writers, we might consider trying a little harder to up the consequences when our characters stray.

It can be done. The job might be a little more challenging than the excitement of watching  a bad guy getting his face flushed down the toilet or some other interrogation technique. But it is possible to have our good guy walk a fine line, stay within the law, and still show the tension of the character.

Here is a good example of a not-so-nice private eye who finally decides to do the right thing by the end of the novel. Dashiell Hammett did a wonderful job of capturing this dilemma in The Maltese Falcon. Private investigator Sam Spade tried to explain to the beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy why he must turn her in as the killer and for her part in the crimes.  Brigid pleads with him to look the other way—for love.

Spade first says, “I don’t care who loves who I’m not going to play the sap for you.”

She keeps pushing. Spade then lists all the reasons he must do what is right—loyalty to his dead partner; for the good of the organization; because his job is to run down criminals and put them in jail; because it is his neck or hers. He gives eight reasons why he must turn her in to the cops.

Brigid comes close, putting her face close to his, still begging.

Finally, Spade grabs her, clinches his teeth, and utters: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

This might not be an altruistic  reason for staying within the law, but in Spade’s world it is reason enough to do the right thing.

Do you have a character in your novel who might be contemplating breaking the law? What consequences might your character suffer for crossing that line?


  1. At Bouchercon last month, TV writer Lee Goldberg said in writing Monk, he (and the rest of the creative team) didn't let reality get in the way of the laughs. This dictum can be extrapolated: don't let reality (including by-the-book police and legal procedure) get in the way of the drama, action, etc. Do writers have an imperative to be accurate (or moral or buck the marketplace)? It depends whom you ask. Clearly, fictions of power, vigilantism, and being above or outside the law are popular.

  2. Doug, you’ve raise some very valid points.

    Here is the point I was trying to make: How much are readers willing to suspend disbelief? The 19th century poet, Samuel Taylor Colridge, first suggested that readers might be willing to suspend judgment if a writer could infuse a “human interest and semblance of truth” into the story. It is that “semblance of truth” that troubles me when I wrote this article. Many novels purport to be based upon real life police procedurals, however, they have their characters do unbelievable acts—with no real consequences—simply because they want to ratchet up the tension of the story. They create unbelievable—and often unrealistic— scenes in order to get their story where they want it to go. The problem—at least for legalists like myself—is destroys the reader ability to enter that particular world because truth has be drastically distorted.

    There are a number of good authors—John Lescroart, Michael Connelly, and Joseph Wambaugh, for example—who are able to write realistically about police investigations in a very believable manner. Sure, in real life much of their action could never take place in the real cop’s day, however, the events that do occur are believable because they are anchored in reality. Folded into this reality are checks and balances where characters are held accountable for their actions in one way or another. These writers are able to wrap “semblance of truth” around their story that allows readers like myself suspend disbelief and follow them to the end of the story.

    Now stories of characters living outside the confines of the law exist in a different reality. For example, Lee Child’s wonderful character Jack Reacher—whose exploits I thoroughly enjoy—takes realism and chuck’s it out the window. That’s okay. Writers like Child are able to get away with that because of the world they’ve created, a world I willingly enter because I know and accept the world they’ve created.