Detective Fiction: Getting your team right

This started out as a simple response to a guest post from PekoeBlaze on Ryan Lanz’s A Writer’s Path on the subject of writing futuristic sci-fi detective stories. It then morphed into something else, and became way too long to clutter up Ryan’s page.

So, let’s first get some clear distinctions of who does what in a real life homicide case because this is the foundation of what each character will be doing. What is probably worth noting is how solving serious crimes these days (and therefore probably in the future) is becoming less a job for one or two cops (as usually portrayed in film, TV & print) and more about the whole team – some of whom may work out of the same office (which may or may not be a permanent fixture) and others who only appear for specific briefings, or who are only involved via phone or email.

I’ve had the good fortune to work as an intelligence analyst on several homicides so have a bit of an insight as to how things can go. I will lay out a sketch of personnel and roles from the case with which I had the most involvement (about 10 yrs ago). In this specific case, the cops knew who had done it, but needed to gather the evidence and build the case to prove it. I’m British so you’ll have to try and get your heads around UK ranks. The exact manpower deployed will depend on available resources and importance of the case (homicides trump most things; analysts may be brought in on serial offences but are unlikely to focus on a single mugging).

There will be a senior investigating officer (SIO) such as a Detective Superintendent, or more likely a DCI – Detective Chief Inspector, who calls the shots. They build the team and allocate tasks. Think of them as the general but who will still dig into key details.

The DCI will then have a Detective Inspector (DI) or two and below them a couple of Detective Sergeants (DS). These guys are the interface between the DCI and the rest of the team and stand in for the DCI at briefings.

They allocate specific tasks to several DCs (Detective Constables) who are standard rank police officers with extra training. They go out and take witness statements and generally pull all the information together. They are the grunts. One of the DCs will be allocated to be a Family Liaison Officer who is there to support the victim’s family (a very interesting but demanding role). Uniformed cops may help out with house-to-house enquiries.

Then there are the police staff (i.e. not sworn officers of the law) who provide a range of support roles such as entering witness statements onto computer, cross-referencing them etc. The forensics team will be from a completely different specialist department and will deploy a range of techniques that are becoming more and more the stuff of science fiction. As an aside, it looks great fun, there are loads of university courses in it, but it ain’t particularly well-paid. CSI [Insert City Name Here] has caused a glut of keen young forensics experts and it’s a buyer’s market and Police Forces have no money.

And then there’s the Analyst (usually prefixed with ‘Intelligence’ or ‘Crime’). My involvement could be as simple as doing a bit of spreadsheet work with telephone numbers (who called whom and when). Or, as in this particular case, looking through all of the witness statements and phone records and CCTV footage and producing a visual timeline of events on computer. And producing an association chart (a kind of extended family tree including friendships and animosities). And a map showing the exact movements of the killer immediately before and after the murder. And a map of cell activity from the suspect’s phone around the time of the murder. All of which I presented to the DCI and the DI / DS team (printed out – the cops still like things they can hold in their hands, rather than flashy animations).

If we were missing something, they would deploy the DCs to go and see if they could find it (CCTV, witness statements, unidentified people, phone records, suspicious vehicles, etc. etc.) and then I would add the pieces to the jigsaw. The DCI paid close attention to what I was producing as it was a reasonable snap-shot of what we knew and what we could prove.

We then presented my analysis to the prosecuting lawyer who later referred to various pieces in court. I could have been called as a witness but luckily wasn’t (the defence either accepts your findings or tries to make out that you’re an incompetent idiot, looking for any slip up).

All very interesting, you might think, but what does it mean when it comes to writing detective fiction?

1) At the very start of a case nobody knows anything – confusion and supposition rule!

2) After a day or so, the DCI/DI may have a pretty good idea of most of the facts and a gut feeling of where the case is going – good human emotional response!

3) The DCs doing the donkey work do not decide what they do next – the jobs are allocated to them by DCI/DI/DS. A DC doing their own thing (for whatever reasons / intentions) may be taken off the case – good source of conflict!

4) The DCs will do most of the interviews and witness statements with the DI/DS getting involved with the more important ones. The key thing here is that they will understand how various people tick – they are much more useful as psychological & emotional investigators than data crunchers. Do not let these characters loose with gadgets and tech – they work the human side of the story. They will discover things in conversation and in unexpected interactions.

5) The analysts and forensics experts dig through their material looking for gems, holes and oddities. They will deploy the weird sci-fi techniques but have almost no interaction with anyone except the lead officers or specialist liaison officers (some DC may be nominated to act as a conduit). They will spot anomalies or interesting threads to pull (e.g. why does our main suspect call this number five times the week before the murder but never again – could be nothing or…?). This means that there’s great opportunity to highlight the differences between the cops who deal with people and the analysts/techs who deal with things. And also an opportunity to throw them into each other’s worlds.

I hope that’s given a bit of useful background info that should assist in creating a workable team with specific roles, skills and motivations. And I hope that things haven’t changed too much in the ten years since I was last involved in this specific line of work! 🙂

This is actually an Environment Agency incident room but looks quite like one of the rooms I worked in.
This is actually an Environment Agency incident room but looks quite like one of the rooms I worked in.

10 thoughts on “Detective Fiction: Getting your team right

  1. This was really interesting! I’m a sucker for a good detective/forensic series’ in TV but I’m always saying to myself “now that guy would not be THE guy actually busting down the door.” Thanks for this really cool insight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 🙂 I totally understand that in fiction you need to condense the action & story and use fewer characters than would normally be the case in real life. But it is important to see the different roles and develop characters in line with those roles. The TV series Gotham is a good example of a very reduced set of characters: 2 main detectives (who do almost everything when it comes to getting out on the street & asking questions), a boss who tells them what to focus on (who is also the overall police chief) and the forensics guy (who supplies leads & intel based on things and data rather than from people). We also see a (the?) records clerk and a big room full of uniformed cops. It all works for dramatic purposes because it helps keep the pace up and avoids keeping track of too many characters, but it’s a bit simplistic.


  2. I somehow missed this … Interesting trip down memory lane! Couple of things I’d add from my experience – everyone in CSI has a beard. Yep, everyone. It is not “sexy” work. They are diligent and thorough. I found a day with them to be so dull because of this painstaking attention to detail. Second, I found the team set up sequence from The Wire to be almost documentary factual. You don’t have an office space, the IT doesn’t work, the team is made up.of who’s available, etc. Depends on the seriousness of the job I guess – there are homicide teams ready to roll, but a lengthy armed robbery investigation, such as I worked on, may be a different matter. And it’s still the best job I ever had, even if the team was disbanded before the end of the investigation. The wheel turns…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, totally agree (although I do know someone who worked in CSI who didn’t have a beard – maybe that’s why he left). My main homicide job had their investigation HQ set up in Hucknall’s emergency incident comms room, so it was a good job it wasn’t needed for its primary purpose! It was also the time when we had about 7 ongoing homicides and we drafted in a few DCs from South Yorkshire & Humberside to fill the gaps. That period prompted them to set up more formalised homicide teams & locations rather than rely on the ad hoc set up they had before. And yes, bloody brilliant job!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eee, them were the days… I still remember going out to interview potential witnesses with the DCs… They were doing their day job; I was indulging my Inspector Morse fantasies

        Liked by 1 person

  3. For some reason I was kept at arms length from the public… 😉 I did spend a lot of time going through HOLMES witness reports and playing with i2 and PROphecy. That Hucknall-based job was where I developed DIY cell-site mapping and proved the external telecoms expert had made a mistake. Full-on geekarama whilst sitting in on homicide team briefings, like in Starsky & Hutch. You can’t get better than that.

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  4. Very interesting. As I think back to books I’ve read, I now can tell which writers have first-hand experience (or did some quality research). I also looked at it from a personal viewpoint (the murder of my brother). We all know who was involved, but charges were never filed. It’s interesting to wonder where things went wrong or what holes couldn’t be filled. No one ever explained the process to us or the roles of the team. We were never told anything about the investigation. Didn’t mean to be a downer here, just that your post is thought-provoking. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Diana, sorry to hear about your brother. I guess it also goes to show that things don’t always work out as planned for the investigation team. One of the first things that my OICs would say to me was “we know who did it, but now we have to prove it.” In my 2 biggest cases we could only prove the involvement of certain key individuals; we knew that others played their parts but proving it was really hard.
      The year and location of the investigation would also be factors in making progress with a homicide case; analysts were almost unheard of before the mid nineties and it was all a bit more old school leg work. Over here we have teams working on significant cold cases from the 70s & 80s because of the advancement of DNA evidence processing and the use of analytic software to pull masses of information together.
      And some cities in the US have unbelievable levels of homicide: Camden NJ had 57 last year out of a population of just 77,000, while the whole of Nottinghamshire, with a population of over a million, had about 25 in its worst year (2004/5). This may make some administrations desensitized to the horror of homicide and not support investigations as well as they should.
      If a case was never brought before a court, maybe there’s a possibility to push for a cold case review, especially if the original team (that failed for some reason) has moved on or retired.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the reply. I know it’s not like TV and I never expected that it would be solved in 1 episode :-). 2003 was still the “wild wild west” where my brother lived and the suspect’s family had/has quite a bit of old $$. A witness recanted before a grand jury was going to be called, etc. etc. (It sounds like a movie!) I’ve thought often about calling the investigators but my folks still live out there and they’d rather I didn’t stir the pot. Crazy, huh? It’s still all a weird dream.

        Thanks again for your thoughtful comments and explanation. You never know what’s going to happen when you hit that publish button on a post! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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