Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sophie's Question for Vicki Delany

How have reader expectations of a police procedural series changed in
the last decade? What elements are most prized now, especially for
someone considering launching a new series?

It’s difficult to speak generally about what readers are looking for, but for me, speaking as a reader as well as a writer, I am looking for a police procedural series that is as much about the lives of the characters as it is about their jobs. I want the police to be complex characters with normal human flaws and normal human relationships that take up a lot of their time and energy. I want the character to move through time as the series progresses while his or her children grow, their parents die, they get married or divorced (sometimes both) and experience all that human stuff we all go through.

As a reader I want the bad guys to also be multifaceted people with motivations for being ‘bad’. I look for a book that needs character and background to explain why the crime has happened and why this person has decided that the answer to his problems is killing someone. A villain who is just ‘bad’ or just in it for the money or just because, doesn’t make for a very appealing story.

I love the sort of police procedurals that are coming out of Britain. Susan Hill is probably my favourite writing today, also Stuart Pawson, Aline Templeton and many, many others. Interestingly, some of the best (in my opinion) North American writers such as Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie, Elizabeth George have created British police characters. I wonder why that is? Perhaps because American cop novels are (sometimes) more about firepower than about psychology.

I suspect that the remarkable, sudden success of Louise Penny shows that this is the sort of police novel mystery readers are hungry for.

I think readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, are very fussy about accuracy and believability. In movies and on TV the plots can get absolutely ridiculous, but not in books. People want to believe that what they are reading, even though it is fiction, is plausible. Most police procedural writers go to great length to ensure that their policing details are as accurate as they can make it. I’ve had to fudge a couple of things for the sake of the story, but I try as hard as I can to make it accurate.

I have no law enforcement experience whatsoever, but I’ve found that police in general are more than happy to help you out and answer questions. I’ve been on foot patrol in Nelson and on ride-alongs in Ontario.

My advice to anyone contemplating writing a police series – if you don’t know, ask the police department closest to you (or where your book is set) how they do things. You can’t make this stuff up out of nothing.

Vicki Delany’s newest novel, Winter of Secrets, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which said, “she uses…artistry as sturdy and restrained as a Shaker chair.” Vicki writes everything from standalone novels of suspense (Burden of Memory) to the Constable Molly Smith series, a traditional village/police procedural series set in the B.C. Interior (In the Shadow of the Glacier, Winter of Secrets), to a light-hearted historical series (Gold Digger) set in the raucous heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. Vicki lives in rural Prince Edward County, Ontario, where she rarely wears a watch. Visit Vicki at She blogs with five other mystery writers at and about the writing life, as she lives it, at


Jen Forbus said...

Wow! I feel like I could have written that post myself. I couldn't agree more. I'm a character lover above all else and if I can't become invested in the character, I'm far more likely to put a book down before the end. A series is no fun if the character isn't changing throughout the span of the series. I absolutely adore Louise Penny, as well as Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire, Alafair Burke's Ellie Hatcher, and of course James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. Simon Lewis wrote a magnificent novel - BAD TRAFFIC - that I think is an indication of more great stuff to come from him. I hope anyway. I've also been reading more Scandinavian mysteries lately and they have some very rich police procedurals as well.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Wonderful summary of what makes a memorable series, Vicki, and I was delighted to see some of my own favorites on your list - Peter Robinson, Deb Crombie, Elizabeth George. I agree it's the character work, especially in George's books (I'm just now reading CARELESS IN RED) that makes them so memorable. In fact, long after reading the earliest books in that series I remember the characters and haven't got the faintest idea what their crimes were...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful post.

Donis Casey said...

I have the same experience, Sophie. There are so many mysteries I've read over the years wherein I remember every character and the circumstance of their lives, but nothing about the mystery itself. It's an author's ability to create characters that keeps me reading her books. Like any person I know and care about in real life, I want to know what's happening in the lives of characters I've come to care about.