Clewiston is a small community set at the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee in Florida. For the past several years the museum has sponsored a book event featuring local authors. The event is held at the museum, a wonderful place to explore. It is filled with artifacts that are prehistoric as well as others focusing on the roles of Native Americans and early settlers in the area and development of the community. Because this is a sugar cane growing area, the place is known for its sugar refineries and holds a sugar festival each year. It is the kind of community I talk about in an article recently appearing in the Mystery Readers Journal. I thought you might want to read about my take on small town cops so I’ve reprinted the article here.
Small Town Cops, Big Time Issues
by Lesley A. Diehl
reprinted with permission from
Mystery Readers Journal
The Journal of Mystery Readers International
Vol 32, No. 4, Winter 2016-2017
Small Town Cops II
I was sitting at the bar in one of our local golf courses waiting for my husband to get off the back nine when a guy slid onto the stool next to mine.
“Your husband says both of you are mystery writers. Tell me about what you write” he said.
How could any writer pass up an opportunity like that?
“I write cozy mysteries, you may know the kind, set in a small village or town where everyone knows everyone, where most people try to keep secrets—unsuccessfully.”
He shook his head, so I explained.
“Because my protagonist is an amateur sleuth, and there’s always a murder to solve, I’ve paired her with a small town cop. Sometimes it’s a guy like the county sheriff in my brewery murders or a detective in my Big Lake Murder mysteries set in rural Florida. Pairing my heroines with male police officers offers the opportunity for tension between a woman sticking her nose into police business and the cops, and it also provides the opportunity for sexual attraction, ratcheting up the overall level of conflict and excitement in the story.” I noticed he’d finished his beer, so I ordered him another one and kept talking.
“I need the cop because it’s the way my curious heroine finds out vital clues in the case. Of course, her intrusion is usually not welcomed by the guys. Would a female police presence be better? I’d lose the sexual tension, but I can always insert some lusty scenes with some other male presence. You do understand that this is a cozy, so not only is there no graphic violence, but there’s no graphic sex either. But don’t despair. There’s more than enough romance and some titillation to keep you reading.” I noticed his attention seemed to wander toward the group of young women golfers who’d just entered the bar. I forged ahead with my tale.
“What I gain with a female small town cop is a person who can become my protagonist’s friend, and friends on the police force are just as useful to getting the low-down on a case as a male romantic interest would be. And the sexual attraction doesn’t get in the way. That doesn’t mean a gal cop is any more eager to have an amateur telling her how to run her case than a guy. Take for example, Frida Martinez, the only female detective on Sabal Bay, Florida’s small police force. In the Eve Apple mysteries from Camel Press, Frida is good friends with Eve Appel, my protagonist and amateur snoop (and boy is she snoopy!) who owns a high end consignment shop in rural Florida.”
He interrupted me. “No macho guys?”
“Lots of them. Guys all over the place. All the other cops are guys, but Frida is special. She’s made it in a man’s world. Her boss is a guy and her partner is a guy. He’s junior to her.”
“Why is that?”
“Because he’s new to the role of detective. You need another beer?”
He looked around the bar. The women had left. He nodded.
“As a writer I prefer using small town cops in my work because I find most police forces in towns or villages encourage cooperation among different police agencies like the local police, the sheriff’s department and authorities at the state level. A writer can even bring in the FBI and the DEA. I like to do it in a way that focuses on how they work together, not how they compete. Some stories put too much emphasis on the conflict between local police and those at the state and federal level, and there’s some of that, sure, but the small town cops in my work need the expertise and support of other agencies, and they know it.”
He didn’t look convinced. “Most folks like shoot-outs, explosions, stuff like that. You know, drug trafficking, terrorism, serious issues, not fluffy local items like someone stole a toothbrush from a drug store.”
“Small town police deal with serious crimes every day. Is murder serious enough for you?” I tried to keep the testy note out of my voice, and continued. “See, crime doesn’t know geographical boundaries. Look at the news. Small communities are dealing with heroin epidemics, the manufacture of illegal drugs, human trafficking, sexual exploitation. You name it. My cops have to be as knowledgeable about these issues as any others.”
He propped his head in his hand, his eyes now at half-mast. Had he lost interest or was the beer making him tired?
“Gimme a for instance. And another one of these.” He held up his empty glass to the bartender.
The bartender looked at me. This was costing me more than I had originally thought it might.
“Okay, here’s one Frida took on in my recent book Mud Bog Murder, with Eve’s help, of course.”
“Oh, right. The nosey dame.” He took a long pull on his beer.
“Someone killed the owner of a ranch where mud bog races were being held, and a truck in the race churned up the mud throwing the disembodied head right into Eve’s arms. So Frida calls in the local sheriff’s department to help interview witnesses and suspects, all the people attending the races and, along with Eve, all of those protesting the event. Talk about taking command. Frida knows what to do and how to get it done.”
He looked puzzled or maybe that look was from all the beer. “Why would anyone protest some trucks racing through the mud?”
I sighed. “Because it destroys habitat for animal feeding, breeding, and plant species.”
“The only thing out there is a bunch of alligators ad snakes. And some birds and turtles. There’s plenty of swamp in Florida. I wouldn’t worry about any of it going away soon.”
I gritted my teeth.
“I’ll bet you had the detective give her pal and friends a pass on the murder. Right?”
“Just because she was friends with Eve doesn’t mean Frida wouldn’t do her job. She arrested one of Eve’s friends.”
“Just for show, huh?”
“No. There was evidence in his shed.”
“No. A hand.”
“Crikes! I thought you said this was a cozy.”
“Well, I don’t go into detail about the hand, but you can see what kind of forensic work a small town detective has to do. Small doesn’t mean poorly educated. I never make the mistake of denigrating the knowledge level and expertise of my small town police force. And knowing everybody in the town is a plus. You know where they live, who they hang out with, their character. You have first-hand information about their past both social and criminal. If you were raised in the community and then joined the force, you may have gone to school with both the victims of the crime and those who perpetrated it.”
“I guess that would help some.”
“If, like the cops I write about, you balance what you know with investigative skills, you may have an advantage. Police in big cities try for that balance by engaging in community policing.”
“I guess.” He set his empty glass on the bar and sighed. “There’s still too dang many women in your writing. Can’t you make Eve a guy instead and Frida one also? Then you could have some good old mano-a-mano bonding like fishing together, hanging out in bars, maybe mud boggin’ together.”
“That would be an entirely different book, not one that applauded the police skills of Frida and the amateur sleuthing skills of Eve.”
He slid off the bar stool and headed out the door, then turned back. “I know, and I’d like it a lot better. Thanks for the beers.”
My husband entered as the guy left. The two nodded to each other.
“I see you met old blowhard, Henry. Did he talk you ear off?”
“I thought he was a friend of yours. He asked about my books, so I told him.”
“He’s no friend of mine, just a guy who sometimes fills in our foursome. Say, how many beers did you buy him?”
“I don’t remember.”
“The guy is a real mooch, always looking for a freebie.”
“I guess I wasted my breath.”
“Not at all. I learned something,” said the bartender.
I perked up. “What?”
“I found out the guy can’t tell the difference between a light draft and a regular one. I mistakenly poured him a light for his last beer.”
Gosh, I was disappointed. I thought maybe something about cozies and small town cops caught his attention. He must have noticed my expression because he added, “I’ll buy a couple of your books. My daughter’s birthday is coming up, and I couldn’t figure out what to get her. She wants to apply to our police force. Your books sound entertaining and informative.”
So I learned something, too: blathering on about your books is never a mistake.