Camden author Tess Gerritsen’s says recent events have made her re-think how she deals with characters in her police detective novels. Photo by David Empson

Camden author Tess Gerritsen writes crime novels that portray police squarely as the good guys.

But the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May and the following storm of protests, violence and calls for massive police reform has caused Gerritsen to rethink some of what she’s been doing.

“I was writing my next book, with cops as the good guys, and I just had to stop writing for a while,” said Gerritsen, who has written the “Rizzoli & Isles” series a Boston detective and medical examiner for about 20 years. “It threw me for a loop, all that was going on. For a lot of us the police are the good guys, but it’s not true for a certain segment of the population. I had to go back and think more about how I can reflect reality.”

Gerritsen is among several Maine crime novelists taking a hard look at larger national discussions about police and race, and figuring out how they might apply to their work. Some have already made some changes to current book projects. Gerritsen has added a scene in her new book that she feels better reflects how a young Black man would react to being questioned by police. Gerry Boyle has decided to make racism at least a part of the motivation for a “burnt out” bad cop in his upcoming Jack McMorrow crime novel. Other Maine crime writers are processing what’s going on and debating the line they walk between reflecting the current reality and entertaining the reader.

Writers of crime fiction around the country – both Black and not – are likely thinking about Floyd’s death and the resulting protests as they write, said Gary Phillips, a Black author of crime fiction, based in Los Angeles. The crime genre has long featured images of police as heroes, who might break rules, but only when the reader knows it’s in the name of finding the truth, Phillips said. Phillips has written 18 novels, including several featuring Black private investigators and one, “Violent Spring,” inspired by the Los Angeles riots of 1992 that were sparked by video of the police beating of a Black man named Rodney King.

Los Angeles-based crime writer Gary Phillips says how much crime writers change their depictions of police likely depends on where they are in their careers. Photo courtesy of Gary Phillips

Phillips said, from what he’s heard and read, some writers now are looking for ways to “create a more nuanced and realistic landscape” when it comes to police and race, while others will continue writing in the same way. Whether writers of police stories make significant changes to their work probably depends on where they are in their careers, said Phillips. He said the genre has already started to be changed in the last decade or two through the emergence of more Black crime and mystery writers.

“If somebody is on the 20th book of a successful series, they are probably not likely going to make big changes that might lose readers,” said Phillips. “But if somebody is just starting out, they may be more likely to do things differently, to make a radical departure from the genre.”

IN BROAD DAYLIGHT

The news reports of George Floyd’s death included video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes. Police restrained Floyd after he was stopped and questioned about passing a phony $20 bill. In the weeks that followed, news reports included massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities and towns all over the country – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – being met by heavily armed police units and angry counterprotesters.

Although other Black people have been killed in police custody and charges of racism among police are not new, the current national sense of outrage seems “overwhelming,” Boyle said.

“What happened to George Floyd happened in broad daylight because we as a society felt it was acceptable, we’ve allowed that behavior to become acceptable,” said Boyle, who lives in China, outside Waterville. “But I think a lot of us saw what happened and finally said that it had to end.”

Maine author Gerry Boyle is considering changes to his current police-focused novel. Photo by Kevin Bennett

Boyle is currently working on 13th book in his Jack McMorrow series, about a newspaper reporter in rural Maine who covers crime. He said the Black Lives Matter protests made him think differently about a “burnt out” police officer in the story. The character is frustrated from being passed over for promotions, among other things, and takes out his frustration on the public, by abusing his power over people. Boyle said he didn’t at first think of racism as part of the officer’s motivation, but now he thinks it should be.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Am I sidestepping the issue? Is it realistic?’ if I don’t deal with the character’s racism,” said Boyle, a former newspaper reporter at the Morning Sentinel. “He’s powerful and wants to inflict his frustrations on somebody, so he picks people he perceives as weaker or poorer. Race would have to be in the forefront of his thinking. ”

Boyle also has a three-book series about a rookie Portland police officer named Brandon Blake. He’s talked to police officers over the years for research and knows many who “got into a difficult profession for the right reasons.” But Boyle still thinks he needs to address the mistreatment of minorities by police in his books. He says the fact that his books are set in Maine and Maine doesn’t not have a large Black population is irrelevant.

“I think that argument has allowed people in Maine to be silent on this,” Boyle said.

Gerritsen’s “Rizzoli & Isles” books are often best-sellers and spawned a TV show of the same name that ran on the TNT cable network from 2010 to 2016. She is currently working on her 13th book in the series.

After watching days of news coverage about Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, Gerritsen posted on Twitter: “I write crime fiction, a genre in which cops are usually the good guys who sometimes bend the rules. I’m having a little trouble writing those stories right now. Am I the only one?”

Gerritsen said she’d dealt with the idea of “bad cops” in her books, including one in which Maura Isles is ostracized by colleagues for testifying against another officer in a police brutality case. But race was not a part of the storyline.

Harpswell author Kate Flora has written fiction and non-fiction books about police over the years. Photo by Richard Howard

When she decided to take a break from her writing because of all that was going on, she went back and looked at some scenes in her current “Rizzoli & Isles” book to see if there were opportunities for change. She had one scene in which a Black teenager is being questioned by police, and he answers them in a straight, calm manner. But in re-examining the scene, she thought that a young Black man would have a lot more going on his mind than just answering questions. He’d be more worried about being in trouble than a white teenager, even if he did nothing wrong, perhaps, Gerritsen said.

“I think the teenager would be trying to think what he did wrong, that he might be in trouble even if he did nothing wrong, and wondering what the police really mean by their questions,” said Gerritsen. “I added that sense of suspicion that I didn’t have there before.”

RAISING QUESTIONS

Harpswell author Kate Flora doesn’t have specific plans for changes to her book series about Joe Burgess, a Portland police detective, which is set about 10 years in the past. She’s published six books about Burgess, as well as a series about amateur sleuth Thea Kozak. But she says the current protests and discussions have at least raised questions for her to consider when thinking about police and her stories.

“When I write cops, I’m always thinking of their social awareness and their experience with different people, and what they learned about policing,” said Flora. “I’m trying to write authentic cops, good ones and bad ones.”

She said that since defunding the police has become such an issue, she might have a character at some point discussing that, and what it might mean. Before becoming a writer, Flora was a lawyer in the Maine Attorney General’s Office, working on cases involving battered children and representing the state’s Human Rights Commission. As a writer, Flora is interested in questions about the mission of police departments, and the fact that police end up dealing with so many different kinds of problems.

Maine author James Hayman writes books about a former New York police officer working in Portland. Photo courtesy of James Hayman

Flora has also written or co-written nonfiction books on law enforcement work, including “Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine” with Joseph Loughlin, former assistant chief of the Portland Police Department. The book explores the investigation into the murder of Amy St. Laurent, who was 25 when she went missing in the Old Port in 2001 and was later determined to have been murdered.  Jeffery “Russ” Gorman was convicted in 2003 of murdering her after offering her a ride from a friend’s apartment. Flora’s firsthand dealing with police officers and cases, along with what’s going in the world, inform her writing.

“I often say it was easier to write all this when I knew nothing and could make it up,” said Flora.

James Hayman has published six novels focusing on fictional Portland detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage. McCabe is a former NYPD officer, transplanted to Maine. Like Gerritsen, he says that his “good guys” in the books are clearly the police. Given all that’s gone on in the world, especially recently, Hayman could see himself considering a story where racism plays a role.

In the past, he has used news events – the opioid crisis and rapes on a college campus – as backdrops for his books. He also talks frequently with a former police officer to get little details right, including language police use on their radios.

Hayman, who lives in Portland, said that while he’s trying to write something readers will enjoy, he also wants to make his police stories realistic, which includes dealing with current issues like racism and police brutality.

“When you write about current events as they relate to the functions of police, it makes the book more interesting,” said Hayman.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: