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Sheila Lowe on Police Procedures

Sheila Lowe, a real life forensic handwriting expert, is the author of the Claudia Rose forensic handwriting series and the Beyond the Veil series. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

As someone who does a lot of research to get police procedure right, I’ve been annoyed lately by some flagrantly ridiculous missteps in books and TV shows. But then, I started wondering whether I’m too picky, too correct. Do readers care how much the author sticks to the straight and narrow?

There’s got to be poetic license, especially where investigative techniques may take a long time. But how far does that license stretch? I just finished binge-watching a “limited series” Netflix show; in this case, eight episodes. Let me digress for a moment to say how much I enjoy these types of shows that have long enough to fully develop the plot and the characters, and the crime is wrapped up at the end. This one, Clickbait, has much to recommend it. An intriguing story: who kidnapped a happily married family man, Nick, and is forcing him to hold up a sign that says “I abuse women”? And, terrifyingly, one that says, “At 5 million clicks I die.”

The tale is told from the point of view of a different character in each episode (not Rashomon-style. These are different parts of the story). It offers a not-heavyhanded social statement about our modern lives online, and the behavior of the media. With the lead cop being Muslim, and Nick in a biracial marriage, we see aspects of prejudice from a different-than-usual standpoint. The fact that my guess for the killer was wrong says a lot for terrific plotting and storytelling. It sucked me in and kept me coming back to watch all those episodes over two days (okay, so I have no life).

But. It took several episodes for me to warm up at all to the characters, even the victim. I didn’t like any of them. Well, except for Nick’s two teenage sons, who reminded me a lot of my own biracial sons at that age (now 43 and 46). One of the characters kept inserting herself into the case in ways that seemed too far-fetched to be believable. And much of the police procedure didn’t make sense. I’m not a cop, but I have taken classes from cops and have consulted with several. Like I said at the beginning, I go to great pains to make my books believable. But maybe I’m being too picky.

Once, (wo)manning a table at the L.A. Times Festival of Books with an author who wrote police procedurals, I asked about her research. She said she just got it from TV shows. For that reason, I would never read that author’s books. I’ve read a couple of books lately where I got the feeling they followed the same path. So, I’d love to know: does it interfere with your enjoyment of a story when it’s clear the author hasn’t done their homework? Or is it just me? Ms. CrankyPants

Sheila Lowe

Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert and author whose Forensic Handwriting mystery series features Claudia Rose, whose career as a document examiner and handwriting analyst mirrors Sheila’s own, and the Beyond the Veil Series about a young woman who reluctantly communicates with dead people who want her to do stuff for them. Follow Sheila on her website, claudiaroseseries.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan

    Sheila — I agree with you. A crime fiction book is only as good as it is accurate. That’s why I interview professionals to ensure authenticity in the Sean McPherson novels:
    A detective in the Major Crimes Unit of the Idaho State Police
    A DNA specialist at the Idaho State Police Crime Lab
    A forensic pathologist
    A private investigator (who also writes detective novels)
    A forensic psychiatrist
    A psychologist
    The chief public defender and lead counsel in death penalty cases in Idaho

    1. Sheila Lowe

      It’s so important, and there are good classes on forensics for authors, as well as the kind of professionals you list here who are willing to talk to us.

  2. Sherrill Joseph

    Sheila, I believe that we authors have an obligation to our readers to be 100% correct in our real-life details whenever possible. I have a similar bugaboo when it comes to incorrect English conventions in texts, being a retired literacy teacher. Such errors in a published work are like fingernails across the blackboard to me and turn me off to offending authors. Thanks for your article! Keep up your excellent, accurate work.

    1. Sheila Lowe

      I know what you mean. It’s how I feel when someone uses a handwriting analyst in a book and they come across like a gypsy, or give bad information.

  3. It’s not just you who is a Ms. CrankyPants when it comes to this subject. I do a lot of research but still might make a mistake. It helps that I have a retired deputy/trainer from a rural jurisdiction and another consultant who is a K9 handler who read my books before they go to print, They not only catch mistakes but often give me details that enhance whatever is happening in the scene. Very valuable early readers. I also have to turn away when it’s obvious the author or screenwriter hasn’t done their homework. Thanks for your post, Sheila!

    1. Sheila Lowe

      Thanks, Margaret. I’ve found those consultants really helpful, too. George Fong has given me some great stuff when I have an FBI agent in a scene, and besides answering my questions, Derek Pacifico has come up with some terrific ideas that enhanced the plot.
      Clearly, Blackbird Writers do it write 🙂

  4. saralynrichard

    It’s not just you, Sheila. Vetting the procedures is a key part of writing mysteries and suspense. I can forgive honest mistakes, but readers learn from books they read, and I would never want to mislead a reader. Authenticity is part of the author responsibility.

    1. Sheila Lowe

      Of course, honest mistakes, which are quite different from sloppiness and lack of research.

  5. jvickwriter

    It depends on the book. In a cozy, it drives me nuts if the police are portrayed as completely incompetent. Otherwise, if the author makes it believable, it doesn’t bother me. If the investigating officer had all of the forensic results back the next day (is that even possible with some tests?) there had better be a good reason for this freakish luck.

    1. Sheila Lowe

      There was a (now deceased) member of my critique group whose small town detective was so stupid, he was constantly being schooled by her psychologist protag. When the rest of us complained (nicely), the author left the group in tears.

  6. Donna Rewolinski

    I’m married to a career police detective and get annoyed when he corrects my written police procedure as “That’s not how it works”. However, being true to any professional procedure is always best. So hold the line on doing it right, not just easy

    1. Sheila Lowe

      That could certainly get annoying, lol. And there are times when we have to take some license. But definitely, it’s important to get it right.

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