The police procedural, or police crime drama, is a subgenre of procedural drama and detective fiction that emphasises the investigative procedure of a police officer or department as the protagonist(s), as contrasted with other genres that focus on either a private detective, an amateur investigator or the characters who are the targets of investigations.
While many police procedurals conceal the criminal’s identity until the crime is solved in the narrative climax (the so-called whodunit), others reveal the perpetrator’s identity to the audience early in the narrative, making it an inverted detective story.
Whatever the plot style, the defining element of a police procedural is the attempt to accurately depict the profession of law enforcement, including such police-related topics as forensic science, autopsies, gathering evidence, search warrants, interrogation and adherence to legal restrictions and procedure.
The roots of the police procedural have been traced to at least the mid-1880’s. Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868), a tale of a Scotland Yard detective investigating the theft of a valuable diamond, has been described as perhaps the earliest clear example of the genre.
As detective fiction rose to worldwide popularity in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, many of the pioneering and most popular characters, at least in the English-speaking world, were private investigators or amateurs. See C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and others. Hercule Poirot was described as a veteran of the Belgian police but as a protagonist he worked independently. Only after World War II would police procedural fiction rival the popularity of private investigators or amateur sleuths.
Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often cited as the first police procedural, by Anthony Boucher (mystery critic for the New York Times Book Review) among others. Another early example is Hillary Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing …, 1952. Even earlier examples from the 20th Century, predating Treat, include the novels Vultures in the Dark, 1925, and The Borrowed Shield, 1925, by Richard Enright, retired New York City Police Commissioner, Harness Bull, 1937, and Homicide, 1937, by former Southern California police officer Leslie T. White, P.C. Richardson’s First Case, 1933, by Sir Basil Thomson, former Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and the short story collection Policeman’s Lot, 1933, by former Buckinghamshire High Sheriff and Justice of the Peace Henry Wade.
The procedural became more prominent after World War II, and, while the contributions of novelists like Treat were significant, a large part of the impetus for the post-war development of the procedural as a distinct subgenre of the mystery was due, not to prose fiction, but to the popularity of a number of American films which dramatised and fictionalised actual crimes. Dubbed semidocumentary films by movie critics, these motion pictures, often filmed on location, with the cooperation of the law enforcement agencies involved in the actual case, made a point of authentically depicting police work. Examples include The Naked City (1948), The Street with No Name (1948), T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and Border Incident (1949).
Films from other countries soon began following the semi-documentary trend. In France, there was Quai des orfevres (1947), released in the US as Jenny Lamour. In Japanese cinema, there was Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film Stray Dog, a serious police procedural film noir that was also a precursor to the buddy cop film genre. In the UK, there were films such as The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Long Arm (1956) set in London and depicting the Metropolitan Police.
One semidocumentary, He Walked By Night (1948), released by Eagle-Lion Films, featured a young radio actor named Jack Webb in a supporting role. The success of the film, along with a suggestion from LAPD Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn, the film’s technical advisor, gave Webb an idea for a radio drama that depicted police work in a similarly semi-documentary manner. The resulting series, Dragnet, which debuted on radio in 1949 and made the transition to television in 1951, has been called the most famous procedural of all time by mystery novelists William L. DeAndrea, Katherine V. Forrest and Max Allan Collins.
The same year that Dragnet debuted on radio, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sidney Kingsley’s stage play Detective Story opened on Broadway. This frank, carefully researched dramatisation of a typical day in an NYPD precinct detective squad became another benchmark in the development of the police procedural.
Over the next few years, the number of novelists who picked up on the procedural trend grew to include writers like Ben Benson, who wrote carefully researched novels about the Massachusetts State Police, retired police officer Maurice Procter, who wrote a series about North England cop Harry Martineau, and Jonathan Craig, who wrote short stories and novels about New York City police officers. Police novels by writers who would come to virtually define the form, like Hillary Waugh, Ed McBain, and John Creasey started to appear regularly.
In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct subgenre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase police procedural to describe it.