Police References for Writers

A while back I gave a talk at the San Antonio Writer’s Guild on incorporating real life police procedural techniques into your fiction. The talk went well. When I started to write my speech, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to turn them into Joseph Wambaugh in the few minutes I had available, so I decided to give them some broad brushstrokes instead. Basically what I did was to condense an awful lot of information into ten handy rules for writing about cops. You can read those rules here.

But I also wanted to include some references for them as well, so I made up a list of some nonfiction books that I thought might prove useful. I also came up with a second list of some examples of popular fiction writers whose books give a more or less true to reality view of police procedure. With that in mind I thought I would elaborate on those references here. What follows is the first of a two part post on writing references for police procedural writers. Today’s post is the non-fiction reference section. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Instead, I tried to give a sample of what’s out there, both the good and the bad. I hope this list helps some of you. Good luck.

Forensics for Dummies by Douglas A. Lyle.

Inexpensive, easily available, and offering a reasonably good overview of the many different disciplines involved in forensic study, this book is a great place to go to learn the language, so to speak. However, it will definitely not be enough on its own to make you conversant in forensics. Recommended.

Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work From Discovery Through Verdict by Connie Fletcher.

Again, this book will not make you an expert, but Connie Fletcher does a wonderful job with everything she writes. She collects a huge number of interviews with people actively working in the field, and many of those interviews provide great, personal perspectives on the job’s joys and frustrations. Highly Recommended.

Crime Scene: Inside the World of the Real CSIs by Connie Fletcher.

Once again, Connie Fletcher repeats her winning formula of stringing together numerous interviews from experts in the field. If I had any complaint with this book at all it would be that it focuses too narrowly on violent crimes, ignoring many of the less glamorous areas of forensic study, such as crash investigations and information gathering. The result is a slightly distorted view of the crime laboratory, and might lead people to think that there is little or no overlap between disciplines. For example, the time, distance, and speed calculations a crash investigator uses to investigate car wrecks can also be used by the murder detective to recreate a suspect’s movements through a shooting scene. A rule of thumb is to think of forensics as tools: they can do any number of jobs. What really matters is the person using those tools. Despite that objection, this book, like everything Connie Fletcher writes, is highly recommended.

What Cops Know by Connie Fletcher.

This is my favorite Connie Fletcher book. Compiled from more than 80 interviews with patrol officers, this book gives you one of the best pictures of police life from the street officer’s point of view. The best stories come from where the rubber meets the road, and this book is loaded with them.

Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon J. Geberth.

This book will set you back a little financially, but if you’re going to be writing crime fiction to any degree at all, go ahead and resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to have to get this book. By far, the best single source textbook for crime scene investigations out there. It will take you step by step from the first officer on scene to testifying in court.

Criminal Investigations by James N. Gilbert.

Of all the many textbooks in the field, this one is probably the worst. Poorly written and loaded with typos, it does offer a certain amount of usable information, but there are far better choices out there. Avoid it like the plague.

Police Field Operations by Thomas F. Adams.

This is another book that fails to live up to its promise. It is too vague to use as a reference. Like many textbooks of this sort, it tries to be applicable to a wide range of potential readers, and as a result it fails to address anybody’s needs in any sort of depth. Not recommended.

Blue Blood by Edward Conlon.

I’m mad at this guy for writing the book I should have written. Conlon is a genuinely talented writer. His observations of life on the job are spot on. The book is not an apology for the profession, either. He tells you the good and the bad. It is a bit long, but there is so much valuable information in there that the added length is perfectly excusable.

The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases and Techniques by Brant Houston.

An amazing book. While not exclusively about cops and police techniques, this book illustrates the direct relationship between the media and law enforcement. Many of the techniques outlined in this book to aid the investigative reporter are in fact identical to the ones used by modern police detectives.

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