In a mystery novel, a retired police chief character is asked by a neighbor to check out her daughter’s new boyfriend. The daughter claims to have spent Saturday night at a friend’s house, but Mom suspects she was with the boyfriend, who works at a pizza joint. The retired chief knows how to get a quick answer to this mystery. He calls the pizza joint, identifies himself as “Chief Lawson of the township police department” and asks if the boyfriend worked last Saturday night.
In another mystery, a young single father (Jimmy) moves into a new apartment. Soon after he moves, there’s a rash of thefts in the complex. Jimmy has been no trouble to anyone, but he’s the new guy. A police officer rings Jimmy’s doorbell. Because his baby is sleeping, Jimmy steps into the hallway to talk, and closes the door behind him. The officer asks Jimmy where he was during the last burglary. Jimmy says he was working and gives his work info so that can be confirmed. Then the officer says he needs to go into Jimmy’s apartment to “take a look around.” Jimmy is taken aback, and he doesn’t want his baby to be disturbed. He says, “I don’t know. Don’t you need a warrant to search my apartment?” The officer says, “No, I don’t. In the US, you have to open your door to police whenever we say so.” Jimmy reluctantly opens his apartment door. Nothing suspicious is found.
In a thriller set in a medium-sized town, a woman’s ex-husband is shot while changing a flat tire on the side of the road, on his way home from a bar. Janet (the woman) was also at the bar and started to leave as soon as her ex showed up—but on her way out, they had a nasty exchange that everyone saw. Now the ex is dead and the cops appear at her house, asking questions. Janet lives alone, so all she can say about that night is the truth: after the argument, she came home and watched TV until her blood pressure returned to normal. The only witness to that is her dog. After the detective finishes his questions, he says, “We may need to talk to you again. Don’t leave town.”
Each of these scenarios (with some changes) come from a mystery manuscript I have edited. Each was written as described, and each has a problem.
In scenario #1, when the retired chief identified himself a “Chief Lawson of the township police department” he forgot the word “retired.” By doing so, he impersonated a police officer—and committed a felony.
In scenario #2, Jimmy is correct—the officer does need a warrant to search his apartment, unless Jimmy gives permission. He opened the door, but only after the officer told him a factual untruth about his rights as a citizen.
In scenario #3, the police may have good reason to want to speak to Janet again. That’s not the problem. Telling her she can’t leave town? That’s a problem. The police may request she make herself available for more questions, but she’s not arrested or charged, so her movements can’t be restricted.
These are all fiction samples, and fiction needs conflict. That means, the characters need to face problems. What is problematic is when an author bends the law, or misleads a reader about the law, for conveniences to the plot because “it’s only fiction.”
Readers (and writers and editors) have personal opinions about what is and is not okay to stretch when writing fiction. I am not much of a stretcher. I don’t want my police characters committing felonies. I don’t want a reader to come away thinking Jimmy, as an American citizen, could not say, “No. Unless you have a warrant to go inside, we’re talking in the hallway.” I don’t want anyone to believe “Don’t leave town” is anything other than a quip on a TV cop drama.
What difference does it make, if it is fiction? Isn’t this artistic license? Aren’t readers smart enough not to believe everything they read in a novel?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
When you read a book set in your town, would it bother you if the name of the river that ran through it was wrong? If you questioned the author about why she used a realistic setting but changed the river’s name, and her response was, “The real name was too hard to spell, so I made one up,” would that be okay? Or, if her response was, “I didn’t look up the name of the river. Who cares? It’s fiction.”
Who cares? I care.
In writing, there’s this thing called the author-reader contract. It’s not a contract on paper, but more as an understood act of good faith. The contract promises, among other things, that the author will provide a story that makes sense. Because the contract is nebulous, the terms of it are nebulous as well. I believe the contract means the author will do everything in his or her power to be factually correct, whether it’s place names or police acting accurately.
After all, in real life, do you want people to impersonate police officers to get information? Do you want your rights as a citizen to be ignored?
What if one of your readers comes away from reading one of your stories believing something wrong? Believing, because you wrote it, that she can pretend to be an officer, or she can’t say no to an illegal search? It may not be your fault if she misinterprets or misapplies what you wrote, but why take the chance? Why knowingly write something that is wrong in the first place? Can’t you be a better writer than that?
Remember Blackstone’s principle: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“
Isn’t is easier, better, and more fair to be accurate?
I’ll present a fourth scenario:
~In a mystery novel, a woman (Deanne) has four children, a dead-end job, a philandering husband, and a pile of bills. On Saturday night, she manages to convince the husband to take the three older children to the movies. Finally, she may have a little peace to herself, after she gets the baby to bed. But the baby won’t stop crying. Exhausted, Deanne decides to slip a little something into the baby’s bottle, to help it along to sleep-land. What does she add to the baby’s bottle? A little dash of cyanide. She does this, and the baby falls asleep, and the next morning, baby gets up rested and in perfect health.
Remember, this is fiction. In this story, cyanide doesn’t kill anybody.
What’s the problem? After all, it’s not like there is any chance a reader might read this and later, on a Saturday night when her baby won’t stop howling, she thinks it’s okay to slip cyanide into her baby’s bottle. She read it in a book, and she trusts the author, so it must be all right to do in real life. Right?