Friday, October 17, 2008

Andy Sipowicz and the Case of the Fictional Detective

Ted Hindenlang used to be a police officer. He now prefers to break the law. He is working on his first novel, a mystery.

I have to admit, I have a love-hate relationship with fictional detectives. For every Andy Sipowicz, who was great, there are twenty-five or so who make me root for the bad guys. Sipowicz was very real to me. Dennis Franz, who played him on NYPD Blue must have hung around some of the people I knew because his attitude, his dress, everything seemed so dead-on.

Real life provides the template for cop shows and cop books, but it is only natural that cinematic policing bleeds back into the real thing as well. Some real cops try to act larger than life but few of them seem to be able to modulate their performance so that they come across as something other than a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough talking sleuth of fiction and television. One night I was hanging around the squad room in the Harlem precinct where I worked. We were the first officers on the scene of a fatal shooting and were giving statements to the investigators. It was close to 1 AM and the covering detective supervisor--a sergeant--had just arrived. He took over the squad room with his loud, opinionated demeanor. I had the distinct impression that the detectives were secretly carrying on their business in accordance with their routines while only pretending to follow his commands. During this episode, he received a call about another homicide from the 20th Precinct, which at the time had a significant gay population. As he spoke on the phone, his voice became louder and louder until it was impossible to ignore his contribution to the conversation. When he was sure he had everyone/s attention, he shouted to the detective on the line, "So whattya tellin’ me? Is it a homicide or a HOMO-cide?" As pleased as possible with himself, he looked around the room for approval. I could imagine Sipowicz asking the same question, but not playing it for laughs.

I want my fictional detectives to be more like my real detectives; fallible, vain, arrogant, self-centered, occasionally brilliant but more often instinctual and possessing a people sense that more than compensates for their fictional counterpart’s ability to see pillows arranged on the couch in such a way that it exonerates the housekeeper but implicates the gardener.

I want my fictional detectives to be less dedicated and I want them to have to deal with the vagaries of victims who hung their cloaks of innocence in the great coat check of life a long time ago and immediately lost the redemption ticket.

My fictional detectives can even be coldhearted racist, sexist pigs, if they have to be, in order to move the story along. I want them to spend all day and half the night investigating the fatal shooting of a young woman in a bar named Tres Marias, only to have one of them ask another if he wants to grab a drink after work and then reply, when asked where, “there’s a new place down the street called Dos Marias.”

I want my fictional detective to be a cynical and lazy malcontent who can be galvanized into action only when his city, the one he is pledged to serve and protect , is threatened by an evil presence so perverse and insatiable that soon housing prices will be affected. I want my fictional detectives to tell a slashing victim, upon seeing the jack o'lantern grin of a scar across his cheek , “Hey, chicks dig that.”

I guess, for me, most fictional sleuths are just too serious, too noble and too dedicated to suspend my disbelief. And I have no trouble with cartoon character detectives like Dirty Harry. They work for me because they don’t pretend to portray reality. Give me your overweight, your intox, your bitter veteran detective yearning to be free and receiving disability checks. Give me a detective trying to get out on the heart bill who calls from the recovery room and says, “I’ve got great news! I have a 70% blockage!”

Ted Hindenlang


  1. Ted, hi. I've been reading the classics and I turned up a fictional detective that's so practical I fell in love with the character: Nurse Hilda Adams aka Miss Pinkerton by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

    If you're not familiar with her, I can suggest the novelette THE SECRET. It's truly brilliant.

    Thanks for the post! Interesting reading this time of the morning!

  2. Though I'm not in law enforcement, having had a son-in-law who was both a police officer and a deputy and a grandson who is a deputy and another a cop, I know that people in law enforcement are much more normal than those on TV and in the movies--but a show about them might be boring. It's the odd balls and weird ones we all want to see.

    I loved Sipowitz.


  3. Check out "THE JOB" a Dennis Leary one season show about NYPD cops. You'll meet your guy, or close to him anyway.