Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Monday, 14 November 2011

On the ascent of the detective

The police detective occupies an uneasy place in crime fiction - and especially the crime fiction of the 'Golden Age' of the Edwardian or inter-war country house murder. For every story in which the police detective is competent and solves the mystery, there is another in which the bumbling and incompetent lower class police detective plays the foil to the part-time, gentlemanly, sleuth - be it Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercules Poirot. The detecting of crime was often presented as the pursuit of the leisured and highly educated amateur rather than as a professional career. Much has been written about this in the context of the rise of detective fiction as a genre, but now for the first time we have a book that systematically explore the origins of the police detective, letting us see more of this, often shadowy, figure.

This book, The Ascent of the Detective. Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England, by Haia Shpayer-Makov, explores different dimensions of the emergence of the detective. It begins with the identification of the role of the deteective within the newly established police forces of the nineteenth century. She points out that there was initial resistance to the idea as corrupt thief-takers and agents provocateurs had tarnished the image of plainclothes police in the eighteenth century. Notwithstanding this the first detective department was established in the Metropolitan Police in 1842, with other forces following by the 1850s. She then looks at the recruitment of detectives and their organisation within particular offices within forces that allowed them developing a particular ethos and specialised knowledge as the century progressed. Lastly she explores the mythology that grew up around institutions, such as Scotland Yard, that was cultivated through close relationships with the developing tabloid press which relied on police sources for information about crimes, and in return would assist in the solving of crimes by publishing calls for information and writing favourable reports about individual detectives. By the end of the century, then, she concludes that detectives had established a place for themselves both within the police organisation and the national imagination.
This is a wonderfully rich historical account, and there is something of interest to the historian of crime on nearly every page, but it is worth reflecting on the broader significance of the police detective. Is their emergence a development that changed the criminal law in any way? One important point that Shpayer-Makov makes here concerns the changing function of the criminal law in this period. This was a period, as she points out, which saw massive growth in wealth and consumption alongside endemic poverty, fear of crime and outbursts of political violence. police detectives played an important role in investigating groups or individuals beofre they committed crimes as well as managing the social tensions that were produced. The image of the detective was also central to legitimating the idea of the police and legal authority. Second, it is worth noting that this developed as a state function. This was not the realm of the private eye, and even those amateurs who populated the pages of crime fiction were in the end conceived as adjuncts to the power of the state rather than as alternatives. Lastly it may point to a role in a developing kind of surveillance, as the presence of the detective began to shape the social behaviour so that the reach of the law extended well beyond the collars of those fingered by police constables on the beat. Overall this points to a move from seeing the role of criminal law as being exclusively that of punishment to the detection, investiagtion and prevention of crime. This is something that is often overlooked by accounts of the law which focus only on the justification of punishment, but this book reminds us that our understanding of the function of the law must be broader.
[Full details of the book, and a sample chapter, can be found on the Oxford University Press website]

No comments:

Post a Comment