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.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Edinburgh detectives

Writing about the ascent of the detective last week prompted me to go back to the work of James McLevy, one of the original police detectives in Edinburgh, who published his memoirs and reminiscences about his career in several popular books in the 1860s.

Ken Stott as Rebus
Of course, to mention the Edinburgh detective today is to call to mind the character of Inspector Rebus, the creation of Ian Rankin bestselling novels, but there are huge contrasts between the two. Inspector Rebus has the archetypal characteristics of the hero of the contemporary detective story. He is a troubled loner, an alcoholic with a broken marriage and problems with authority. The stories mostly involve murder, dirty dealings below the surface of respectable Edinburgh life, and (in the pattern established by Raymond Chandler) link to some sort of political or financial (and hence moral) corruption.

James McLevy
James McLevy, by contrast, patrols the streets of Edinburgh keeping underworld figures under his beady eye, and cheerfully dispatching them to terms of transportation or imprisonment. However this Edinburgh detective is not pursuing corruption in high places or solving horrible murders, but is mainly concerned with relatively minor crimes - recovering stolen jewellery, prostitutes cheating their clients, messenger boys absconding with their charges. His role is as much to prevent crimes as to solve them, spotting the habitual criminal in a compromising situation or anticipating the criminal plan by a correct interpretation of their behaviour. The role of the detective in the solving of crime relies less on forensic detection than on the detective's knowledge of people and places in Edinburgh. He knows where to go to find malefactors, the fences they deal with, or the places they hide. He is not above placing pressure on suspects to confess, threatening them with the consequences of silence. And when all else fails he walks the streets looking for clues, in the persons dress, demeanour or physiognomy - often relying on his own presence or the sight of the detective to prompt the wrongdoers to panic. And in a surprising number of stories (or at least in his recounting of them) the successful solution relies on chance - a chance encounter with a suspect or the chance discovery of stolen goods. So, for the modern reader there is surprisingly little 'detection' as the tropes of the modern detective story are absent. The stories rather present a fascinating picture of the policing of mid-nineteenth century, of the concerns central to the enforcement of the criminal law in this period, and of the nascent profession of police detective.

McLevy's books included The Sliding Scale of Life (1861), Curiosities of Crime in Edinburgh (1861), and The Disclosures of a Detective (1860). Extracts have been republished, most recently in The Edinburgh Detective, and McLevy Returns (both 2002). Interestingly the character has been used in a series of recent crime novels by David Ashton which place him at the centre of murder investigations involving powerful society figures - closer to Rankin's Edinburgh detective and which seems rather at odds with the original creation.

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