P D James: Crime and policing have changed in fiction and in real life

From the annual John Harris Memorial Lecture, delivered by the crime novelist to the Police Foundation, in London
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We do not look to popular literature for a detailed exploration of the national and international problems of the day but, because the detective story is firmly rooted in the routine of everyday life and the clues so often arise from physical details, it can often tell us far more about the age in which it is written than can more ambitious or pretentious literature. And since it is difficult in any age to write a novel about murder without introducing a policeman, even if he is not the hero, we can learn much from detective stories about the relationship of policing to the society of the time.

Although we may occasionally return with nostalgic relief to the cosy novels of the 1930s with their simple, unquestioning morality, their respect for hierarchy, their happy ignorance of the gritty realities of real-life murder or the sophistications of forensic science, the crime novel today is more explicit, more credible in its use of forensic and police procedure, less assured in its affirmation of official law and order. The detectives are often professional police officers, hard-working human beings with their own personal problems and uncertainties or, like my Adam Dalgliesh, only too aware of the ambiguities of modern policing and the trauma which a murder investigation can cause to the innocent as well as to the guilty.

But if the treatment of crime and policing in fiction has changed drastically, sohas policing in real life. Modern life is materialistic, restless, stressful and over-burdened. Morality has largely become a matter for each individual and respect for authority has to be earned, and even when earned is rarely given. The old complex, delicate but resilient web which held together people with common traditions and beliefs has in many of our cities been replaced by communities of widely differing faiths, traditions and language living side by side, often in a fragile tolerance. Policing can never have been more difficult than in our complex and rapidly changing world and there is a danger that the close links between local communities and the police, on which Sir Robert Peel originally built the force, will be severed.

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