With a few exceptions – the anonymous narrator of Raymond’s Factory novels, Rankin’s John Rebus exploring the seedier side of Edinburgh with ‘its crooks and bandits, its whore and gamblers, its perpetual losers and winners’ – these characters primarily inhabited the small towns and middle-class world that had characterized the golden age. Even in Taggart, firmly located in Glasgow, the murderers whose stories were told in the first three series included a couple of small businessmen, a guest-house owner, a doctor, a philosophy student, a dentist and an ex-probation worker, as well as a group of bereaved parents meting out justice to the drug dealer responsible for their children’s deaths. Despite the urban setting, this is a world away from The Sweeney; there are no car chases, just Sgt Livingston running after teenagers and getting bitten by the occasional dog, and there is little suggestion of a criminal class separate from society: these are just ordinary, respectable people caught up in their own lives. And, at the other extreme of television detection, there was Jim Bergerac, investigating much smaller problems on Jersey and learning ‘to take the smooth with the smooth’.
Though the backdrop might have suggested a retreat from the city to the closed communities of Agatha Christie (encapsulated by Colin Watson as Mayhem Parva), there was an edge, to the literature at least, that was far removed from the cosiness of Miss Marple, an engagement with society, a desire to comment on contemporary mores. And although the likes of Morse and Dalgliesh spent much of their time behaving as though they were still autonomous detectives in the tradition of Holmes and Poirot, capable of solving any case through the exercise of their intellect, the central characters were still police officers, and couldn’t fail to notice the changing role of the force in the modern world. In one of Rendell’s novels, Inspector Burden initiates the putting of coloured lights in the tree outside the police station ‘in the interest of promoting jollier relations with the public’. His boss, Wexford, disapproves of the gesture, but it’s revealing that there was a perceived need for such a move: ‘surely you couldn’t go on feeling antagonistic towards or afraid of or suspicious about a friendly body that hung fairy-lights in a tree in its front garden?’ Elsewhere Peter Robinson’s character Inspector Banks was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the new role of the force: ‘he had many objections to the way the government seemed to look upon the police as a private army of paid bully boys to pit against people with genuine grievances and a constitutional right to air them.’ He consoles himself with the thought that he’s a detective ‘and he didn’t have to go on crowd control, bashing the bonces of the proletariat.’ But even detectives are affected by the rise of what Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel refers to as ‘porkism’, as his own sergeant concludes: ‘A man’s got to be mad to stay in a job where the public hates you and Maggie Thatcher loves you.’
Most political of all was Derek Raymond’s detective sergeant, who reflects on the police powers promised in a new piece of legislation (presumably inspired by the controversial Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984): ‘It was what I thought of as banana laws – the law of a society in the process of breaking down. Once properly tightened up, it would have meant that I could stop and arrest a man in the street simply because I didn’t like the look on his face, or the way his pockets bulged. It would have synchronized nicely with the plastic ID cards that every citizen would be required to carry by then, and before long we would have turned the country into a birdcage.’