Number 7 in my Trove Treasures series was inspired by a little piece that appeared in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on 6 December 1946. It was titled, “Men join police force after reading novels”. Naturally, I was intrigued. What novels, for example?
The story’s subject was one Constable J. Simons who had just resigned the police force, after having served for 17 years. He was speaking at a Police Association meeting and he said, to quote the Telegraph, that “most men joined the police force for adventure after reading detective stories”. (The rest of the piece was about why he is was resigning, which related to pay and and conditions, particularly regarding slow promotion due to the system operating at the time.)
It made sense that detective reading might inspire young men to look to the police as a career, but I wanted to find out more. Unfortunately, this proved quite difficult because it was hard to find specific search terms to get what I was looking for. As it turned out, in the time I gave to it, I didn’t find much, but what I did find was illuminating.
What I found were articles about what policemen (as they were mostly then) read – rather than about what caused them to join the police force. One article came from New York in 1914, and another two came from Queensland in the 1930s. All indicated that policemen did not read detective stories. Neither talked about what might have inspired them into the force, but both stated very clearly what they read once in the force.
New York New York
The 1914 article appeared in Sydney’s The Sun on 4 August. It commences with:
Whatever the world at large may think of detective stories, they do not win the esteem of those whose business it is to follow up crime. The police care least of all for this line of literature — a fact discovered by reports of books most favored among those consigned by the New York Public Library for use at the police stations.
This story, then, is about the NYPL’s providing books to police stations for police reading. The article implied that what the police read might be affected by the sorts of books selected! They’d be, the article said, “standard and classic books” chosen by the library authorities “as to what they ought to read, that being an inclination of librarians everywhere”. (Oh dear, but I think this sort of high-minded prescription was more the case then, than in modern libraries!) Nonetheless, the article does explicitly discuss detective stories:
According to report, these particular readers find little of interest and nothing of profit in the ‘detective stories’ which have such a wide sale with the ununiformed public. The policemen say that ‘real’ detective work is not done after the fashion of the sagacious heroes of Conan Doyle and his predecessors, and therefore they scorn romantic crime-hunting. This condemnation involves the assumption that the methods of ‘practical’ men cannot be bettered — an assumption wildly fallacious, but entirely natural. The police antagonism to detective novels may be due in some part to the fact that in almost every such book it is the scientific amateur who works all the miracles, while the ‘headquarters man’ is usually a comic character who laboriously follows a false clue while the other fellow gets the results.
The article goes on to defend the writers of these books, suggesting that errors in detective work “may be intentionally made by an author for the sake of attaining some higher end of emphasis or excitement”. Indeed, says the article, “all the great advances in the task of crime-detection have been made, not by policemen, but by scientists”. Lest, however, we feel that the police were being unfairly targeted, the article continues that this is true of many professions and trades, so ‘that “the force” need not be humiliated by it”. Still, the article ends with a little sting in the tail for the poor copper, which I’ll leave for you to read.
Caring for police in Queensland
We then skip a couple of decades to Queensland and the creation of a library in that state’s Police Welfare Club. I found two articles on this initiative. One appeared in Brisbane’s The Courier Mail (24 November 1937), titled “Policemen’s reading: Logic, forensic ballistics: Why thrillers are unpopular”, and the other, nearly two years later, in that city’s The Telegraph (19 June 1939), titled “Our policemen study the classics”.
The 1937 article commences with
Few of Queensland’s detectives read detective stories. They find the novelists’ supermen unreal to the point of irritation.
The article quotes the C.I.B. man who showed the writer around the Club’s “fine new library” as saying that “We don’t detect that way”. This new library, the article claims, indicates “the higher education of the modern policeman”.
Both articles describe the broad content of the library, but it’s the second one that provides more detail about its genesis, noting something that harked back to that first article I found. It says that “a policeman’s pay does not ordinarily permit him to possess as his very own a library of any consequence”. Our detective novel reading Constable from 1946 would probably agree! Anyhow, the article’s writer, a “special correspondent”, explains that Queensland’s Commissioner of Police (Mr. C. J. Carroll), who had been appointed in 1934, had immediately set about creating a club “to give his men better facilities for recreation, educational advancement, and departmental advancement”. In 1936, after fundraising had got the club going, he turned to creating a communal library for the police and their families, in Brisbane and state-wide via mail.
Both articles write about the breadth of the collection, and engage in discussion about was being read, which ranged widely from poetry and the classics to political satire and books reconstructing real crimes and trials.
Towards the end of the second article, the writer asks the wife of a detective:
“Does he go in for detective stories?”
“No, he reads to relax” she replied. Adventure stories—the lighter the better—were first favourite with him for recreational reading.
The earlier article says that “Wild West books are the most popular in the relaxation class of reading”, so maybe this is what her husband was reading!
Much of the second article is anecdotal so it’s impossible to say just what “real” impact the library had on the state’s policing, but I’d like to think that our “special correspondent”, who concludes by quoting Arnold Bennet on the value of reading, is right when s/he says that
… with the aid of their library the men in the police force are developing greater understanding of mankind; consequently they must surely become better policemen.