You Have the Right to do Research and a Lack of Accuracy May be Held Against You by J.J. Hensley

It’s a pleasure to welcome J.J. Hensley to the site. The author of three previous novels, his debut, Resolve, was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine, Hensley’s latest, Bolt Action Remedy (Down & Out Books), is the first in a new series featuring former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway. Today Hensley is here to talk about one of his pet peeves—law enforcement inaccuracies in crime fiction. Having worked as both a police officer and a Secret Service agent, J.J. knows what he’s talking about when it comes to getting law enforcement procedure correct. He just wishes everyone paid as much attention to detail.

You Have the Right to do Research and a Lack of Accuracy May be Held Against You

I watch a lot of television alone. Well, not a lot. But, I watch crime dramas alone. Well I don’t start out watching them alone, but that’s how it ends up. My wife, who has the patience of a saint, will tolerate my commenting on the occasional continuity error or even muttering about how a TV detective holds a high rank, such as a Lieutenant, but doesn’t seem to actually supervise anyone. She will even muffle her sighs when I spout-off about the police officers yelling an inattentive suspect’s name when he is a football field away–guaranteeing there will be an exciting foot pursuit through busy city streets.

She tries. She really does.

Being married to someone who served in some level of law enforcement can be challenging. Being married to someone who is a crime fiction author can be challenging. Since I worked as a police officer and a Special Agent for the Secret Service, before deciding to write crime novels, my ability to annoy her while watching crime dramas is multijurisdictional.

You can hardly blame me. Do you remember the show CSI, or any of its spinoffs? Within the first ten minutes, the Crime Scene technicians are searching a dim crime scene, the beams from their flashlights cutting through the darkness, seeking out that one stray hair that will put a killer away for life.

Dude. Turn on the lights. Seriously. The crime scene has been cleared by the patrol officers and you’re wearing latex gloves. Reach over and carefully flip that light switch into the ‘up’ position. Or, if there is no electricity, get the bright work lights you have in your van and light that place up like its… well… Las Vegas. You can collect whatever potential evidence you may find, process it, and write your report. Then… you’re pretty much done. That’s right–other than possibly testifying in court, you’re good to go!

No. Crime Scene Techs do not lead interrogations. No. They are not processing DNA by the end of an eight hour shift. No. They are not leading the raid on the suspect’s house. No. No. No. No. If there is a raid to be conducted, it will be done by officers or agents who are trained to do things like search houses for suspects. If the suspect is there, the officer or agent will yell something to the effect of “Police! Stop!” Not “Freeze.” Nobody except police on television, in movies, and in novels say, “Freeze.”

Of course after the female detective, who is wearing high heels and a skirt, tells the suspect to freeze, she chambers a round into her pistol. As if police in the U.S. don’t already keep a round in the chamber in case they have to draw and fire. It looks soooo much cooler if the stern-looking TV or movie cop racks the slide of pistol before engaging a target. Then, the cop then has to flick off the gun’s safety. But, some pistols don’t have a safety. So, I sometimes yell about that too.

Now, you might think my wife is safe when we aren’t watching a show or movie. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Since we both read a lot of crime fiction, she can fall victim to my rants regarding law enforcement portrayals in novels as well. If the protagonist is not in law enforcement, then it’s pretty much guaranteed that the police in the book will be incompetent, apathetic, or corrupt. Otherwise, the main character can just sit back on the couch and let the cops do all the work. And at some point the police will forcibly take someone into custody for questioning. The problem is, that’s called an ‘arrest’ and you better have probable cause. Otherwise, it’s called ‘kidnapping’ and you better have a good lawyer.

These are things I desperately try to avoid when writing my own books. It’s not that I don’t believe readers should begin the journey with a certain willingness to suspend disbelief. But, sometimes the reader shouldn’t have to do so. Not every author has a background in law enforcement, but–as with most topics–basic research is easy enough to do. For my new book, Bolt Action Remedy, I had to learn about the sport of biathlon, which involves skiing and using specialized rifles to shoot at small targets. I can’t ski and have never even touched a biathlon rifle, but I was able to learn quite a bit through online research and interviews with experts.

I think when a topic is completely unfamiliar, writers often dive into research and take the time to learn the details. However, we see law enforcement portrayed in fiction on a daily basis and over time we accept some of those portrayals as fact. We sometimes don’t think we do, but it’s true. For instance, ask yourself this question: Do police officers have to read a suspect his or her Miranda rights after an arrest? Your answer is probably, “Of course!” But, that’s not the case. Miranda rights only have to be read if the person is in a custodial situation AND the police are going to ask questions. If this wasn’t the case, then the police could never arrest a drunk driver who is passed out behind the wheel, because the drunk driver couldn’t possibly understand the Miranda warning.

It’s the little things like this that are easy to address with a little bit of research. If you don’t make certain assumptions based on what you’ve seen or read in works of fiction and take the time to learn the intricacies of law enforcement, then you can write a more accurate crime novel. However, you may soon find yourself sitting alone when NCIS comes on TV.

J.J. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He is the author of the novels Resolve, Measure Twice, and Chalk’s Outline. J.J. graduated from Penn State University with a B.S. in Administration of Justice and has a M.S. degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University. Mr. Hensley’s first novel, Resolve, was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine and was named a Thriller Award finalist for Best First Novel. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime.


  • […] Hensley has a bone or two pick with authors who do shoddy […]

    • Jon Herman

      October 9, 2017 - 12:12 PM

      Amen! And don’t forget the incredibly high-tech, fancy glass and steel offices that TV cops often work in, the latest Apple computers on all the desks. And the incredibly quick DNA test results, autopsy reports. Also the detectives’ walls covered with case photos and red yarn going hither and yon as they interview suspects or witnesses who can view it all.

  • Les Edgerton

    October 6, 2017 - 4:59 PM

    I drive my wife nuts the same way. The one that drives me insane is when a cop sniffs “cordite” at a scene. Being as the last time cordite was used in the manufacture of ammunition was shortly after the end of WWII and it was primarily in British ammo, either that shell that was fired was really, really old… or the author doesn’t know his or her butt from… I don’t know? Their elbow? Just read another bestselling writer who had his idiot protagonist sniffing cordite… I can name half a dozen big-name writers who have cordite in their novels. One guy holds a doctorate and teaches writing in a university… which really isn’t surprising, considering the state of education. It just frosts my butt to keep seeing this when two minutes of actual research would let a writer know their characters ain’t smelling cordite… they’re most likely smelling their breath blowing back in their faces…

    • J.J. Hensley

      October 6, 2017 - 5:43 PM

      It seems to really anger you. Smoke is coming out of your ears. Or perhaps it’s…Cordite. 🙂

      That error drives me nuts too. I’ve edited some manuscripts for other crime writers and have fixed that for a couple of them.

      • Les Edgerton

        October 7, 2017 - 10:23 AM

        It does piss me off, J.J. I”m from a generation of writers who valued accuracy in writing and did the proper research, which, pre-Intergnat, meant actually visiting a library or interviewing experts. The second-worse thing that could happen to a writer was that an editor caught an error in the mss. The absolute worst was that a reader found an error. That meant the editor had also missed it and that used to embarrass editors. Not so much any more, it seems. Another one that irritates me is when a character insists they can tell by handwriting that the writer is a woman or man. There are three things that handwriting analysis cannot reveal, and that is age, sex, or handedness. Sixty seconds of serious research would have revealed that to the writer. As a former criminal and outlaw and ex-con, I won’t even mention the errors writers get about my people and our environs… Suffice to say, the mistakes and misconceptions are legion…

  • J.J. Hensley

    October 6, 2017 - 8:55 AM

    Thanks for having me!

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