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detective story

24 september 2016

I have been so interested in police procedurals lately that I have spun off a whole nother website to deal with my impressions of them. Yet that website, called cid, is limited to novels, and mostly to novels with single strong protagonists. Procedurals come in lots of other forms (short story, film, TV) and some of the "purest," like V as in Victim, distribute their focus among all the members of a detective squad. And at least one major American play does so, too.

Sidney Kingsley's fascinating 1949 Broadway hit Detective Story ran over 15 months. It starred Ralph Bellamy as McLeod, a passionate, violent cop, but had a large ensemble cast including the young Lee Grant and Maureen Stapleton in small roles. It gestures in a "pure" procedural direction, showing multiple investigations and division of labor in the squadroom. But little actual detection goes on – the cases are open-and-shut – so to call the play a "procedural" would mislead. It's really an office melodrama, which confirms my suspicion that police fictions are all essentially office melodramas. We watch them because so many of us work in small nine-to-five communities, and see ourselves and our co-workers in the brash, overdrawn cops of stage and screen.

The various people who pass through the squadroom all seem to interact at some point with McLeod. McLeod is mad at everybody, and his anger takes the form of a searing insistence on justice in a corrupt world. He is humanized only by his wife Mary. The problem that makes the play work: what if Mary is part of the corruption that McLeod is so angry about? McLeod has tried hard to keep work and home lives separate. But he entered police work because of his abusive father, out of a desire to protect the innocent from abusers. He finds that he cannot make a clean separation between domestic shelter and the dismaying street.

The play is thus a domestic tragedy as well as an office melodrama. But several other plots entwine around the Mary/McLeod story. As cases come in, they're worked by a large staff of detectives under the direction of a Lieutenant who occupies an office stage right, "separated by a door and an invisible wall" (3) as Kingsley's stage directions evocatively put it. It's a common arrangement, with parallels in many films and TV dramas, and notably in the great sitcom Barney Miller. The physical separation of the Lieutenant from his squad removes him from the drama and makes him a little like the voice of God … except that nobody's much listening. But such is life in New York.

Crooks come and go: burglars, thieves, shoplifters. In fact one shoplifter stays on stage nearly the whole time as comic relief to their dire situations. (This was Lee Grant's role; she would be nominated for an Oscar for the film version.) A young man named Arthur, back from the war but adrift for the love of a golddigging woman, has stolen money from his boss. A pair of burglars, one stupider than the other, are about to have their racket ended. And an abortionist, hotly defended by an imperious lawyer, is about to beat a rap because one of the women he preys on has died, and cannot testify against him.

The latter crook, "Dr." Kurt Schneider, is the focus of McLeod's indignance. McLeod can't stomach the superciliousness of his evil, the attitude of a predator who knows he will go free to hunt again. McLeod would prefer to beat a confession out of Schneider, and beats him a bit anyway just on general principles. Do McLeod and Schneider have a history?

The Lieutenant learns that Schneider seems to know McLeod's wife (though McLeod honestly seems not to know that) – and you can probably see where that plotline is going, so I won't spoil it. The ending comes pat, with a bang. It's grown-up entertainment, and still finds companies willing to produce it on occasion. It's obviously become a period piece, but in a sense a genuine period piece rather than a retrospective one. Its large cast would be a drawback for small companies but a boon to college groups … you see I'm kind of hinting that some university near me should produce Detective Story sometime soon.

Sidney Kingsley was a major socially-conscious American playwright of the mid-20th century, whose work never really became canonical or stayed in the repertoire; perhaps his commitment to formal realism prevented him from getting highbrow acclaim in an age dominated early by the expressionistic and later the absurd. Yet he won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1934 play Men in White (which also has an abortion theme) and later adapted Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. And in 1939 he married one of Hollywood's most radiant stars, Madge Evans (who had starred in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum with Al Jolson and often played alongside James Cagney). They were married for 42 years, and Kingsley outlived Evans for another 14. The 1949 print edition of Detective Story is copyrighted in both of their names; I like to think it was a truly happy partnership.

Kingsley, Sidney. Detective Story. New York: Random House, 1949.