Thursday, August 8, 2013

Writing Canadian Cops

Our guest author today is the charming and effervescent Viki Delany.  The London Free Press said of her books: "It's a crime not to read Delany," and I certainly go along with that.  She is also one of Canada's most prolific and varied crime writers with several series and stand-alones underway at the same time.  (It takes two of us all our time just to keep Kubu on the go!)

Her newest novel, released this week, is A Cold White Sun, the sixth book in the Smith & Winters police procedural series for Poisoned Pen Press. The series is set in Trafalgar, a fictional town that happens to be exactly like a real town that shall remain nameless. She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense, and the light-hearted Klondike Gold Rush books which are published by Dundurn.

Her Rapid Reads book, A Winter Kill, was shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for best novella.  Vicki is a member of the Capital Crime Writers, The Writers Union of Canada, and is on the board of the Crime Writers of Canada and the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival. She is Canadian guest of honor for Bloody Words, the Canadian mystery conference, in 2014.  Where she finds the time to do all this I have no idea.

Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki enjoys the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario. Here she tells us of the trials and pleasures of writing about Canadian Cops.

What an honour to be invited to write a guest post for one of my favourite blogs.  I met Michael and Stan at Malice Domestic and Festival of Mystery, and enjoyed getting to know them.  We had a lot to talk about, as I lived in South Africa for eleven years (1973 – 1984) and have many friends and relatives still there.  I’ve played with the idea of writing a South African-set book now and again, but I fear that I’ve been away so long, I don’t have a feel for the place anymore.

Main Street, "Trafalgar" British Columbia
But even my native Canada has problems of its own for a crime writer.

When I decided I wanted to write a police detective series of the style of the British ones I like to read and I wanted it set in Canada, I faced two problems.
  • I have no law enforcement experience whatsoever.
  • I want as much veracity as possible in books I write.

Everything I knew about policing I know from watching American TV and movies and from reading British novels by the likes of Susan Hill, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie (yes, I know she’s American, but did you know Peter Robinson is a Canadian?) and many others.

As Canadians we are saturated with American and British media. Once in a while a Canadian cop show comes along, but how much can you trust TV for reality anyway?

I realized that if I was going to be able to write the sort of books I wanted to write, I needed help.

And I got it.

I’ve been very lucky, and have been able to write, so far, six novels about a small town police department in the Interior of B.C.  I’ve met a detective constable who cheerfully answers any and all of my procedural or legal questions with good humour. And if he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll check with his boss or even the department lawyer to find out. I’ve been on ride alongs and walk alongs, I’ve toured police stations, met many officers,  talked to dog handlers and met their dogs, been to observe in-service training, been to the firearms training course (where they didn’t let me touch a weapon, you’ll be pleased to hear).  I’ve been taken step-by-step though fight moves and lent books about police psychology.

I’ve had some really boring nights too.  As I try to explain when the nice officer assigned to take me out apologizes because nothing at all happened, if I want to see a gun battle or a bank robbery in progress, I’ll watch TV.  It’s the everyday details of the ordinary cop’s job that I’m interested in seeing first hand, that I want to give veracity to the books.

The town of "Trafalgar" British Columbia
The protagonist of the Constable Molly Smith series is young, green, a bit naïve.  When the series begins, in In the Shadow of the Glacier, she is still on probation.  She walks the beat on a Saturday afternoon, attends fender-benders, throws drunks into the drunk tank, tells people to empty out their cans of beer, helps confused old ladies cross the street, answers domestic calls, and stands outside crime scenes not letting anyone in.  

This is the detail of day-to-day policing I’m trying to get right for my books. That as well as the way the officers relate to each other, the jokes they tell, how they balance families and young children. My books are about murder and kidnappings and tragedy, yes, but they are also about people and relationships. 

A Cold White Sun over "Trafalgar"
Several scenes in my newest book, A Cold White Sun, rely on what I learned observing in-service training, particularly at the end when the police conduct a door-to-door looking for a shooter.

There are considerable differences, I have learned, between Canadian and British or American policing. The most obvious example is around guns. British police normally do not carry firearms; American police are required to carry their guns at all times, even when off duty. Canadians, as seems to be our national characteristic, are somewhere in the middle.  Canadian police are armed when they are on duty and are (in almost all cases) forbidden to carry them when not working.  Thus at the climax of the first book in the series, In the Shadow of the Glacier, Molly Smith is off duty when she has her final confrontation with the bad guy. All she has to defend herself are her stiletto shoes, her cell phone, and her considerable wits.  In Negative Image, she’s working at the climax and so she’s able to use her gun to end the situation.
Canadian police (so my police friends tell me) are likely to be better educated than American police.  In one of the Decker books by Faye Kellerman, when Cindy Decker becomes a police officer she finds it hard to be accepted by her fellows because she has a university degree.  Among my police officer contacts are a Master’s Degree in Industrial Relations and an MBA.  Canadian police are better trained (again, so the cops tell me) and better paid. There is no such thing in Canada as a part-time police officer and Canadian police don’t have to take other jobs to make ends meet.

A cop is a cop.

Sunset over "Trafalgar"
I’ve also learned things I’ve decided not to incorporate into my books.  For example, it is the norm in most U.S. police K9 units for the dog to live in the house with the officer; in Canada they follow the RCMP model in which the dog lives in a kennel outside the house. I decided in this situation I’d go for atmosphere and colour rather than veracity and so I let Norman, my RCMP dog, stretch out on the rug beside the fireplace.

Whether set in Canada, the U.K., or the U.S., sometimes the story has to come first. 

Vicki Delany
Visit Vicki at, on Twitter @vickidelany and Facebook at She blogs about the writing life at One Woman Crime Wave (


  1. It's great getting to see you outside the saloon, Vicki! [That is an inside joke for we Poisoned Pen Press authors who call our very active community email network "the saloon." Though I guess it's now no longer technically "inside."]

    In addition to being the terrific writer Michael/Stanley so aptly described, Vicki, is also the Mistress (?) of Ceremonies for the Poisoned Pen Press writers' if she doesn't have enough to do. Welcome, my friend; and folks, "A Cold White Sun," is even more enchanting than its cover.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I'm sorry I'll miss everyone at Bouchercon, but I had already committed to go to Word on the Street in Toronto.

  3. Thanks, Vicki! I've not read any of your books, but now I'm intrigued. Chalk up another reader... :-)

  4. I read all your books, and my new Molly is on its way.The pictures are beautiful, and I wonder why more of us don't live in Canada. Sounds so friendly.

  5. Thanks, Lil. As my friend Mary Jane Maffini says, we're not as nice as you think we are :)

  6. I've read the first two Molly Smith books and loved them. I am particularly fond of her mother's character, with the interesting nickname of Lucky. She reminds me of so many people I've known.

    I wonder if Trafalgar is akin to Nelson, a town where some old friends moved decades ago. It has always been an intriguing place to me.

    Best wishes to Molly and her family for years more of good stories.