Questionable Minds: policing in the Victorian age

Like much about the Victorian era, police work in the era of Questionable Minds is very different.

Traditionally British policing was local. Each parish had its own constabulary, usually a small one, typically working part-time and paid very little. Private bounty hunters, AKA thief-takers, were a shady lot (Lucy Moore’s Thieves’ Opera shows how shady Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed “thief-taker general” was.) None of which worked effectively to control crime.

In the mid-1700s Henry Fielding, a justice at the Bow Street Court, took the radical step of setting up the Bow Street Runners, the country’s first paid, professional force. They were more effective than thief-takers and constables but in 1829, the Metropolitan Police took over policing. The Runners disbanded a decade later.

The Metropolitan Police were not popular. Policing itself was not popular, as Sue Wise details in The Italian Boy. Napoleon had used a secret police to great effect; there were fear that British police might turn into the same kind of tyrannical jackboot. Was England really giving these people the power to tell private citizens “stay away from this crime scene!” or “answer my questions?” Wasn’t that despotism?

Police were also decidedly “common” lower class individuals. To many people they were only marginally better than the crooks they chased. This attitude continued in fiction on into the 20th century, where the amateur detective was automatically of a higher order of ability and quality than a mere policeman (as I mentioned in a previous post, Miss Grey of Scotland Yard is determined to change that perception).

And the principles of policing were pretty bizarre by 19th century standards. Investigators traditionally got their man by being on the scene and chasing the thief down, or by using informants.  The idea of interrogating someone about their whereabouts or searching their homes for evidence was radically different. People didn’t like the idea; a lot of cops had trouble grasping it.

CSI was just as alien. It wasn’t until 1879 that French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced a system for identifying criminals by distinctive body measurements, such as their middle-finger length or size of the head. Fingerprinting didn’t become standard until the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1888 that a French researcher established bullets fired by the same gun have the same markings.

All of this plays a role the world of Questionable Minds, where mentalist powers (psionics) have recently become a thing. The Mentalist Investigation Department (MID) deals with crimes involving mentalism but doesn’t use the mentalists on its team to investigate ordinary crimes, even where they could help. There are simply too many crimes where an object reader or a clairvoyant could make a difference.

Legal standards are struggling to keep up. Using human telegraphy (telepathy in our terms) on a suspect without consent is considered a blatant violation of the right against self-incrimination. I haven’t thought about them — it’s not relevant to the plot of the book — but there are probably similar rules in place governing the use of object-reading and clairvoyance in police investigations.

#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins.

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