There were cops of a sort in medieval times, but I’d rather talk about a few modern fictional ones and why I like them:
1) Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano.
2) Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti.
3) Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks.
All three have things in common. They are flawed but not so horribly wounded by life that they can barely function. Not to say that the latter are uninteresting. Inspector Rebus is compelling, but he might have become intolerable in the hands of anyone less talented than Ian Rankin.
All use their wits, but Montalbano in particular is funny. Shakespeare was right when he put comic scenes in tragedies. Unrelenting misery, just like unmitigated mirth, is unendurable. Camilleri’s dialogue is riveting and distinct for each character. Reading one of his small gems is like eavesdropping with increasing delight as a witty couple at the next table has a little spat. Montalbano tries hard, and mostly with success, to be faithful to his distant, long-time girlfriend. He may insult his subordinates, but he is fiercely protective of them as well. Pragmatic, he will deal with the Mafia. Intuitive, he drives his less imaginative superiors wild with his unorthodox approaches. I love his wit, his passion for food, and touching moments of unusual innocence in a man dealing with a violent world. By the way, Camilleri is almost 90. An inspiration to all writers!
The three detectives also live in very flawed worlds where groups, including governments, have perverted the concepts of justice. Brunetti is a more somber man than Montalbano but also gifted with a happy family life, albeit a wife and children who keep him from a comfortable mental rut. The hypocrisy of nations and the powerful is skewered in each book. The storm clouds of special interests always hover, but Leon paints individuals in many shades of gray. Brunetti’s superior is the errand boy of the powerful, yet even he cannot always be bought. The secretary, Elektra, hacks computers or charms others to illegally get information so the justice Brunetti believes in will prevail. I love his understanding of where the fine line must be drawn, his ability to see some victory in a larger defeat, and his enjoyment of ancient historians who teach him lessons applicable to the present.
Many modern male detectives get badly beaten or shot up, snort lines or swallow quarts while making brilliant deductions, and lay lots of women. Inspector Banks is less bionic and therefore more compelling. I love Robinson’s work for the series pacing. Banks evolves slowly. We first meet a man who makes job changes so he can be more of a husband and father. He fails, and we grieve. His ongoing relationship with his kids both blunders and thrives. Some of his girlfriends we wish he’d keep. So does he. And when he is wounded, he suffers. Scars are left. I love the underlying decency of Banks, his anger at injustice, and I want the best for him. One of these days, I’d like him to be happy. Sadly, that might be the end of the series…