I'm coming to the conclusion that TV crime drama has a lot to answer for.
According to franchises like CSI in the US and Silent Witness in the UK, there's a popular impression that solving crimes, especially unusual murders, isn't down to the police any more; all kinds of people from the margins of crime-solving can have a go.
Not that I'm inclined to take anyone to task over this; it makes for great drama, and seems to work equally well on the page. People read and watch TV to be entertained, after all, and the willing suspension of disbelief is all part of the fun. But it's a trend I've observed over and over recently, so excuse me if I flag up a few examples and make an observation or two about the way real life is portrayed in fiction.
Take Silent Witness, for example. Long-running franchise (they celebrated twenty years on-screen at the end of the last series) based around a team of pathologists, whose job is to perform post-mortem examinations and provide the police with evidence. The last few series have also included a forensic scientist on the team, which extends their remit more than a little, but they're still basically an evidence-providing service. Yet in the crash-bang-wallop final episode of the last series (don't they always turn the heat right up for the last one?) Nikki the obligatory glamorous protagonist and Jack the brusque but not unattractive forensics expert took on a Mexican drugs cartel and pretty well brought them down without benefit of law enforcement services.
(I should point out that the system in the UK is a little different from the US; if I'm not mistaken (feel free to correct me if I am), a medical examiner, who on the surface of it provides the same service, also, at least in some states, fulfils the function of coroner, so that digging further into the evidence and drawing a few conclusions is part of the job. And in fiction, there's often a sidekick in the police or FBI; Tess Gerritsen's Maura Isles has Jane Rizzoli, and Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta has Benton Wesley and Pete Marino. Though I'm a little dubious about whether even they would be able to handle an entire drugs empire without help.)
Fortunately, I can suspend disbelief as willingly as the next crime fiction fan, so my enjoyment is rarely spoiled by a minor detail like an unrealistic plotline. I gobble up books whose protagonists are journalists, lawyers, even a prison governor once: all on the edge of crime-fighting, and to a man (or woman – it's often a woman) three steps ahead of the police.
Police procedurals, on the other hand, seem to be veering in the direction of realism and close attention to the detail of police work. For instance, until recently I didn't even know crime analysts existed; it was a novel which made me aware of the huge role an analyst plays in the squad, following patterns, collating and laying out the evidence as it's collected, looking for parallels elsewhere. And despite the way crime-solving has often been portrayed, it's a rare detective who deals with just one case at a time. There's usually a small mountain of files in the in-tray, all requiring close and instant attention. I've read several novels lately which purport to tell it how it really is.
Real police persons are quick to point out that real police work involves hard grind and ploughing through endless irrelevant statements and details to find the tiny thread which will pull the case together, far more than flashes of inspiration and mystery witnesses persuaded to come forward at the last minute. Turning the real thing into gripping fiction can't be easy. Which is why those lawyers and journalists and even more unlikely sleuths make better stories. Add that to fiction's need to ring the changes in order to keep readers coming back for more, and the obvious conclusion is – who needs reality anyway? Isn't the purpose of books to provide an escape from it?
All the same, I do sometimes wonder if the reading public might be a little more reassured if the police solved more fictional crimes without so much help. But mostly I just go along with the story and enjoy the ride.