FORGOTTEN BOOKS: HEAD OF THE FORCE BY JAMES BARNETT!
Because of my own twin careers (detective/writer), I’ve created a sub-genre section in my library for novels written by authors who have been, or (as in my case) are still on the job. The obvious example of this is Joseph Wambaugh, but there are actually quite a few others who are not as well known.
The British police forces, particularly the London Metropolitan force, have produced even more authors than American forces. Amongst the best is James Barnett who joined the Met in 1946 and retired as a CID Commander in 1976 after having been awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service.
While their set-ups are somewhat fanciful, Barnett’s four novels (Head Of The Force, Backfire Is Hostile, Palmprint, and Firing Squad) are exceptional examples of solid investigative techniques. Despite the over-the-top premise of the crimes, Barnett anchors the stories in reality. He puts his investigators under pressure from not only the investigation, but also from real world politics both within the police force and through outside interests.
Capturing the graphic pun of Barnett’s debut novel, Head Of The Force, the brilliant cover sold me on the book before I’d even read the first page. However, once I jumped into the story, I was just as quickly drawn into the prose.
Assistant Commissioner Hicks of Scotland Yard was having a bad morning. He was running late for an appointment with the commissioner, the most powerful man at the Yard. But nothing could have prepared him for the sight that awaited him in his boss’ office. The commissioner was on time – he was also, without a doubt and quite shockingly dead. The ensuing investigation, deep into the power structure of the police, leads to an extreme right-wing organization led by the sinister General Mulqueen.
Barnett’s knowledge of the police force was gained in the best and toughest way of all – through experience. However, this knowledge alone doesn’t make a novelist unless he has the ability to translate experience into a lively story – and Barnett is more than capable in exercising this skill.
While Head Of The Force was an excellent first novel, Barnett’s fourth and (to my knowledge) last novel, Firing Squad, is his most accomplished. Utilizing the British military evacuation of Dunkirk in WWII as a background for current day hidden secrets, this tale of an old man found in a gravel pit, tied to a chair and executed by the firing squad of the title, ranks with the best novels from the police/writer genre.