Urban Fantasy 101: Cop Country

The audio version of this was originally posted June 11, 2020 on Patreon. This version contains a reference to James Baldwin’s commentary in The Devil Finds Work that is not present in that one.


There are a lot of cops in urban fantasy.

In the biggest and most popular series, the main characters are either outright law enforcement – like my book bae Peter Grant in the Rivers of London series – or they’re like Anita Blake, characters who don’t actually have badges worth anything but are set up as The Law in their neck of the woods.

I’ve read dozens of urban fantasy books in my lifetime and many of the books hinge very closely on these main characters in law enforcement or who are adjacent to law enforcement or… who have very close relationships with cops. 

Characters like Harry Dresden, Anita Blake, and Kate Daniels aren’t cops as we know them. They work with law enforcement but they’re kind of in line with authority even as they push back against it.

They’re not actually cops – and no matter how much Laurell K Hamilton tries to say that Anita is a cop because she somehow got a US Marshall’s badge, she is not – but they basically get to serve as a form of their community’s law enforcement in all but name.

Then there are the actual cops. Again, we have Peter Grant and the cast of cop characters in the Rivers of London series, but then there’s Kara Gillian who starts off her series as a homicide detective, Lily Yu in the World of the Lupi series, and the cast of the really bad buddy-cop film Bright. These characters are explicitly The Law. Period. They’ve got the badges and they’ve got the long arm of the law behind them…

Right now, around the world, we’re watching people push back against police brutality. It’s not just about Black people, but wherever there are police there’s documentation of the literal hyperpolicing of even the most miniscule of Black populations in a place. It’s a fact that Black people tend to be disproportionately subject to violence from law enforcement. We’re watching people realize that the barrel is rotten all the way through and coming together to do something about it.

And I think it’s time that the landscape of urban fantasy shifts to be a little less cop country. 

Ya feel?

Because we know that cop-propaganda – CBS’ rotating lineup of police procedurals, Paw Patrol, tons of action movies, and the true crime genre – influences how people think about police officers. So why wouldn’t urban fantasy – a large genre that tends to hype up cops – be part of the problem here as well.

The only author I can straight up speak to on this is Laurel K Hamilton because I kept track of what she’d been up to for a while because her life clearly informs her writing. She’s someone who made Ferguson all about her cop friends instead of about Mike Brown’s murder. She talks constantly about how much she literally loves cops. (Like literally, she’s even brought up her lovers in law enforcement and the military before even though… no one actually asked for that information.)

And so, her work reflects her desire to be taken seriously and to be a part of law enforcement. 

A lot of people who’ve never had a bad experience with cops are only now waking up to the realization that organized law enforcement can be just… the worst. I’m not one of them. Even though I grew up with a family that was enmeshed in local law enforcement, I was always aware of the bad aspects of policing – so so many.

Aside from my lived experiences, I keep coming back to this quote from James Baldwin where he wrote that:

Blacks know something about black cops, too, even those called Mister, in Philadelphia. They know that their presence on the force doesn’t change the force or the judges or the lawyers or the bondsmen or the jails. They know the black cop’s mother and his father, they may have met the sister, and they know the younger, or the older brother, who may be a bondsman, or a junkie, or a student, in limbo, at Yale. They know how much the black cop has to prove, and how limited are his means of proving it: where I grew up, black cops were yet more terrifying than white ones.

Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work (Vintage International) (p. 63). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Even Black cops aren’t safe for Black people and seeing them basically stuffed into urban fantasy – where, like I’ve clocked in the Anita Blake series multiple times, they’re often extra rigid followers of law and order to the point of an almost comical bigotry aimed at shapeshifters and vampires – does not feel good.

Especially as, right now, the thing many people are asking for is that police forces be abolished.

Period. 

I was thinking of that in the context of this genre. Because cops are everywhere in urban fantasy. Even in books, like Stephanie Ahn’s Harrietta Lee series and Craig Schaefer’s Daniel Faust series, where they’re clearly bad guys… they’re still fucking there. 

And I think that all authors who are trying to think of how they can advocate for abolishing the police in their offline life should also think about how they can abolish the police in their work – or inch them out of your future projects.

Traditional publishing is slow as hell and I know this. I also know that self-published authors really can’t risk changing much mid-series or else they risk losing their entire audience. So I’m not asking anyone to straight up junk their cop characters. 

What I want is for folks to rethink what they know about urban fantasy. Rethink the need for cops in your stories and write them out. I literally haven’t interacted with cops more than like 5 times in over thirty years of life. You can look at the current action plans in place to argue for the abolishment of the police to figure out how that could shape future stories.

Do you need cops in your urban fantasy stories?

I’d say that that’s something you can and should ask yourself especially as we look at the negative impact that police-positive media has on our ability to recognize the harm that the carceral state we live in – worldwide, I believe – has on our ability to live and move freely. 

And please – 

Let me know what you come up with if you’re coming up with anything so I can share it!

About Zeenah

Zeenah writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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3 Responses to Urban Fantasy 101: Cop Country

  1. lkeke35 says:

    I think its very telling that so much of the Urban Fantasy genre (almost all of it) is written by white people, and although many of them are loath to admit it, all of what they write is a reflection of their worldview, whether they like it or not.

    The kinds of stories people write are in a direct dialogue with how they’ve lived. What a person writes and how they go about it can really tell you a lot about the writer, and what they think, and believe, too. If you are a straight, comfortably middle class, conventionally attractive white woman, that is a sensibility that’s going to show up in your story.

    And yes, Laurell K Hamilton, JK Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer (along with many others) are perfect examples of this, and the reason why I don’t consider the stories they tell to be of especial interest to me (or even most Black readers, although we do look at these for entertainment). They don’t have any specific messages to impart, are not particularly entertaining, and are comfortingly bland , easy reading, and the injustices they address are from the point of view of an outsider who is not subject to them.

    I don’t personally have a problem reading about cops in fantasy because, as a Black woman, I’m well aware of the difference between truth and fiction, and no matter how many fictional cops I like (quite a few it seems), I’m not inclined to give real life cops a pass. For me, the cops in these books, are just another part of the fantasy element.

    That said, if fewer cops were included in Urban Fantasy, I probably wouldn’t miss them, because I do like to read books about average citizens encountering Fantasy in the modern world.

    Like

  2. Agent_Z says:

    I’m Nigerian and haven’t had any interaction with American cops though I am aware of the all too present problems within that institution. My country has long had its problems with police brutality and corruption as well. I do not think, however, that the presence of police in a work is inherently propaganda in favor of the police but I do agree that how they are depicted these days needs to change. Personally, I think we need more fiction showing how we want police officers to act.

    Liked by 1 person

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