Most of us love the idea of islands—their beauty, their singularity, their separation from the wider world. And, of course, we all believe that life may somehow be easier on islands, more laid back, simpler, even Edenic.
But islands have their dark side, too. And just as most of us are drawn to the mythic ease and beauty of island life, so, too, are we fascinated by tales of this dark side and the man or woman who must contend with that dark element—the island cop. Literature, TV, and film are populated by dozens of these characters, and they are often just that, their quirks and habits molded by their island environment. Come with me on an around-the-world tour of some fascinating islands and the fictional cops who call them home:
While most do not think of it as an island, it is. It's also the home of that most meticulous of quasi-cops, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was not truly on the force, but he did serve as a consulting detective for Scotland Yard, enough to qualify him for this piece. Holmes appeared in more than a score of short stories and four novels written by Conan Doyle, the first being A Study in Scarlett (1887). Holmes has proven popular on the big and small screens, being the subject of over fifty films and multiple TV series.
If you wish to take a more technical position, one UK cop on the force full-time is Scotland’s gruff Detective Inspector John Rebus, introduced by creator Ian Rankin in 1987’s Knots and Crosses and the subject of twenty books set primarily in Edinburgh. Detective Inspector Rebus has made it to the small screen in two series, both entitled Rebus.
See also: The Success of the British Whodunits
Still part of the UK, the Shetland Islands are more closely related in climate and in the genre of crime fiction to neighboring Scandinavia. They are also the beat of Ann Cleeves’s Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in a series that began with Golden Dagger winner Raven Black. The character has appeared on TV in the BBC’s Shetland series.
Detective Erlendur solves the murder of a seventy-year-old with an ominous past in Jar City, set in the northernmost of the island explored here. Author Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series has run fourteen books to date, and an eponymous film of Jar City was made in Iceland. A remake of the movie, set in Louisiana, is rumored.
Crossing the Atlantic and moving south brings us to the sunny precinct of Lt. Mario Conde, Leonardo Padura’s protagonist in Havana Blue, one of four novels known as the Havana Quartet. A cop who would rather do something else, Conde identifies with “writers, crazy people and drunkards” in these novels that each take place in one of the four seasons of the year.
Albert H. Z. Carr set his Edgar Award Best First Novel winner Finding Maubee on the fictional Caribbean isle of St. Caro. In it, Police Chief Xavier Brooke must chase down his childhood friend, petty thief David Maubee, while investigating the murder of a white woman. The 1983 film version, The Mighty Quinn, starring a young Denzel Washington, focused on mystic elements of the story.
The House Without a Key, the first of Earl Derr Biggers's six novels starring Detective Charlie Chan, is set in 1920’s Honolulu. Notable in its time for its sympathetic portrayal of a Chinese man as an equal to whites, the book was the subject of two movie adaptations, The House Without a Key (1926) and Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case (1933). Five other books in the popular series launched Chan on a film career which spanned six decades, ending with Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, starring Peter Ustinov, in 1981.
The island of Honshu is the setting for Murder at Mt. Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki. Centered on a murder arising from family conflicts, Natsuki, often called the Agatha Christie of Japan, sets Police Detectives Ukyo Nakazato and Katsubei Aiura out to solve the crime. The film adaptation, W’s Tragedy, was nominated for six Japan Academy Prizes and won three.
Maori Police Investigator Tito Ihaka finds himself embroiled with the mafia, street gangs, and crazy ex-commandoes while investigating what appears to be a suicide in Paul Thomas’s Old School Ties. Ihaka, known for his black humor, has appeared in five subsequent books, the last being 2014’s Fallout.
Andrea Camilleri set his two dozen novels in the Inspector Salvo Montalbano series in the fictional Sicilian village of Vigata. One in the series, The Potter's Field, won the 2012 Crime Writers International Dagger. Honest, decent, loyal, and something of a gourmand, Inspector Montalbano has made it to the small screen in two series, Inspector Montalbano and The Young Montalbano.
I can’t pass up the chance to include this last one—my own. Sun, Sand, Murder, set in the least populated of the British Virgin Islands, finds part-time RVIPF Special Constable Teddy Creque called upon to navigate through allegations of his own corruption, an extramarital affair, a curmudgeonly superior, and his own doubts about his abilities to solve the island’s first murder since 1681. No TV or film yet, but one can always hope!
Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. If you enjoy these island cops, take a virtual trip of your own, do some exploring, and I’m sure your find others out there keeping a lid on crime in other exotic locales.
Who's YOUR favorite island cop? Tell us in the comments below!
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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder is his first novel and the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.