Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 16, 2021

The Bad Policeman (2001), by Helen Hodgman

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see that title The Bad Policeman? Corrupt, venal cops not averse to dealing in drugs and some serious violence like Gilou in the French TV series Engrenages (Spiral)? The old-fashioned sort like the ones in The Bill who bash suspects to get a confession because they “know” they’re guilty and give young offenders a kick in the backside but don’t bother to charge them?  Or those clichéd world-weary types who are too cynical to make much effort and will turn a blind eye to a traffic offence as a favour for a mate?

It’s not so easy to answer the question about Mark Blainey, the overweight country cop who narrates Helen Hodgman’s novel.  He’s done some bad things, and he fails the major case he stumbles into, plus he has a cynical view of the job he’s made his career:

Cops versus robbers.  If you blew a whistle and ordered both teams to change sides, no one would notice the difference, especially the players. (p.101)

Hodgman’s choice to make Mark the narrator of the novel means that we see things from his point-of-view and we need to keep a sharp eye out for self-deception.  Self-pity too, because he wife Marilyn has left him for a dentist in New Zealand and he really misses her.  He knows he’s failed as a husband and a father because he’s also got a lousy relationship with his son Jason.

I thought about love and I thought about the apostle Paul which is something I don’t often do, but if you really want to feel bad about love, Paul’s your man.  You realise when you read the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (13:4-8) that you may think you’re pretty crash hot at loving but, according to Paul, you’re a total f—— non-starter. (p.97)

He reads the epistle at his mother’s funeral…and gets ticked off by his bossy sister for reading the old-fashioned version of it, with ‘love thinketh no evil’ and ‘love never faileth’ and so on.  He’s had a book of poetry published, but really, he can’t get anything right.

Mark’s also about to lose his best mate and work partner Steve.  He lets Steve do the serious work when they’re on duty because Steve is ambitious, whereas he is content to keep reminding everyone that he’s only a constable, not a sergeant.

This all seems a bit heavy, but the tone of the first half of novella is dry, sardonic and amusing, even endearing at times, as when Mark gets landed with a kitten and realises that ‘this is what it’s like when someone is dependent on you’.   This tone shifts, however, in the second half.

Both these cops have a ‘pragmatic’ approach to policing.  They’re from the era of those old TV shows, before there was the type of training that is routine today so that recruits graduate with some skills at least for dealing with family violence, mental health and drug-related problems, and cultural awareness.  Mark and Steve been told that family violence occurs in all social classes but are still startled when the judge’s wife turns up with a black eye and cut on her face, and — here the novel shows its age — neither of them are about to do anything about it.  Today, when there has been so much about family violence in the news, we find this kind of inaction unconscionable, even if we understand how difficult it must be when the perpetrator is someone as powerful as a judge in a country town.

Mark does, however, have some scruples. Given a camera by his superior so that he can take trauma shots of people in accidents ‘because there’s a bottomless market out there’, he ignores the desk sergeant’s threats to cause trouble for him and picked up the camera, dropped it on the floor, stamped on it and walked away.  And he is sickened when he becomes aware of a sordid crime network and he’s devastated when he realises that by delaying a decision about what to do, he gave the perpetrator the opportunity to hide the evidence.

This book is towards the longer range of what a novella might be, and it allows for both plot and character development.  By the end, it’s not clear whether this policeman is bad or not.  Bad things happen, but only some of them are done by him and he is distraught when justice just isn’t going to get done and he can’t do anything about it.

The Bad Policeman defies easy judgements about the difficulties of police work without letting the protagonist off the hook.

Born in 1946, Helen Hodgman published her first novel Blue Skies in 1976, (see my review), followed by Jack and Jill which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1978.  Broken Words, (1998, on my TBR) won the NSW Premier’s Literary Prize for fiction. Passing Remarks (on my TBR) followed in 1996, with Waiting for Matindi  published in1998 .  Because of  ill-health The Bad Policeman (2001) was her last novel.

I read The Bad Policeman for #NovNov (Novellas in November) hosted by Rebecca from Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746 Books.

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.

A couple of Helen Hodgman’s books are available as Text Classics, but unfortunately, not this one.  Try second-hand stores.

Author: Helen Hodgman
Title: The Bad Policeman
Cover: Antart
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2001
ISBN: 9781865084350, pbk., 173 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Berry Books $14.00


  1. Sounds good.


    • I like the honesty of it. There’s no pretence that he’s perfect or honourable, but it also acknowledges the difficulty that some situations present.


  2. My reading group read Blue skies back in our first year or two, but I’ve never read more of her. Always intended too, though. This one sounds suitably complex to attract my interest!


    • I really like her stuff. I hope I get time to read the other ones on the TBR during #NovNov.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The title sounds so old fashioned and yet it is such a contemporary issue, that it sounds almost cynical as today’s bad policeman incites mass protest in the UK and US for their own murderous crimes.


    • Yes… I did think as I wrote this review that there was no #BlackLivesMatter when it was published in 2001…


      • Exactly, no highlighting of the very bad policing against particular targeted groups, forget about protection. Those groups, including women, feel threatened by their presence, given recent terrible events which only highlight a an age old problem.


        • That recent case in the UK was terrible.
          But I must say, my experience of police here has been 100% benign. And the way they have been treated during recent far right extremist demos has been appalling, even the horses have been attacked.


  4. This sounds like a good character study Lisa


    • Yes, I think she must have known someone who gave her what she needed to make it authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] The Bad Policeman by Helen Hodgman (Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers) […]


  6. Interesting! I think there was at least one Hodgman published as a Virago but I can’t recall which.


  7. Policemen are an interesting problem (for society). Firstly, they self-select; and secondly, they are/seem to be mostly lower middle class and they’re paid accordingly.


    • There are many occupations towards which a certain ‘type’ tends to gravitate. Police, prison warders, the military tend to like dispensing authority, and sometimes it’s the feeling of power over another that appeals (and can get out of hand). OTOH there can be a genuine desire to protect society and to prevent others from harm.
      I suspect that it’s being in the job and seeing the worst of people that blunts idealism and good intentions.
      Not unlike teaching…


  8. Titles often get lost in translation. The French “engrenages” literally means the meshing of gears, but it’s often used figuratively to mean something like “machinations” or “intrigues”.


    • There are some French words which really are untranslatable, which is why we steal them for English, like rendezvous, for example.
      There certainly are machinations in that series, that’s for sure.


  9. […] Helen Hodgeman | The Bad Policeman (revieewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]


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