I recently met with a young man of 19 that was trying his best to write a mystery story for school, that took place in the early 1970s. There was a lot of police interaction throughout his writing. His main trouble was he was only familar with the police of today and missed several points.

 

So I thought I would spell out a few items here for you younger writers, that may not have been born in the 1960s or 70s. Some departments were of course further advanced and equiped than others, but most were still pretty low tech.

 

Weapons:

 

Then: The average LEO in those days carried a .38 cal. revolver, either a Smith and Wesson or a colt, (5 or 6 shots respectively) usually a 4 inch barrel and it was gun metal blue with wooden grips.

 

Now: Most officers now carry either a 9 mm or .40 cal. semi automatic. Some department autothorize the use of either a .41 or .45 cal. weapon. Most weapons hold from 10 to 15 rounds and most often two additional clips are carried. Color of most weapons are black and are made either of steel or a composite material.

 

Transportation:

 

Then: Most every officer had some type of car for a cruiser.

 

Now: The patrol vehicles can be a car, truck, 4 x 4 vehicle or even and ATV.

 

Sirens:

 

Then: Most every department had the wailing siren.

 

Now: Most departments use a variable siren that has a warble, high/low and/or amplified horn.

 

Code System:

 

Then: Most parts of the country used the 10 code/signal system. Like 10-4

 

Now: You will have to check and see what your chosen area is using. Most of the country is going to a new standardized code system.

 

Evidentuary:

 

Then: There was no CSI. They could match foot prints, finger prints and blood types. There were a few other things that were used like castings.

 

Now: The sky is the limit. With all of the automated computerized data bases and computers in the vehicles. Many things are almost instataneous. DNA wasn't used in criminal cases until 1988 in England.

 

Radios:

 

Then: Most areas had radios in the crusiers. Once you were away from the car you were on your own. Many departments used walkie talkies to communicate from the field back to the cars. They were usually pretty large and bulky.

 

Now: Quite dynamic systems in the cars and small personal clip-on mics that communicates through the car system to the base or to other units. Pluse the use of cell phones.

 

Cameras:

 

Then: There were Polaroid cameras for immediate development in the field. Often of poor quality. SLR 35 mm film camers and 4 X 5 graphic film cameras. The last two required for the film to be developed and processed. Everything was shot in Black & White. The courts felt color was to gory.

 

Now: Everything instant with digital cameras of all quality including cell phones. WIth cell phone photos the picture can be shot and immediately emailed to another location.

 

This is just a few of the things I can think of that may make a difference in your story telling. As I think of more I will either add them here or make another post. Any questions about othe items send me a PM and ask away. I will do my best to help you out.

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In today's world, any novel set in 1970 is of necessity a historical novel. The research has to be deep, the times have to sound real. I believe that something so recent to the memory of people alive today also needs a far more precise time frame ... Spring '71, Summer '73, Fall '75, Winter '78. Even if the character never mentions it, the writer has to know who was president, what was going on in the world ... all that stuff. There is an aura that goes with a time that people who may have lived through it will certainly remember.
Yes, and they'll be picky. And they may be wrong.
True, and they might be wrong. That's why you do the research. I know many people, some who lived through it, who can't separate the 60s and 70s. What some of them call "The 60s" is really the late 60s and early 70s.
This subject is of great interest to me as I write fiction set in the 40's. I have a new project that will be 50's Los Angeles as well. I'd love to know of a source for detailed police procedures, especially as it relates to handling rape victims and vice crimes. I haven't found sources that satisfy my desire for detail.

Most of the research I've done for my Bella Vista Motel material has come from reading pulp and hardboiled fiction of the period, as well as popular novels and nonfiction from the period, old movies, old radio, old newspapers, documentaries and internet searching. There's a ton of great stuff in the Library of Congress. Listening to interviews with ordinary people is a good way to develop an ear for dialog, period slang and conversational cadence. Taschen has a great series of books organized by decade that are collections of print advertisements and film reviews. A lot of the old radio show collections include the commercials too. Cultural context is not that hard, as there is so much material out there on the web to draw flavor from.

Gary, do you know of sources of info for crime scene photography from the 40s and 50's? What cameras?
"Schwab's was where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered by a talent scout for Warner Brothers. Even in 1951, every starlet in waiting wanted to be seen there. Noni was already a starlet at Morgan Studios, but she wanted something bigger."
-----Second Paragraph of "Shadow of the Dahlia" establishes the place and time.

Hollywood was always full of gorgeous women, and in 1951 there were more of them working as secretaries then there were on the sound stages.
-----First Paragraph of "The Deal Killer," again establishes place and time.

"You're lucky, Rick. I'm the only homicide detective in L.A. who's not working the Black Dahlia case," he said from behind his wooden desk."
-----Sgt. Marco Sandiri, L.A. Robbery-Homicide, establishes the time frame for "Shadow of the Dahlia," my Shamus nominated PBO.

I have to give credit to the first editor of my retro-noir fiction who out of frustration e-mailed and wanted to know "When did this happen!"

But it is not enough to establish the time period. It's also necessary to keep it anchored in that time.
Throughout many decades including 30s, 40s, 50s & 60s the most used camera for law enforcement as well as news photographers was the Graflex 4 x 5 graphic camera. You had to darkroom load your sheet film into the carriers and insert one into the camera for each shot. These cameras we used from around 1912 until well into the 1970s.

Watch any old movie or news reel clip where you see all of the flashbulbs going off and you will see the photographers using the graphic camera. When I started in law enforcement in the late 60s and throughout the 70s we were still using this camera. We slowly changed over to 35 mm single lens reflex cameras in the mid 70s and also used polaroids for instant on the scene shots.

But the camera you want for your time frame is the 4 x 5 graphic.

Garry-
Ah. Cool. Like Weegee's camera. I knew those kinds of cameras were the ones used by the press, wondered specifically about law enforcement. It's amazing they were able to capture so much with such cumbersome equipment. So much more technical skill and art went into photography back then.

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