Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Breaking the Rules

In most murder mysteries, a good portion of the story has to do with the way in which the sleuth and the police investigate the case. Real-life crime investigation has to follow certain rules (e.g. how and by whom the evidence is collected, the treatment of witnesses and suspects, etc.). So, when fictional sleuths and police are bound by those rules, this lends an important touch of realism to a good mystery novel. Sometimes, though, fictional sleuths (like real-life sleuths) bend or break the established rules. When that happens, it can add a compelling layer of tension to a novel. It can also give the reader a welcome sense of satisfaction, especially when the rules are broken in the interests of a larger good. It’s a delicate balance, though; on one hand, sleuths who break the rules can be fascinating characters, and breaking the rules can lead to truly suspenseful plots and satisfying outcomes. On the other hand, too much rule-breaking isn’t realistic. In real life, there are limits to what sleuths (even police sleuths) can do to find and stop a killer.

In the Golden Age of crime fiction, far less attention was paid to rules about crime investigation. Arguably, that’s because there were fewer laws about suspects’ rights, evidence contamination and the like. So we see many examples of sleuths who don’t “play by the rules.” For example, in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, the first Queen mystery, actually, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the poisoning death of Monte Field. Field’s a shady attorney with more than one enemy, and proving who committed the murder isn’t easy. Eventually, the Queens deduce who the killer must be, but have no solid evidence to present to a jury. So they develop a scheme of blackmail to trap the killer into trying the same kind of murder again, with the same poison. Today, that trick would likely be considered entrapment and the evidence from it inadmissible in court. It’s a very clever and satisfying solution, though, in the novel. At the time the novel was published (1929), it was also more realistic than it would be today.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot also bends the rules in the interest of bringing killers to justice. In Cards on the Table and The ABC Murders, for instance, he manufactures evidence against the person he knows is the killer. He then uses that “evidence” to get the murderer to admit what’s happened. In fact, Poirot is so convincing that the reader doesn’t even know at first that Poirot’s lied about the existence of the “evidence.” Poirot is also not above eavesdropping (Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client)), tricking a suspect into revealing a secret (Murder in Mesopotamia) and threatening a suspect in order to force a confession (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). Poirot’s strong passion for truth and his belief that everyone deserves to live are more important to him than the finer niceties of investigation. In a few cases, Poirot even lets the criminal get away with a crime (sorry, no examples here – I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun). Again, Poirot sometimes puts what he sees as more important considerations ahead of the strict interpretation of the law.

That’s also true of some of the “hardboiled” detectives of the Golden Age of crime fiction. For example, in Mickey Spillane’s 1950 My Gun is Quick, Mike Hammer, Spillane’s sleuth, has a chance coffee-shop encounter with a prostitute he calls Red. He’s just been paid for a case, so when he hears her hard-luck story, he gives her some money to help her get back on her feet and out of prostitution. They part ways, and Hammer doesn’t really think much about it until two days later, when he finds out she was killed in a hit-and-run incident shortly after their encounter. Hammer is convinced that Red’s death wasn’t an accident, and returns to the cafĂ© where they met to see if he can find out what happened to her. In the course of the novel, he finds out that Red, whose name turns out to be Nancy Sanford, was collecting evidence that she’d planned to use to close down a prostitution ring. She was killed to prevent her from telling the authorities what she knew. Hammer closes in on the killer, breaking several rules as he does so. Instead of working with the authorities, who he fears won’t do anything much about the prostitution ring, he chases down Nancy’s killer on his own. And, in the novel’s climactic moment, when he’s confronting the killer, he doesn’t wait for the authorities to arrive and arrest Nancy’s murderer; instead, he takes his own vengeance.

Sometimes, modern-day fictional sleuths bend and break the rules, too. For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is often caught between what he’s ordered to do by his superiors, and what he senses he should be doing. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee’s ordered to find a missing Navajo teenager named Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s disappeared from the school she attended. Chee’s sure that her disappearance is related to an investigation the FBI is making of a shootout that occurred in the parking lot of a Laundromat (the victim turns out to have been an informant on a Los Angeles car theft ring). Chee’s supervisor, Captain Largo, specifically tells him to let the FBI take care of the investigation, and to concentrate on the Sosi girl but Chee ignores that order and investigates the shooting on his own.

Ian Rankin’s John Rebus also has a habit of bending and breaking rules, and that often gets him into trouble with his superiors. For example, in The Falls, Rebus and Detective Constable Siobhan Clarke investigate the disappearance and presumed death of university student Philippa Balfour, who’s the daughter of a powerful banking family. Rebus decides to search her flat to find any clues he can to her disappearance, but he doesn’t have official sanction to do so. When Philippa’s father finds him there, he has Rebus suspended. When Philippa’s body is found, along with a doll in a tiny coffin, Rebus ignores his suspension and continues to investigate her death, especially when he connects it with other, similar deaths.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who…series, police chief Andrew Brodie often bends the rules about the confidentiality of ongoing police investigations when it comes to Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth. Qwilleran and Brodie become friends over the course of the series, and Brodie knows that he can trust Qwilleran’s discretion. Besides, Qwilleran often has “inside information,” a useful clue or a creative idea that’s helpful to Brodie. Although Brodie isn’t supposed to discuss his cases, he often finds that the greater good comes from bending that rule.

Of course, it’s not only law enforcers who bend and break the rules. Amateur sleuths do the same thing. For example, in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, translator Torrey Tunet, Deere’s sleuth, is trying to clear her friend, Megan O'Faolain, of the charge that she murdered her employer (and possibly lover), John Gwathney. As she investigates the case, Tunet finds that one important clue is located in the home of art dealer Blake Rossiter, one of the other characters in the novel. Another is in the office of attorney Roger Flannery. So Tunet and a young friend, Willow Thorpe, break into the Rossiter home and steal one clue. Tunet persuades her lover, Jasper Shaw, to bluff his way into Flannery’s office and get the other clue. At the end of the novel, when the murderer of John Gwathney is revealed, Inspector O’Hare, who’s been investigating the case, decides that Torrey Tunet’s breaking and entering, while certainly illegal, is justified, and decides not to press charges.

In my own Joel Williams series, former police detective-turned-professor Williams sometimes bends the rules. So does his friend, Bert Schneider, who’s the local precinct captain. The two are old friends and former co-workers, and they frequently exchange information that’s technically supposed to be confidential. Williams is well aware of the limits to his authority now that he’s a citizen, so he doesn’t interrogate suspects or gather evidence. In fact, he emphasizes to the students in his Criminal Justice classes that they are not in a position to investigate cases. But he does find ways to pass useful information to the police, and he gets his share of “inside information,” too.

What do you think? Do you like mysteries where the sleuth bends and breaks the rules? Or do you think that’s too unrealistic?


  1. I think it's so much fun when they do! I loved it when Poirot let the bad guys go. It's probably unrealistic. Let's hope so, or else our bad guy population is way higher than it should be! But it provides an interesting glimpse into the sleuth's mind and sympathies.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I'm all for a little rule breaking, as long as it's not too implausible. Especially if the bad guy really gets it!

  3. Elizabeth - I agree - we wouldn't want too many "bad buys" to get away ; ). You do have an important point; when the sleuth braeks the rules and lets the bad guy get away, we see the human side of the sleut. It adds a really interesting dimension, doesn't it? I know that when Poirot does it, there's always a fascinating story behind his reasons...

    Alan - You're right; the minute that rule breaking gets too implausible and unrealistic, the story stops making sense. Then readers can't connect with it as well. It can be cathartic, though, can't it, when the sleuth really "gets" the "bad guy."

  4. Margot,
    You've done an impressive job here with so many great points and outstanding examples. I plan to look up some of these stories you've mentioned! As a retired 21 year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department, I have tons of stories and every time I think I've heard it all, I'm proved wrong. I don't think it's unrealistic for sleuths to bend & break the rules... As a cop, I can't help but think about what is unrealistic, but then the story probably wouldn't be as much fun.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  5. Kathleen - Thank you so much for your incredibly valuable perspective! I'd always thought that there are times when the rules are less important than the end result. On the other hand, of course, rules are there for good reasons. It's nice to hear that someone with your background in the field feels the same way.

    Like you, I like my crime fiction to be realistic for the most part (although I have to say I'm very fond of Golden Age crime fiction which isn't as realistic by today's standards). I find it hard to stay involved in a story if I can't imagine it happening. But, as you say, stories that are 100% realistic are sometimes not as fun, either. I appreciate your insights.

  6. I agree that it's fun when people break the rules! Often they have become private detectives just because they don't like the rules of (usually) being in the police force, which of course then allows them to break the rules with even more abandon!

  7. Maxine - You're right; there's a certain vicarious enjoyment we get from reading about sleuths who do "whatever it takes" to solve the crime(s). When I read your comment, I thought right away about Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. I also thought about John Connolly's Charlie Parker who, in his way, is far more lethal off the force than on. It's their very willingness to break the rules that makes sleuths like these compelling.

  8. Some rule-bending can be fun (I also love that aspect of Kinsey Millhone), but if it is all the time it loses the appeal. Inspector Frost (R.D. Wingfield) does it fairly often.

    What is worse is when policemen don´t call for assistance when they should (and you have an extra death or two). There is a Danish TV series where the cops run these stupid risks in nearly every episode. Too far out.

    NB: is that ketchup I see in the picture?

  9. Dorte - Agreed! When the police act in a ridiculously dangerous way, the result is too unbelievable for me, anyway, to enjoy. That Danish TV series sounds like an example. You're also right that even when rule-bending works well, it can certainly be overdone. A certain amount of it keeps the reader interested and adds a level of catharsis. Too much just goes too far.

    About the picture.... well, all I will say is that it's not human blood ; ).

  10. Oh, Margot ...

    Mystery writers ARE curious.

  11. Not to worry, Dorte - : ) - It's a perfectly legitimate red paint/ketchup mix - really : ). But you are right that we are a curious bunch of people. Or so my husband says....