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 café 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?