Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Up Against a Wall

In real life, and in crime fiction, a murderer can be very dangerous. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once, a person who has killed once will kill again. So most sleuths, both real and fictional, have a healthy respect for the danger involved in dealing with a killer. And in real life, detectives are taught how to keep themselves safe. Even so, they may still find themselves up against a wall and sometimes, in real danger. That’s one reason that very often, detectives work in pairs. Since danger is a part of a real-life detective’s life, it makes sense that fictional sleuths get themselves in danger sometimes, too. Of course, real-life detectives don’t usually get into wild car chases or gun battles with criminals (although that kind of thing has been known to happen). So it’s probably unrealistic for a fictional sleuth to get into a whole series of fairly dangerous situations. But if it’s done well, it can add a real layer of suspense to a novel when the sleuth is in danger.

That kind of suspense has been a part of mystery fiction for a long time. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty House, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of a killer who’s been stalking Holmes since the death of Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Holmes soon discovers that the killer is a member of Moriarity’s criminal organization, bent on revenge for his leader’s death. Holmes is in such danger from this organization that he’s needed to hide for three years. In fact, it’s not until he lays a clever trap of his own that he’s able to stop the killer. The Adventure of the Final Problem, in which Holmes and Moriarty grapple for the final time both figuratively and literally, is an even clearer example of the kind of danger Holmes faces. In that story, Holmes has tracked down and captured most of Moriarty’s criminal gang, so Moriarty makes it a priority to find and kill Holmes. Through a series of ruses, he very nearly succeeds.

“Hardboiled” detective novels such as those of Mickey Spillane and frequently feature the sleuth getting into dangerous situations. That’s what happens, for instance, in Spillane’s The Big Kill. One night, private detective Mike Hammer is setting in a seedy bar when a man named William Decker comes in, leaves his toddler son in the bar and goes outside where he’s soon shot down. Hammer shoots Decker’s killer, but before he can get any information from the man, the driver of the shooter’s getaway car runs over Decker’s murderer to be sure he won’t talk. Hammer resolves to find out who killed Decker and why, and takes in Decker’s son. He soon finds out that Decker was a con man who decided to “go straight,” but was tricked into a deal with some very dangerous racketeers. Hammer himself is soon a target of the racketeers as well as the local District Attorney, who would rather Hammer not meddle in this case. As Hammer gets closer to the truth about Decker’s murder, he finds himself in several predicaments including getting captured, beaten and shot at. In the end, Hammer follows through on his vow of vengeance, but not before he’s nearly killed more than once.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says that it’s dangerous to cross a murderer. In Cards on the Table, he likens this to going inside a tiger’s cage. In that novel, Poirot and three other sleuths investigate the stabbing death of Mr. Shaitana, a very eccentric man who made the mistake of inviting a group of four people that he knows are killers to his home for dinner, along with four sleuths. During the meal, Shaitana drops hints about what he knows, and within hours, he’s dead himself. While Poirot himself isn’t in imminent danger in this novel, it’s a good example of how dangerous a killer can be.

In Christie’s The Big Four, Poirot and Hastings end up in very real danger from a group of four master criminals who’ve joined forces. When Poirot finds out about this group and starts investigating, he and Hastings become targets. In fact, the only way that Poirot escapes being killed is through an elaborate ruse in which he fakes his own death. Hastings, meanwhile, is kidnapped and is only saved because he’s able to warn Poirot about what’s happened.

Christie’s sleuths Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, get into danger more than once, too. For instance, in N or M?, Tommy Beresford is called into action during World War II when a British agent dies after leaving a cryptic clue about Nazi agents in the country. Tommy is sent to a quiet Guest House to investigate, and unofficially, Tuppence goes with him. Both go undercover and pretend not to know each other. Before long, they realize that, far from being a quiet place to relax, the Guest House is a cover from some very dangerous spies. Both Tommy and Tuppence end up getting kidnapped, and it’s mostly because they’re brought their friend and helper Albert along with them that they’re saved.

Tony Hillerman’s sleuths Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn frequently get into danger. Even though they know the Navajo country in which they work very, very well, they still sometimes have to match wits against some deadly enemies. For instance, in The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is looking for the murderer of Luis Horseman. Horseman is a Navajo who disappears after a drunken fight. When Horseman turns up dead in Many Ruins Canyon, it looks as though witchcraft might be at work. Leaphorn is a Navajo, so he’s familiar with his people’s traditions and beliefs. Still, he’s quite convinced that there’s a real person behind Horseman’s murder and sets out to find the killer. In the novel’s climactic scene, Leaphorn squares off with the killer in a desolate section of Navajo country. Leaphorn is wounded and makes a very vulnerable target, since the killer knows the country as well as Leaphorn does.

Michael Robotham’s Lost is a very interesting example of a police officer in danger. That novel begins with Inspector Vincent Ruiz waking up from a ten-day coma and realizing he’s been shot in the leg and has nearly died. At first, he’s got no memory of what’s happened, but as his memory slowly comes back, he remembers that on the night he was shot, he was working on the case of a missing girl, Mickey Carlyle, who’d disappeared three years earlier. With help from his friend, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, Ruiz pieces together what happened on the night he was shot and returns to the case, more determined than ever to find out what happened to Mickey Carlyle. Along the way, he becomes a target himself. You can read excellent reviews of Lost by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, by Dorte at DJs Krimiblog and by Rhian at It's a Crime! (Or a Mystery).

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter, so she’s accustomed to looking for people who don’t want to be caught. Many of them are only too happy to kill her instead of facing trial. Plum generally escapes from these situations (too many for me to describe in just this one post) with quick-wittedness – and the help of her friends and co-workers, Ranger and Lula. Of course, there’s also her sometimes-boyfriend Joseph Morelli, a vice cop who knows Stephanie’s propensity for getting herself into very dangerous situations.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen has the same habit of getting into trouble. She’s the postmistress in the small Virginia town of Crozet, and is intensely curious. Although Crozet has a capable sheriff and deputy sheriff, Harry does her own investigating and more than once ends up in real danger. That’s also true of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover, who’s far too independent and brave to be “called off the chase” when things get dangerous.

As usual, there’s only enough space here for me to mention a sampling of the many novels in which the sleuth is up against a wall, with very few options. What do you think of that kind of plot? Do you enjoy the suspense, or is it too contrived?


  1. Thanks for the plug, Margot!

    It's a LITTLE contrived. :) But it can be fun. And then sometimes it's NOT contrived because the sleuth is so darned nosy that they're going to put themselves in a dangerous position. When that happens, though, I think it's important not to make the reader disgusted with the sleuth and their lack of self-preservation.

    You know, I don't remember Hastings getting kidnapped! I must not have read that one....I'll pick it up. Thanks for the tip.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - Hey, Myrtle is a great character and a smart sleuth, so it's my pleasure to mention her - and her creator : ).

    You've got a point, too, that the sleuth can be so curious and determined that no amount of warning is going to stop him or her for long. That strategy does have its limits, though, as you say. Readers don't think much of a sleuth who has no sense of the danger s/he could be in and who keeps getting in dire situations.

    The Big Four is not, I admit, my favorite of Christie's works. But it really showed her stretching herself to try a new kind of plot and for that, I give her credit. And we get to see Poirot saving Hastings, which is neat.

  3. As always a very interesting and informative post. Just wanted to wish you a safe and Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays.

  4. Mason - Thanks for your good wishes and your kinds words. Merry Christmas to you, too, and enjoy the holidays!

  5. The "woman (usually) in peril" ending is a real cliche of crime fiction. I like it when the detective or other character is in danger, but not when they do obviously silly things or when it is too contrived. For example in Sophie Hannah's "The Other Half Lives", the detective's car key runs out of battery so she can't open her car door to escape from someone (how likely is that?), and later in the same book, both she and her colleague (another police detective) end up following the person who turns out to be a villain and being trapped - without leaving a message, and without mobile phone - hmmmmm!

    The detective in danger/peril theme was handled well in Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo, although the baddie, having trapped the detective, kept the confrontation going for an unfeasibly long time - another cliche - allowing for the possibility of rescue by others who are a few steps behind in putting clues together.

  6. Maxine - You're so right that the "damsel in distress" theme is often overdone, and I like your example. As you say, it's not so bad if it's a realistic situation. For instance, in some of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels, we can see how Plum would get into danger (she is a bounty hunter, after all. Those situations aren't too badly handled, either. But in some novels, it really is contrived, isn't it? I have to be honest; that's part of why I stopped reading the Melissa Cleary dog lovers' mystery series featuring Jackie Walsh. The first few were engaging for cozy-readers, but after that, there were too many improbable situations where she got into trouble - at least for my taste.