In real life, most police investigate more than one crime at a time. Unless a crime is particularly high-profile or a town is particularly small, police are generally working on several cases at any given moment. That’s also true of many modern detective agencies. They generally don’t throw all of their resources at one case, either. Crime fiction authors have a difficult challenge with this reality. If they portray the sleuth as only working on one case, it’s not as authentic as having the sleuth work on more than one case. On the other hand, if the novel features too many simultaneous cases, this can be confusing. There are, though, lots of examples of crime fiction where the sleuth investigates more than one unrelated case at the same time; that is, where the different crimes the sleuth investigates have nothing to do with one another.
Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series is a solid example of a police procedural series that often focuses on more than one unrelated crime. Mendoza is a precinct captain for the Los Angeles Police Department, so he and his team are always busy. The Motive on Record, for instance, begins with the case of a nine-year-old girl who disappears on her way home from school. When her body is found, it becomes clear that a murderous child molester is at work. At the same time, Mendoza and his team are investigating the murder of a postman who, it would seem, had no enemies. They’re also investigating the deaths of a woman and two children who are found poisoned in a church. The crimes are unrelated, so the threads that tie the story together take place at the police station as Mendoza and his officers follow up leads and get and share information.
There’s a similar “parallel processing” approach to the story in Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae series. McRae is a detective sergeant in the Aberdeen police force, so he frequently works on more than one case at a time. For instance, in Broken Skin, MCrae investigates the shooting death of seventy-two-year-old Jerry Cochrane – by eight-year-old Sean Morrison. He also pursues a serial rapist – who is very likely Rob Macintyre, a star of the Aberdeen football team. There’s also the murder of Jason Fettes, a pornography actor. The connection among these cases is McRae’s police station. He and his team work on the cases simultaneously, so the reader follows multiple plot lines.
Gene Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir also shows the reality of a police precinct’s many investigations. That’s the story of Dublin Inspector Harry Synott, and the cases he and his team investigate. The cases include an armed robbery, a series of muggings, murder and a date rape. The cases aren’t connected in the sense of the crimes being committed by the same person. Rather, this is the juxtaposition of cases on Synott’s police blotter. I confess that I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s a clear example of the kind of parallel investigation I mean, so I couldn’t resist mentioning it. I highly recommend that you read the excellent review of the book by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.
Even when police procedurals don’t follow cases simultaneously, they sometimes do refer to other cases the sleuth is working. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Benny Frayle visits Inspector Barnaby of the Causton Police Station to try to get the police to investigate the death of her friend, Dennis Brinkley. She’s convinced Brinkley was murdered, but the official report is that his death was accidental. During her second visit, we learn that Barnaby has just finished a bizarre case involving a poet. He’s afraid that Benny’s case is just as strange, and he’s reluctant to leave his current sheaf of cases. He and Sergeant Troy look into the case, though, and they soon find out that Benny Frayle was right about Brinkley’s death.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also works on cases simultaneously, although the focus of the novels in which he appears is usually one case, or a series of related cases. In The Ghostway, for instance, Chee investigates the many threads that relate to the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navjo who’s returned to the Reservation. He’s only supposed to be searching for Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager and relative of Gorman who’s disappeared from her school. However, when he sees that her disappearance and Gorman’s death are related, Chee can’t resist getting involved. His supervisor, Captain Largo, reminds Chee of several other cases, including a knifing and liquor smuggling, that he’s supposed to be working. That doesn’t stop Chee from pursuing the Gorman case, though.
It’s not just police officers who work multiple cases. Private detectives in crime fiction do, too. For example, Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramtoswe often has more than one case to solve at the same time. For example, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Happy Babetse engages Mma. Ramotswe to find out whether the man calling himself her father is really her father. Alice Busang wants to find out if her husband is being unfaithful, and Rra. Patel wants to know if his daughter, Nandira, sneaks out at night. The main case she investigates is the disappearance of eleven-year-old Thobiso Pakotati. Mma. Ramotswe investigates all of these cases at the same time, so we follow each plot line separately as the novel evolves.
Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri is quite similar. He heads Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd., and is helped in his cases by a motley crew of family members, friends and informers. In The Case of the Missing Servant, for instance, Puri is hired by Ajay Kasliwal, a wealthy attorney who’s accused of killing his servant, Mary. At first, Kasliwal hires Puri to find Mary, but when she turns up dead, talk circulates that Kasliwal killed her because he’d gotten her pregnant. Now, Kasliwal needs Puri to clear his name and find out who really killed Mary. At the same time as Puri is working on the Kasliwal case, he also searches for background information on Ramesh Goel, who seems too perfect a fiancé for Vimi Singla. He also unmasks Neelesh Anand as a mere cook who pretended to own the Empress of India restaurant so that he could marry a woman from a higher caste.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot works on multiple cases, too, although we don’t follow the plot lines of each case. Still, in several Christie novels, there are references to cases Poirot is working while he’s also working on the “main” case of the novel. For instance, at the beginning of The Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot has just finished a diplomatic case in Syria and is planning a visit to Istanbul when he’s called back to London by a new development in another case he’s investigating. That’s how he ends up taking the Orient Express – the same train as Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who’s stabbed to death on the second night of the journey.
The same is true of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Although the stories each focus on one central case, reference is often made to other cases Holmes is pursuing. For instance, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place begins with Holmes making reference to two other cases he’s been involved in solving. One is officially being investigated by Inspector Merivale of Scotland Yard, who’s asked Holmes to examine some of the evidence from the case. The other is a case that Holmes has been working himself. And at the beginning of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty, Watson makes reference to The Adventure of the Second Stain as occurring during the same month. He mentions, though, that the latter is too delicate a matter to be made public yet (as a matter of fact, we don’t read about The Adventure of the Second Stain until after Holmes resurfaces after The Adventure of the Final Problem).
As believable and natural as it is for police and detectives to be working on more than one case at a time, it can also lead to some confusion if it’s not done well. But what do you think? Do you prefer mysteries where there’s only one case being solved? Or do you find “parallel processing” more enjoyable? Does it matter to you?