Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Parallel Processing...

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 fiancĂ© 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?


  1. I think I prefer mysteries where there's one real mystery being solved. There can be multiple subplots, and I suppose it's okay if one of the subplots involves another case, but only if the two cases are related. If the detective is going to solve two completely unrelated cases, I say save it for another book!

  2. Alan - I think a lot of people feel that way. It can be distracting and confusing if there are too many separate mysteries being solved. Sometimes it's done well, but unless it's done well, it takes away from the reader's ability to really engage with the book.

  3. If the police are working on say two cases at the same time, that's not too bad. But more than that tends to take away from the plot of the book. The reader no longer knows which murder is the main focus and you become distracted. The writer can relate that the police/detective is busy on numerous other cases to show his work load without really getting into those cases.

  4. Mason - You bring up an interesting point. If a mystery novel is about one main case, it is distracting if other mysteries get too much attention. You also make a solid point that it's possible to let the reader know that the sleuth is working on more than one case eithout taking away from the continuity of the plot. Authors such as Shannon have found that balance, but it's not easy.

  5. I like those books when the police start out investigating two completely separate crimes and they turn out to be connected. That may seem forced and false but frequently minor offences lead to the capture of major criminals, so why not in crime fiction. I think the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was stopped because of a faulty brake light and evidence found in his boot [trunk] of his crimes.

  6. Norman - You're right; why shouldn't it be that two crimes that seem disparate would have some sort of connection? It's funny you would mention that about Peter Sutcliffe. A similar kind of thing led to the first arrest of Ted Bundy, the mass murderer. He was arrested for failure to stop for a police officer, and the arresting officer found several pieces of incriminating evidence in his car. Those kinds of things do happen in real life, so there is no reason they wouldn't happen in fiction.

  7. I like both kinds of book - "busy" ones, in which you get a sense of "organised chaos" and ones that focus on one basic mystery - or as Norman says, two that turn out to be related. Arnaldur Indridason usually does this - his books almost always feature two main mysteries and the fun is trying to guess whether they will be connected and if so, how (sometimes they turn out to be connected, sometimes not).
    I like the Hill St Blues approach of having a lot of overlapping cases going on that spill over week on week. Maybe that works best in a TV series than in a book series?
    Sometimes, an author uses the "parallel investigations" theme to make a point, for example Sjowall/Wahloo, Henning Mankell and Ed McBain always show how solving a crime is a team effort. (Which is one reason why the most recent BBC Wallander episode, Faceless Killers, was the opposite of in tune with the ethos of the books.)

  8. Maxine - How funny that you mentioned Ed McBain! I was on the point of including him and the 87th Precinct team, but I always worry about going on for too long, so I made what you might call an executive decision and didn't. You're absolutely right, though, that those books do a great job of showing the team effort involved in solving cases.

    You raise an interesting question about the Hill Street Blues phenomenon of "spillover cases." It did work brilliantly for that show (of course, I'm a fan, so I'm biased). As I see it, the only problem with doing that in a book series is that, as we've said other times in this blog, readers begin a series at different points. So those "spillover" cases might not work as well, especially if the reader happens to begin with a book in which a case is "closed," only to follow up with the book that introduces the case. Interesting point to think about.....

  9. Just give me the one main plot. I don't have an issue with other cases being mentioned especially if it's referring to past cases which I can read about later! The danger, I would think, is if the other cases sound more interesting than the one the detective is working on now. That could be tricky.

    A decent mystery is going to have plenty of sub plots lurking about to add interest and confusion. I don't think you need another mystery competing for the spotlight.


  10. Elspeth - That's a compelling point. A good mystery plot involves characters with lots of different facets and motivations, and a connection between the killer and the victim (if it's a murder plot). That's enough to make for a very interesting story in itself. For a writer, it's also worth thinking about your other point, that making another case too appealing can distract the reader from what's supposed to be the focus of the story. It's definitely not a matter of course to create a sound novel where more than one case is going on at the same time.

  11. I love any amount of mystery. If it is written well, I enjoy a good murder.

  12. Glynis - Nicely said : ). If a mystery is well-written, that's far more important than anything else, isn't it?