Monday, January 11, 2010

Roadblocks

Murders aren’t always easy to solve. Even when the police and other investigators find clues and evidence, it’s not always a straightforward path from crime to conviction. That path gets even more treacherous when there are stumbling blocks – “speed bumps,” you might say – that hamper an investigation. Those kinds of obstacles are certainly a part of real-life investigations; they’re also a part of some well-written crime fiction, too.

Sometimes, investigations are blocked because there’s no body. When there’s no body, it’s harder to prove that there’s been a crime. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). Late one morning, Hercule Poirot pays a reluctant visit to his dentist, Mr. Morley; less than two hours later, Morley is shot. Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp asks Poirot to help in the investigation. Poirot agrees, and he and Japp begin to interview the witnesses, who include Mabelle Sainsbury-Seale, a rather foolish, middle-aged spinster who’s devoted herself to good causes. One evening, Miss Sainsbury-Seale disappears mysteriously. Although they’re convinced that her disappearance is probably related to Morley’s death, Japp and Poirot can’t do much to pursue the case, because her body hasn’t turned up. It’s not until two months later, when the body is found, that they’re able to connect her to the case, and solve the mystery of Morley’s death.

We also see that kind of “roadblock” in Dead Man’s Folly, in which Poirot investigates the murder of Marlene Tucker, a young Girl Guide who’s strangled at a fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. On the same day that Marlene is killed, Hattie Stubbs disappears. Inspector Bland puts into action all of the machineries of law, but Hattie cannot be found. There’s no trace of a body, either. It’s not until Poirot finds out who killed Marlene Tucker that he’s able to deduce what happened to Hattie Stubbs. It’s only then that the police are able to find Hattie’s body and arrest the killer.

Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth also includes a case of a disappearance without a body. Emma Bestwick disappeared mysteriously from the village of Coniston ten years ago. Since she never returned, and her body was never found, the police weren’t able to solve the case. Now, Guy Koenig, a con man and drifter who’s just been released from prison, sees a newspaper article about her disappearance and tells journalist Tony di Venuto that Emma won’t return. He also tells di Venuto where Emma’s body is. It’s only then that DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team are able to find Emma’s body and pursue the clues that lead them to the solution of the mystery.

Sometimes, even when there is a body, there are stumbling blocks to an investigation. One of them is that witnesses and suspects cover things up. They may know all about a case, or at least some useful information, but they don’t tell the sleuth about it. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), which centers on the shooting death of wealthy Harley Street doctor John Christow. At first, it looks very much as though he was shot by his wife, Gerda. After all, she was found standing by his body with a gun in her hand. Soon, though, it becomes clear that things are not that simple, when the gun Gerda was holding turns out not to be the gun that shot Christow. The more that Hercule Poirot and the police investigate, the clearer it becomes that many of the suspects and witnesses know exactly who killed Christow – but aren’t telling.

Inspector Tom Barnaby has to deal with obstructive witnesses, too, in A Place of Safety, when he and Sergeant Troy investigate the murder of Charlie Leathers. Leathers is not exactly a very popular person in the village of Ferne Basset. He’s unpleasant, abusive and has a taste for blackmail. So when he’s found murdered one morning, nobody in the village is very interested at all in helping the police. It’s not until Leathers’ death is connected to the disappearance of a local young woman that the villagers – and Barnaby – realize that this was more than a personal killing.

Sometimes, an investigation is hampered by official bureaucracy. That’s what happens in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and publisher of Millenium magazine, loses a libel case against Hans-Erik Wennerström, a poweful Swedish industrialist. Desperate to save his publication, Blomikvist accepts a commission from Henrik Vanger, another industrialist, to solve a forty-year-old mystery – the disappearance of his grandniece, Harriet. In return, Vanger agrees to help Blomkvist prove that Wennerström is guilty of corruption. He’s also willing to give financial support to Millenium. Blomkvist, an avid mystery fan and amateur sleuth, begins his investigation. Along the way, he and his partner, Lisbeth Salander, are hampered at nearly every turn by “officaldom,” chiefly because those whom they’re investigating are in high and powerful positions.

We see a similar kind of “bureaucratic blockage” in several of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels. For instance, in Let it Bleed, Rebus investigates the suicide of Hugh McAnnally, who shoots himself in front of District Councillor Tom Gillespie. Rebus begins to investigate this death and its possible connection to two earlier suicides, only to find himself blocked by bureaucracy. As he searches for answers, Rebus uncovers a corrupt scheme, including bribery, to line the pockets of wealthy Scottish developers and computer industry magnates in the so-called Silicon Glen. He also finds that every step of his investigation is hampered, blocked or stopped as much as possible. Papers are shredded, files removed, and Rebus is heavily pressured to ease up on his investigation. He’s even offered bribes. But, being John Rebus, he pursues his investigation.

Sometimes, even when those in power aren’t guilty of corruption and murder, they can still hamper investigations. For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we see frequent conflicts between the Navajo Tribal Police, of which both Chee and Leaphorn are members, and federal government agencies, which sometimes pursue criminals onto the Navajo Reservation. Very often, there’s a “turf war” between the two agencies, and Chee’s investigation is either hampered or halted – temporarily. For example, in The Dark Wind, Chee is asked to find out who’s been vandalizing a water tower on the Hopi reservation. He’s watching the tower one night when he comes upon the wreckage of a plane crash, which happens to be related to a multi-million dollar drug-smuggling scheme. United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Johnson, who’s put on the case, at first believes that Chee may be involved in the drug disappearance, especially since it becomes clear fairly soon that the drugs haven’t left the Reservation. Chee is warned off the drug case and told to focus on the water tower mystery. In part to clear his name, and in part because he thinks the cases are related, Chee continues to try to find out who killed the ill-fated passengers in the plane, and what happened to the drugs. As it turns out, Chee’s right; the cases are related.

There are many other police procedural series that feature “offialdom” getting in the way of a police investigation. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series and M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series are just three examples.

For the amateur sleuth, it can even be more difficult to pursue an investigation, since amateurs don’t have the authority of the law behind the questions they ask and the leads they pursue. In fact, sometimes, the police resent what they see the amateur’s “nosing around,” and they get in the way of the sleuth’s investigation. Just to give one example, that’s what happens in several of Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis novels. Travis, a teacher and breeder of Standard Poodles, has a talent for solving mysteries. She also has the habit of annoying the local police when she’s investigating.

“Roadblocks” and stumbling blocks seem to crop up quite frequently in crime fiction. Do they get in the way of your enjoyment of your favorite crime fiction novels, or do you see them as a natural part of an investigation?

9 comments:

  1. I like roadblocks because they heighten the tension and make it appear less likely that the detective or sleuth will solve the crime. Also, when the roadblock takes a personal note it adds inner turmoil for the detective - effectively doubles the 'troubles'.

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  2. Bobbi - You're absolutely right. Roadblocks add to the tension in a story, especially if they're the kind of authentic roadblock that you can really see would impede an investigation. And of course, when they also add internal struggle for the sleuth, all the more absorbing if they're believable (well-taken point : ) ).

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  3. My favorite roadblocks are uncooperative (and just plain lying) suspects and witnesses. They make life complicated for the sleuth, but make a story that's fun to read!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

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  4. Elizabeth - No doubt about it; the lying/uncooperative witness or suspect is a fascinating roadblock! I have to admit; I like writing characters who have raesons of their own for not helping the sleuth or for outright lying. That kind of character allows for more challenges for the sleuth (and the reader), an interesting exploration of character and, as you say, humor.

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  5. A crime is committed and the guilty party is quickly and efficiently found. The end. This would be the most boring mystery ever! Roadblocks add twists to the plot line, and what's a good mystery without twists?

    Elspeth

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  6. Elspeth - That's so true. When it's too easy for the sleuth to find the clues and catch the killer, that means it's also too easy for the reader. It's far more engaging and abosrbing if there are roadblocks and twists to a case.

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  7. I definitely like stumbling blocks - so long as they don't slow the pace too much.
    The Disappeared by M R Hall is an example of a "crime without a body", full of stumbling blocks for Jenny, the coroner, who is trying to cut through the institutional bonding of other organisations, eg the police and medical establishments.

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  8. Maxine - Oh, The Disappeared is already on my TBR list : ) - has been. It looks to be a terrific book, and it certainly sounds an example of exactly what I mean. Thenks for mentioning it : )

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  9. Excellent post as always margot. What about when the roadblock is further up the pecking order in the investigation? The intuitive detective gets hampered by red tape or supervisors who only have an eye on the cost of surveillance or extra manpower or similar. Sometimes the detective is even suspended and carries on the investigation when they are supposed to be on leave.

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