Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bureaucracy and "Beating the System"

Most modern societies have established systems for getting things done; very often, those systems are bureaucracies. There are medical, legal, governmental and financial bureaucracies, among many others, and it’s interesting (if sometimes frustrating) to think of how much influence they have on our lives. In real life, murder and its investigation are fraught with bureaucracy. In some ways, that’s a good thing; after all, most people don’t want an innocent person to be punished, and vigilante justice has tragic consequences. So it makes sense that police, attorneys, medical examiners and others are governed by policies that protect suspects. On the other hand, bureaucracy can get in the way of an investigation. Bureaucracy - “the system” – is such an important part of crime and its investigation that it’s not surprising that we see a lot of it in crime fiction. Mostly, we see the way that sleuths, murderers and suspects deal with bureaucracy.

There’s an argument that there’s more bureaucracy now than in the past, but if you look at some Golden Age crime fiction, you can see that bureaucracy plays a role in those novels, too. It’s also interesting to see how sleuths of the time get around “the system.” For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Insepctor James “Jimmy” Japp is put on the case of the shooting death of Henry Morley, a seemingly competent, but unassuming, dentist. Because Poirot was at Morley’s office on the day of his death, Japp asks Poirot to get involved in the case, and it’s not long before the two are looking into the case together. At one important point in the story, Miss Maybelle Sainesbury-Seals, another patient of Mr. Morley’s and a witness, disappears, and for two months, nothing is heard from her. Then, a body is found which may be hers. The body is then identified as that of Mrs. Albert Chapman, and as soon as that happens, the Foreign Office bureaucracy shuts the investigation down. The reason is that Albert Chapman is a Secret Service agent, and an investigation might reveal top-secret information. Japp’s hands are proverbially tied, so he asks Poirot, who is less bound by bureaucracy, to finish the investigation. Poirot agrees. It turns out that Morley’s death and Miss Sainesbury-Seale’s disappearance are related in a surprising way.

Ellery Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are also bound by bureaucracy, especially since Inspector Queen is a member of the New York City Police. We see this bureaucracy in The Roman Hat Mystery, in which the Queens investigate the poisoning murder of Monte Field, an attorney with a dubious reputation. It turns out that Field was a blackmailer, so there are plenty of suspects. In the end, the Queens deduce who must have been responsible for Field’s death. The problem is that they don’t have enough evidence – not, anyway, evidence that would stand up in court. So they resort to what would now probably be labeled entrapment. They lure the killer to try to commit murder again, using the same kind of poison in the same way. This gives them the evidence they need to pursue a case against the killer.

In many of the “hardboiled” crime fiction novels that had their advent in the 1940’s and 1950’s, bureaucracy is seen as part of the crime problem. By that, I mean that officialdom seems to hamper investigations. For example, in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, Mike Hammer, Spillane’s sleuth, decides to find out who killed former con man William Decker as he was leaving a bar. Decker left a young son behind, and Hammer takes the boy in, resolving for his sake to find out what happened. At first, it’s believed that Decker was murdered by a criminal organization because he’d bungled a safecracking job he had agreed to do for them. As it turns out, though, Decker was killed for quite a different reason. As Hammer investigates, he runs up against quite a lot of officialdom, including police and the District Attorney’s office, who are trying to make a case against the criminal organization, and don’t want Hammer meddling in their case. As you might expect, Hammer gets around this system, mostly through the kind of recklessness and violence we associate with his character. Hammer’s hardly the only example of this approach to “beating the system,” either.

Many fans of detective stories cheered Hammer and his ilk on, and were happy to see the “good guys” win and the “bad guys” “get theirs,” even if it meant breaking a lot of rules. Today’s readers, though, are arguably more sophisticated and want more realism in their stories. In reality, there are limits to what the police, private investigators and certainly amateurs can do in investigating crimes, and those limits are imposed by bureaucratic policies. Sleuths such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, who are police officers, can’t really go outside “the system,” even if that choice helps to catch criminals, without facing real consequences. For example, in Connelly’s The Last Coyote, Harry Bosch is placed on indefinite suspension for attacking his superior officer. Department policy require him to be cleared after a psychiatric evaluation, which Harry is at first unwilling to do. He soon realizes, though, that the only way to get around this bureaucracy is to go through with the mandatory sessions with the Department psychiatrist. While he’s undergoing these sessions and getting through his suspension, Bosch re-opens the thirty-year old murder of a prostitute – his own mother. In many other novels that feature Hearry Bosch, we see L.A.P.D. bureaucracy getting in the way of Bosch’s investigations, either deliberately or otherwise, and his conflict with “the system” is part of the appeal of these novels.

The same is true of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus has never found it easy to operate within established bureaucratic policy, and Rankin is realistic as to the consequences for his sleuth. For instance, in The Black Book, Rebus is assigned to “Operation Moneybags,” a sting that’s designed to put an end to the business of one of “Big Ger” Cafferty’s moneylenders. Rebus, of course, would rather go after Cafferty, instead. In the process of the investigation, Rebus finds a notebook in which there are references to a mysterious fire that took place five years earlier at th Central Hotel. Rebus’ superiors don’t want him to focus his attention on that fire; they want him to concentrate on the sting operation. Rebus, of course, pursues his own investigation. When it’s found out that he’s tracked down and bought the handgun used in a shooting that took place just before the fire, Rebus is suspended. In a way, this frees Rebus to take matters into his own hands, and he’s finally able to prove what really happened at the Central Hotel, and how it’s related to the current case.

There are certainly plenty of other novels where bureaucracy seems to hamper an investigation; lots of police procedurals and some P.I. procedurals include that theme. But there are also novels where the sleuth/protagonist makes “the system” work. We see that in several of Erle Stanley Garnder’s Perry Mason novels. We also see it in more modern legal thrillers such as Marin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, Mason Hunt is a successful prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Although he had an abusive childhood, Hunt’s made the most of his life. The only serious problem he faces is his older brother, Gates. Gates Hunt is a former high school athlete who’s wasted every opportunity he had, and as the novel opens, he’s got no job, no prospects, and is living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, money from his mother, and whatever other money he can scrounge. One day, Gates has an argument with Wayne Thompson, a rival for his girlfriend. Later that night, the Hunt brothers meet up with Thompson again, and in a drunken, reckless moment, Gates Hunt shoots Thompson. Mason tries his best to protect his brother by hiding the murder weapon and destroying whatever traces he can of his brother’s involvement in the crime. The case is eventually left to “go cold,” and the two brothers move on. Mason Hunt becomes a prosecutor; his brother becomes a petty criminal. When Gates Hunt is arrested and convicted for cocaine trafficking, he begs his brother to “work the system” to get him out. Mason refuses, as he recognizes his brother for the career criminal that he is. That seems to end matters, until Mason finds out, to his shock, that Gates is about to use bureaucracy against his brother. Gates accuses Mason of the shooting of Wayne Thompson, and agrees to testify against his brother in exchange for release. A grand jury indicts Mason and before long, he’s on trial for a capital crime. Now, Mason Hunt and his friend and assistant prosecutor Custis Norman have to find their own way to use “the system” to clear Mason’s name.

Bureaucracy and “the system” are an integral part of catching, arresting, and stopping criminals, so it’s natural that this is a part of crime fiction. On the other hand, there’s a temptation to be unrealistic about it, or to include so much detail about “the system” that it becomes tiresome. Where do you stand on this? Do you think that crime novels that explore “the system” are simply being realistic? Or tedious?


  1. I think that attempting to beat "the system" is more than integral to crime fiction; it's a viable definition of "crime". We certainly see a lot of "bureaucracy" and "the system" in modern detective fiction, but even Jane Marple had to deal with the village constabulary of St. Mary Mead. I feel that every criminal mystery writer has to deal with the subject, but that there's a fine line between a realistic and informative description of "the system" and an obfuscating and tedious one. Also, I think this line is drawn by the reader, not the writer; thus, some readers might not enjoy a writer because he or she's "too wordy", while another likes that writer quite a lot. I'm not a writer, but I suspect that the question of "too much or not enough?" enters a writer's mind several times per novel.

  2. Bob - You've got a very well-taken point. The essence of committing a crime is trying to "beat the system." And, as you say, when a crime's being investigated, whether it's in Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead or the the 87th Precinct, or Harry Bosch's L.A.P.D. or somewhere else, there's a bureaucracy involved in investigating it. In fact, your post made me think of Agatha Christie's 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). When Elspeth McGillicuddy is sure that she saw a murder, she tries to get the police to take notice, but they don't believe her, and she's given "the runaround" by the bureaucracy.

    You've also got a point about the reader's taste. I think that does have a lot to do with how much information to offer and how much to let the reader imagine. In general, though, I, personally, prefer letting the reader "fill in the gaps," so I'm not one for detailed descriptions. Not everyone agrees with me on that, though.

  3. In Ian Rankin's Resurrection Men the system is used by arranging to get Rebus suspended for throwing coffee at his superior, and placed on a re-education course with a group of suspected 'bent coppers'.
    Does Rebus hold a record for most suspensions in a police force, real or arranged?

  4. Just read a book about conflicts between different groups in the system. Here's my review of Jeffrey Deaver's thriller, The Stone Monkey

  5. Book Dilettante - Thanks for bringing up the idea of conflicts within "the system." They, too, are sometimes an important part of an investigation - fodder for a whole new post, I think!

    Also, thanks for your review of The Stone Monkey. Folks, please do stop over and check out Book Dilettante's fine review of this Deaver novel.

  6. Norman - Thanks for reminding me of Resurrection Men. Of course that's a classic example of Rebus running up against bureaucracy. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if Rebus does hold the record for most suspentions. Even if he doesn't have as many suspensionsk, though Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch might give Rebus a run for his money in terms of trouble working within the system ; ).

  7. I don´t always enjoy the copper against the system, but Rebus and Harry Hole are good examples of detectives who pull it off in a credible way. Well, if not credible, at least in a way their readers love ;O

  8. Dorte - I like the way you put that : ). I agree that the "cop against the system" can be overdone and not very credible. But, as you say, Rankin and Nesbø create that sort of plot in ways that work for their readers.

  9. I love the "against the system" ethos of crime fiction. This is probably the main reason I like the genre! Good example from the older Bosch books. He comes up against this regularly since, including in the very early post 9/11 days, when I think he was the first fictional character to "come out" against the Dept of Homeland Security, or rather what it is doing to personal freedoms in the name of protection from terrorism. This is a theme in several recent-ish Bosch books. I admire Connelly for tackling this theme at a time when it was a brave move to do so - everyone else was respectfully not including 9/11 in their novels. He was courageous enough to look at some of the collateral damage.

    Margot, I apologise for not commenting here much in the past few days - I have been reading your posts but I have a strange illness that makes me very dizzy and nauseous, so I am not online very much just at the moment. My apologies. Thank you for all your fascinating posts, which I love reading.

  10. Maxine - No need for apologies - at all. We all of us have lives. I am very sorry to hear that you're ill; I hope you feel well again soon. Please take care of yourself!!

    About Michael Connelly? I agree completely. He did take a risk coming out against what he saw as threats to personal freedoms after 9/11, and I would guess there are those who stopped reading him because of that. Like you, I admire him for having the courage to address a controversial - even unccomfortable - theme.

    And I agree with you, too, that the whole theme of "against the system" is part of what makes crime fiction exciting. Sometimes, people commit crimes because of "the system," or are "railroaded" by it, or can't prosecute because of it. No matter how it plays out, "against the system" can add spice to the genre.