Thursday, May 27, 2010

Going Undercover...

In real life, when the police are trying to catch criminals, they sometimes have to go undercover to do so. That’s especially true if the criminals are involved in a drugs ring, smuggling or some other illegal operation. Going undercover has its risks, of course, because if the detective is found out, the consequences can be deadly. But sometimes, going undercover is the best way to get information. Crime fiction, too, has its share of undercover operations. The risk of a fictional undercover operation is that it can come across as melodramatic. But when these novels are well-written, the “undercover” aspect of the novel can add a layer of suspense.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes goes undercover in more than one of his adventures. For instance in the The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes and Watson go up against one of London’s most dangerous men. Milverton specializes in blackmail. He finds out damaging information about members of London’s elite society, and makes a fortune in keeping their secrets. Lady Eva Blackwell asks Holmes to help her when Milverton gets hold of some indiscreet letters that she wrote before her current engagement. Milverton agrees to meet with Holmes about the matter, but insists on an outrageous sum of money. So Holmes makes other plans. He goes undercover as a plumber named Escott and dates one of Milverton’s housemaids, so that he can find out as much information as possible about Milverton’s household and the layout of his home. Then, one night, he and Watson break into Milverton’s home to try to steal the letters before Milverton can use them. While they’re at it, though, Milverton has a visitor who ends up killing him. Holmes and Watson narrowly escape getting caught and arrested for the murder themselves.

You wouldn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as a man to go undercover. In fact, he’s been known to disparage the kind of detective who puts on a false beard and follows a suspect around. But there are some novels in which Poirot does go undercover, at least for a time. For instance, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Poirot investigates the death of wealthy Richard Abernethie, patriarch of the Abernethie family. Abernethie died suddenly, and at his funeral, his sister, Cora Lansquenet, wonders aloud whether he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, but privately, the idea takes hold in everyone’s mind. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, the family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, comes to believe that she may have been right about her brother’s death. He goes to visit Poirot and asks him to look into the case. Poirot’s aware that the members of the Abernethie family aren’t likely to be forthcoming if they know a detective is around, so he arranges for an “undercover visit.” The family members are invited for a week-end visit to the family home to choose any household items they might like before the house is put up for sale. In attendance that week-end is “Monsieur Pontarlier,” a representative for “U.N.A.R.C.O,” a United Nations organization that wants to buy the home as a place for war refugees to live. At first, no-one pays very much attention to this foreign guest, and he seems to barely understand anything anyone is saying. But Poirot listens to everything and, in fact, gets some extremely valuable information from what he hears. To Poirot’s surprise, one of the family members “blows his cover,” but he’s still able to find what he needs to solve the mystery.

Poirot also gets some interesting information through an “undercover operation” in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, he’s on a flight from Paris to London when another passenger, Madame Giselle, suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to sudden heart failure. Soon enough, though, it’s discovered that she was poisoned. Madame Giselle was a well-known French moneylender who guaranteed her loans with information she found out about each client. So there are several suspects in her death. One of them is Lady Cecily Horbury, whose indiscretions Madame Giselle had threatened to reveal to her husband if she didn’t pay back the money she’d borrowed. Poirot knows that Lady Horbury won’t be forthright with him about her debts and her relationship with Madame Giselle, so he sends another passenger, dentist Norman Gale, to Lady Horbury in the guise of Mr. Robinson, a blackmailer. Lady Horbury is terrified that “Mr. Robinson” will tell her husband about her indiscretions, and she’s at her wits’ end when Poirot pays her a visit. In exchange for reassurances that Poirot will deal with “Mr. Robinson,” Lady Horbury is only too happy to give Poirot the information he wants. That operation gives Poirot some important clues to Madame Giselle’s murderer.

Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, in which he investigates the death of copywriter Victor Dean. At first, it seems that Dean was the victim of a tragic accidental fall down a staircase at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. But he left a half-finished letter behind, implicating one of the company employees in some illegal activities. So the company managers, eager to avoid a scandal, ask Wimsey to investigate. He joins the company as “Death Bredon Wimsey,” Dean’s replacement as copywriter, and soon gets a reputation as a talented copywriter in his own right. He also finds out that an employee at the advertising agency has been using company advertisements to arrange meetings between a powerful drugs ring and local drug dealers. When Dean found out about this “arrangement,” he blackmailed the employee who was responsible, and that’s the reason he was killed. The closer that Wimsey gets to this truth, the more danger he himself is in, and it’s only by a ruse on his part that he escapes being killed.

In Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows, Aberdeen university teacher Alexander Seaton goes undercover in order to try to find out what’s behind a curse that’s supposedly been laid on his family. One night, Seaton gets a surprising visit from his Irish cousin, Sean Fitzgarret. Fitzgarret’s been sent by the O’Neill family matriarch, Maeve O’Neill, to ask Seaton to come to Ireland. A poet has laid a terrible curse on the O’Neill family, and some parts of the curse have already started to come true. The only way, or so it seems, for the curse to be lifted is if Seaton comes to Ireland and proves another part of the curse wrong. He agrees, although very reluctantly, and is soon on his way. When he arrives in Ireland, Seaton goes undercover as his cousin, Sean. In that guise, Seaton sets out to find the poet who cursed the O’Neill family, so he can prove the curse false. Before he knows it, though, Seaton gets caught up in family drama, politics, religion – and murder. In the end, he finds that the tragedies in the O’Neill family have more to do with the politics of the time, family conflicts and “turf wars” than with a curse.

Commissario Guido Brunetti goes undercover in Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In that novel, Brunetti begins to investigate a possible baby-trafficking ring when he finds out that the Carbinieri carried out a raid on the home of Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife, Bianca Marcolini. During the raid, Pedrolli is severely beaten, and the couple’s toddler son, Alfredo, is taken away. Brunetti is told that the couple had bought the child, not adopted him legally, and that they’re not the only ones involved. At first, Brunetti is shocked by the seemingly abusive behavior of the Caribinieri. Things are not always what they seem, though, as Brunetti finds when he begins to really research what happened. Signorina Elettra, secretary to the Vice-Questore, often provides Brunetti with vital information, and this time, she finds links in the case to an infertility clinic in Verona. She knows (and so, after thinking about it, does Brunetti) that the clinic staff aren’t likely to admit any connections to child-trafficking, so the two of them go undercover to the clinic as Signor Brunini and his companion. Their trip to the clinic bears fruit when Signorina Elettra gets a telephone call hinting that there might be a possibility of getting a baby. This call provides an important piece of evidence that allows Brunetti and the Carbinieri to solve the case.

Going undercover can come across as melodramatic, even contrived. There are times, though, when it makes sense, given the plot, and then, an “undercover operation” can add to the suspense of a story. For instance, spy thrillers frequently make use of that plot point (one reason I didn’t specifically mention any here; there are just too many). What do you think? Do you think “undercover operations” are engaging? Which ones have you enjoyed?




On Another Note...

I'm packing up my suitcases again as the Magical Mystery Blog Tour prepares to head to Northern Virginia for a stop at Ingrid King's fantastic feline-friendly blog, The Conscious Cat, where I'll be blogging about cats in crime fiction. Please check back here later today or tomorrow morning, depending on where you live, and check out the blog tour link.

7 comments:

  1. Currently I'm writing a thriller where the MC is going undercover as... well, herself. She's undercover but using a lot of her real life. I think it's fun and exciting to write.

    CD

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  2. Clarissa - Your WIP sounds really exciting. I look forward to reading it : ). Thrillers and other stories where the sleuth or another character goes undercover can be exciting : ).

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  3. In the current audio book I'm listening to (Deliver Us From Evil) you have two protagonists that are undercover but don't know the other is. So far it's been intriguing how they are working each other to stay undercover. Interesting post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  4. Mason - Thanks : ). I'm going to be very interested in finding out whether you like Deliver Us From Evil. It's got to be intriguing to have two people, each of whom's undercover, but neither of whom knows it....really fascinating idea.

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  5. I do so enjoy your posts, Margot. I am currently reading a book about undercover, in a way - about cops who police the cops - there are multilayerd undercoverings so it is quite hard keeping track of them all! But a good book so far (The Complaints by Ian Rankin). Perhaps the unintentionally funniest "cover" book I read recently was The Last 10 Seconds by Simon Kernick. It wasn't actually funny, but just a bit cliched and unrealistic about the cover aspects. Unlike some of the good novels you have highlighted.

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  6. Maxine - Thank you : ). And how like you to bring up two interesting books that I would like to read. I've been wanting to read the Rankin book, so I'm eager to see your review of it. When I read your fine review of The Last 10 Seconds, my thought was that that one was probably one of those "pace" books one needs to be in the mood to read - or at least I do. It's on my list, though...

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