Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Not the Usual Channels...

One of the realities of dealing with any kind of bureaucracy is that it can take a long time to get things done. Not only that, but it’s easy to get “lost in the shuffle.” So most of us are only too happy when we “know someone who knows someone” who can help us through the process. Whether it’s a job search, finding the right mechanic, or choosing a college, “pulling strings” is sometimes a very useful strategy. It’s the same way with murder investigations, which are often wrapped in layers of proverbial red tape. In real life and in crime fiction, detectives often find that getting answers through official channels doesn’t get them as far as ‘pulling strings” and knowing the right people does.

You would think that police detectives wouldn’t need to “pull strings” to find out information. After all, they have the force of law behind them, and they’re entitled to question witnesses and suspects. As crime fiction shows us, though, it’s not that simple. For instance, many witnesses are afraid to talk to the police. They may be hiding another crime, or they may think that co-operating with the police will make them suspects. Other witnesses don’t talk to the police because they’re afraid of retribution if they seem to be co-operating. So even the police have to “pull strings” at times. Private investigators and amateur sleuths have to make use of those connections also, perhaps even more than police detectives, because they don’t have access to police information.

Agatha Christie’s novels provide all sorts of examples of “pulling strings.” I’ll just offer a few of them. In Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is part of a team of four sleuths who are investigating the murder of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Shaitana claims to know of people who’ve committed murder and gotten away with it; on impulse, he decides to invite Poirot and three other sleuths to a dinner party to meet four of these murderers. At dinner, Shaitana makes references to different ways of committing murder, and hints that he knows all four murderers’ secrets. While everyone is playing bridge after dinner, Shaitana is stabbed. The reason for Shaitana’s murder seems to lie in a past that someone wants to keep hidden, so the sleuths begin to dig into every suspect’s past. Instead of officially summoning as many witnesses as possible to give statements, each of the sleuths talks to people they know. In fact, in the case of one witness, Detective Sergeant O’Conner finds out information by going on a date with her. In the end, and after another death, Poirot figures out which of the four suspects has killed Shaitana.

In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Spence “pulls strings” when he gets Poirot involved in the case of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger, James Bentley. Spence had been assigned the case, and all of the evidence he collected seemed to point to Bentley. On the force of that evidence, Bentley was arrested and convicted, and is due to be executed. Spence has begun to have doubts about Bentley’s guilt, though, and wants to be absolutely sure before Bentley’s killed. Spence himself can’t use “official channels.” For one thing, there isn’t time, since Bentley’s scheduled to be executed soon. For another, Spence has been assigned to another case, and can’t continue to pursue this one. So he asks Poirot for help. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the village of Broadhinney, where the murder took place. As he gets to know some of the other people living in the village, Poirot soon learns that more than person had a reason to want Mrs. McGinty killed. In fact, Poirot gets many of his cases because the people who seek him out can’t or don’t want to use official channels.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn often have to use “unofficial channels,” so to speak, when they’re solving cases. They’re both members of the Navajo Tribal Police, so they can compel witnesses to give statements. However, both detectives realize that they won’t get very far that way. Many witnesses are unwilling to talk to the police for a number of reasons. And even when they do talk to the police, witnesses don’t tell everything they know. But the Navajo Reservation is, in its way, a small community. People know one another, and have seen things. So Chee and Leaphorn (Chee, especially) find that by talking to a few well-placed sources, they can find out useful information. For instance, in The Dark Wind, Chee is investigating vandalism at a water tower when he comes upon a plane crash and two victims. Chee begins to believe that the vandalism and the plane crash might be related, and that’s how he pursues his investigation. He finds, though, that most of the locals aren’t willing to say much, chiefly because they’re afraid the incidents might be related to witchcraft. So, instead of using “official channels,” Chee gets useful information from Jake West, an acquaintance who runs a local store. West hears all of the local gossip and goings-on, and he’s willing to share what he knows with Chee.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an interesting way of “pulling strings” and avoiding the “usual channels.” She has a persuasive style, and is frequently able to use that skill to get information that she needs to solve cases. For example, in The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mr. Molofelo, a civil engineer, wants to make amends for some mistakes he made as a young man. So he hires Mma. Ramotswe to find the people he wronged, so that he can make restitution. Mma. Ramotswe goes to the government pension office to find an address she needs. The clerk she encounters is not willing to give her the address, citing the rules. Mma. Ramotswe knows that begging for the address won’t get her anywhere, so she decides on a different tactic to “pull strings.” Here’s a bit of the conversation she has with the clerk:

‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘I would never tell you your job – a clever man like you does not need to be told by a woman how to do his job – but I think you have got the rule wrong. The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address. That you can tell.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules. I am sure that this is the case. But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of rule 25. This is really rule 24(b), subsection (i). That is the rule you are thinking of….The rule that deals with addresses is rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’

Needless to say, Mma. Ramotswe is successful at getting the address she needs.

Another clear example of “pulling strings” and avoiding the “usual channels” is the way Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti operates. In Brunetti’s Venice, getting anything accomplished depends on knowing the right people. He’s cultivated good relationships with people in the other departments at the Questura, and often finds out information from them in spite of what’s required by the bureaucracy. And when he’s on a case, Brunetti often starts by thinking about people he knows in strategic businesses, neighborhoods, etc., who might give him useful information. He uses those channels to find out what he needs to know, rather than the official channels, because Brunetti knows that he won’t learn much at all from the official channels. For example, in Through a Glass, Darkly, Sgt. Vianello’s school friend, Marco Ribetti, is arrested as part of a group of environmental protestors. Ribetti’s wife, Assunta De Cal, calls Vianello right away, because she knows that’s the only chance her husband has of getting out of jail. Vianello and Brunetti succeed in freeing Ribetti. Then, Assunta De Cal comes to see Brunetti, telling him she’s afraid for her husband, because her father, factory owner Giovanni De Cal, has been making threats against him. Brunetti agrees to see what he can do. Instead of looking through police files or asking for an official investigation, he asks Officer Pucetti, who’s from the same area as De Cal, whether he has any relatives who work in the factories in that area. It’s through Pucetti’s contacts, not through official channels, that Brunetti finds out the story behind Giovanni De Cal.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we see how brothers Mason and Gates Hunt try to avoid official channels. Mason Hunt is a successful commonwealth attorney for Patrick County, Virginia. His brother, Gates, is a former high school athlete who’s wasted every opportunity he ever had. In fact, Gates is in prison for cocaine trafficking. From the time he’s convicted, Gates asks his brother to “pull strings” and use all of the influence he has to get Gates out of prison. Mason refuses. For one thing, Gates Hunt is a petty criminal who was caught outright in an illegal drug transaction; he’s guilty of the crime. Besides, Gates has promised to reform many times; he never has. Mason doesn’t think much more of it, and life goes on for both brothers. Then one day, Mason finds out that his brother is planning to accuse him of a shooting that Gates himself committed years earlier. Now, Mason has to go outside the official channels to find a way to beat the charges against him. In this novel, it’s actually very interesting to see how both brothers try to “pull strings” to get what they want.

“Pulling strings” is a part of dealing with most bureaucracies, so it’s no surprise that we see a lot of it in crime fiction. In fact, there are many more examples of this that I haven’t space to mention. Which are your favorite novels where the characters go outside the usual channels?


  1. "Mrs McGinty's Dead" is one of my favourite Agatha Christies. The plot is so beautifully developed as are the characters. Then there's Bentley, who I can never make up my mind about. Do I like him? Feel sorry for him? Or do I just want to give him a good bop on the head and tell him to wake up?

  2. Elspeth - You are too funny! I have to agree with you about both the novel and James Bentley. Most of the time I want to bop him on the head, but at the same time, I do feel for him. He's a man with zero social skills, the victim of both circumstances and a clever killer. Not something I'd wish on someone.

  3. I think in today's world it's vital. We see it more and more and I use it in my books alot. I have a minor character who likes to hack into computers, she's always providing my main character with information.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, I agree with you 100%. Today's world is so full of bureaucracy that we do need to know how to avoid the official channels. I think it's really neat that one of your characters is able to do computer wizardry; I'm sure that adds "spark" to what you write.

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