Monday, June 14, 2010

...And We Just Disagree*

You would think that, when a crime is committed, everyone (except, of course, for the culprit) would have the same goal of solving the crime and stopping the criminal. On the surface, there does seem to be agreement, too. Many politicians’ campaigns include a “tough on crime” stance. Newspaper editorials urge action against crime, and when people respond to surveys, they say they are concerned about crime. The police are expected to find and catch criminals quickly, too. The reality is, though, that there’s often conflict among the various entities concerned with crime. Law enforcement agencies go up against each other, the press and law enforcement are frequently at odds, and politicians often have their own agendae that get in the way of solving crimes. In a way, that conflict can actually have a positive outcome: it might be very dangerous if, say, the press, the police, or some other entity got so powerful that conflict with other entities would be out of the question. So a somewhat adversarial relationship can provide what you might call a balance of power. On the other hand, conflict like this often gets in the way of solving crimes. When law enforcement agencies don’t share information, or when the government doesn’t co-operate with law enforcement, or when the press is muzzled or interferes with law enforcement, it’s much harder to solve and prevent crimes. Since this kind of conflict is a part of real crime detection, it makes sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction, too. In well-written crime fiction, tension between various agencies, between the press and law enforcement, and between law enforcement, the press and politicians can add to the suspense of a story and make for an interesting sub-plot.

We see some of that conflict in several of Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld had written to Poirot, asking him to investigate threats to Renauld’s life. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at Renauld’s home, though, it’s too late: Renauld has been found stabbed in the back. The local police, the Sûreté and Poirot are involved in the investigation, and one can soon see the conflict among these various agencies. For example, there’s no love lost between Monsieur Hautet, the local Examining Magistrate, and Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté. Poirot and Giraud have their differences, too. In fact, because of these conflicts, Giraud refuses to accept the significance of more than one clue that Poirot offers him, and for that reason, he’s led directly to the wrong suspect. In the end, it takes Poirot’s direct intervention with the French court system to free that suspect.

We see conflict with the press in Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of murders that are connected by cryptic warning notes sent to Poirot before each murder, and by the fact that an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. The press naturally gets interested in the second murder, because the victim is a pretty young woman, Betty Barnard, whose strangled body is found on a beach early one morning. The press interferes to the point where Betty’s sister, Megan, at first doesn’t want to talk to Poirot or the police. She has interesting insights to offer, though, so Poirot finally convinces her to tell him what she knows about Betty. That information helps Poirot get a sense of the person who killed her. There are other places, too, in this novel, where the press and the police are somewhat at odds with each other during the course of the investigation.

There are frequently conflicts in crime fiction between the legal system and law enforcement. For instance, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, we meet attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She’s been hired by the family of Harald Guntlieb to find out who was responsible for his murder. The police think they have the right suspect in Guntlieb’s former friend, Hugi Thórisson, who’s already been arrested for the crime. However, Guntlieb’s family thinks that Thórisson is innocent, so they send their representative, Matthew Reich, to Iceland to work with Thóra to find out what really happened. As they investigate, Thóra and Matthew find the police less than excited about their perceived interference in the case. The police, after all, acted in good faith. They got legitimate evidence that pointed to Thórisson, and they conducted their investigation within the policies that govern them. In the end, Thóra and Matthew form what you might call an uneasy alliance with the police, and they find that the story of Harald Guntlieb’s death is more complicated than anyone thought.

There’s an interesting court/police conflict in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, in which Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police investigates the murder of his friend, Officer Delbert Nez. Nez was shot and his body burned in a car fire. By the time Chee gets to the scene of the crime, it’s too late to help his friend, but he does find a prime suspect, Ashie Pinto, near the scene. Pinto is an alcoholic who’s never without a bottle. When Chee finds him, Pinto has the gun that killed Nez. He’s also got his ever-present bottle, which would have been very effective at spreading a fire. So Chee is sure he’s got his man. Pinto, though, is entitled to legal defense, so Janet Pete, an attorney with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is sent to defend him. Immediately, she and Chee are in conflict, since she thinks that Chee is letting his friendship with Nez get in the way of a careful investigation. Chee, of course, thinks that Pete is only trying to “earn points” by defending Pinto. In the end, though, Pete convinces Chee to look into the case more closely and, although he’s reluctant, Chee sees that to do otherwise would “railroad” Pinto. As it turns out, Pinto’s been used as a “decoy,” and the real truth about Nez’ murder is more complicated.

We see an interesting conflict between the police and the Caribinieri in Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife, Bianca Marconi, are raided one night by the Caribinieri, and their adopted toddler son, Alfredo, is taken from them. Commissario Guido Brunetti is at first shocked at the seeming brutality of the Caribinieri when he finds out about the raid, and when he finds that Pedrolli was seriously hurt during the raid. Members of the Caribinieri, not eager for bad publicity, are not exactly happy about Brunetti’s interest in the case. However, he finds out that they were actually investigating a possible baby-trafficking ring, and that Pedrolli and his wife might not have legitimately adopted their son. Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello look more deeply into the case and find that all is not as it seems. As Brunetti learns more about the case, he realizes that he’s going to have to work with the Carabinieri to get to the bottom of it. In the end, Brunetti finds out what really happened on the night of the raid, and how that raid is connected with another odd case that Vianello is investigating.

That’s, of course, not the only example of conflict among law enforcement agencies. Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels frequently involve conflict between members of the Navajo Tribal Police and the FBI. In some cases, it’s a matter of “turf wars.” In others, it’s a matter of covering up unethical, even illegal, activity.

One of the more interesting examples of this sort of conflict appears in Pablo de Santis’ The Paris Enigma. In that novel, apprentice detective Sigmundo Salvatrio is studying at Buenos Aires’ Academy for Detectives under the tutelage of the famous Argentine detective Renato Craig. Craig is a founder of a group called The Twelve, which is composed of the most famous detectives in the world. The group is scheduled to make a presentation at the Paris World’s Fair, but a wrenching personal experience and ill health prevent Craig from attending. So he deputizes Salvatrio to go in his place. When Salvatrio arrives in Paris, he’s all set to learn from his heroes – until one of their number is killed. What’s fascinating about this is that, instead of working together to solve the crime, the various jealousies among the other detectives come to light, and the conflict among them makes it very much harder for Salvatrio as he and the group’s co-founder, Viktor Arkazy, work to solve the crime before more of their number die.

Conflicts among various interested groups can hamper an investigation, and when that happens, one wonders why they don’t work together more productively. But if you consider that each group has an agenda, each group has a different perspective, and each group has a different set of skills, that adversarial relationship makes more sense. It also adds lots of suspense, a layer of interest and a dose of realism to crime fiction. Which are your favorite novels where these conflicts arise?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Mason's We Just Disagree.


  1. I'm continually amazed at your wealth of knowledge on Agatha Christie.

  2. Clarissa - Why, thank you : ). That's very kind of you. What can I say; I'm a Christie fan...

  3. Nice to see Hillerman on here. What a great atmosphere he created.

  4. Patti - Didn't he? I'm a Hillerman fan, and was truly sorry when he died. Such a hand with suspense he had, too...

  5. I'd say the books featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn are among some of the best cases of turf wars. There is always conflict between the Navajo way and the civilian way whether they are dealing with the FBI or other sheriff's departments. When there are two or more agencies involved, it's interesting to see how the author creates rivalry between them.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - You are so right! The Hillerman novels have all kinds of "turf wars." I'm glad you brought up that conflict between the Navajo way and the Anglo way, too, because it permeates the novels. Hillerman certainly did a great job, I think, of creating that inter-departmental infighting.

  7. I know what you mean and when we see it on TV, we always see one agency thinking they do something or save the world better than another agency.

    In my mystery novels, one main character works for a subsection of government and one MC is a police officer. Their teams are always at odds. But, it does add to great conflict.

    ha ha ha, when I first pulled up the page, it looked one way and when I went to post my comment it looked another... I like the bookcases.


  8. Oh, and I just noticed that you made my blog, the blog of the week. Thank you for that.


  9. Clarissa - My pleasure; you have an excellent writing blog!

    And yes, I've been making some changes to my blog layout to make it easier to read. I'm glad you like the bookcases : ). I thought them appropriate ; ).

    Your story sounds really interesting; the more I hear about it, the more I want to know. I really look forward to reading it.

    I hadn't thought about TV shows 'till you mentioned them, but yes, they show that conflict quite a lot, with each entity thinking it knows best how to solve crime. That happens in real life, too...

  10. To Charmaine Clancy - Please forgive my using the wrong name when I posted my response to you. I apologize!!

  11. Excellent post Margot. I like your new design as well.

  12. What's interested me in the past were books where Scotland Yard, or the FBI, was taking cases over from a local police department...and the animosity that engendered in the group! Made for interesting undercurrents. :)

  13. Jose Ignacio - Thank you : )! I'm glad you like the new blog design, too. One's never sure how something will turn out when one first tries it.

    Elizabeth - I like those cases, too! Lots of undercurrents of resentment, and that's got to affect the way the detectives go about investigating. It adds a really interesting sub-plot and I think it can be realistic.

    Glad you like the blog's new look. I wanted something a little different, and easier to read.