Friday, October 22, 2010

After All, This is My Big Night on the Town*

Most police detectives work very hard to solve cases. And, especially when the cases are long, difficult or particularly horrible cases, there’s a special sense of triumph that the detective feels when the criminal is caught. After all, that’s one reason why many people become detectives; they want to prevent crime and where they can’t, they want to catch criminals. So solving cases is often cause for congratulations. But it’s not that simple, though. Not all solutions to cases are happy ones, so even if the detective catches the culprit, that may bring no real pleasure. The fact is, detectives can have any one of a number of reactions to solving a case, depending on the case, the outcome, and other things. That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. And since well-written crime fiction is believable, the sleuth’s reaction, whatever it is, can add to the story if it’s authentic.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to solve the murder of Henry Morley, Poirot’s dentist. When Morley is shot at his dental surgery, Japp is put on the case because one of Morley’s patients is Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker whom it’s in the government’s interest to protect. Then, one of Morley’s other patients disappears. Later, there’s another murder. Now it seems that the case is far more complicated than it had seemed at first. In the end, Poirot is able to put the pieces together and find out who killed Henry Morley, and how that death is related to the events in the novel. But interestingly enough, Poirot takes no real pleasure in catching this particular culprit. In fact, not long before he confronts the killer, Poirot says

“I am sorry…for the things that I shall have to do very soon.”

Of course, Poirot’s sense of sadness doesn’t stop him from bringing the murderer to justice, but he has no real sense of fulfillment.

We see the same thing in Christie’s Death on the Nile. In that novel, Poirot is taking a cruise up the Nile. Traveling on the same trip is Linette Ridgeway Doyle, a beautiful and very wealthy heiress, and her new husband, Simon Doyle. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The most likely suspect is Linnet’s former friend and Simon’s former fiancée Jacqueline de Bellefort. However, she’s got a solid alibi, so Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer. Then, there’s another murder, and another. As Poirot sifts through the evidence, he finds out who really committed the murders. His finding out of the truth doesn’t give him any great sense of satisfaction, though. In fact, he feels sorry for the killer. The killer is aware of this and says

‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot! About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’


‘But it wouldn’t have occurred to you to let me off.’

Hercule Poirot said quietly, ‘no.’”

In Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, there’s an eloquent example of a sleuth who has mixed feelings about having caught the culprit. Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane have finally marired, and are on their honeymoon at a country home called Tallboys that Wimsey has purchased or them. They arrive only to find that the house isn’t ready for them, nor does anyone seem to know they were expected. They soon find out why when the body of William Noakes, the former owner of the house, is found dead in the basement. Instead of a relaxing and romantic honeymoon, the two get involved in the investigation. They find out who the killer is, but Wimsey takes no pleasure at all in turning the murderer over to justice. In fact, he feels terrible at being responsible for someone’s execution, even if the person is guilty. His torn feelings add some interesting depths to the end of this novel.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team investigate the murder of an unknown woman who was killed on a cruise of Lake Vättern. At first, they aren’t able to identify the victim but patient and persistent investigation reveals that she was Roseanna McGraw, an American from Nebraska. Beck and his team, with help from Officer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police, find out about Roseana’s background. In the process of discovering who she was and why she was in Sweden, the team also slowly gets closer and closer to finding out who killed her and why. After months of difficult, painstaking and often thankless work, the team finds out who was responsible. When they catch the killer, Beck feels a real sense of completion and accomplishment. You could also say he feels a sense of relief, too, as he finally closes the case and is able to return to what for him is a normal life.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch often feels a sense of satisfaction when he solves a case. After all, he’s committed to doing the right thing, and he’s got a passion for his work. At the same time, though, he often has to deal with very ugly realities. So his flush of triumph is sometimes just as much because he’s beaten “the system” as it is because he’s caught the “bad guy.” For example, in The Black Ice, Bosch solves the mystery behind the alleged suicide of fellow police officer Calexico “Call” Moore. The official story is that he “crossed” – went “dirty” – and committed suicide because of it. Bosch thinks otherwise, though, and the evidence soon bears him out. He plunges into the mystery and finds out how that case ties in with an ongoing case of drug smuggling from Mexico, as well as other murder cases. When the case is solved, Bosch feels a sense of completion that he’s put the pieces of the case together. At the same time, he’s got a sense of pride at having scored off the department bureaucracy that has been in the way of his investigation from the beginning. That feeling actually makes him quite human.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti often feels a similar sense of having “beaten the system” when he wades through all of the corruption, bureaucracy and other hurdles he faces to solve his cases. However, he also frequently feels a sense of frustration, especially when knowing who the “bad guy” is doesn’t change anything. In more than one of the Brunetti mysteries, the people “at the top” who are ultimately responsible for the crimes are not brought to justice. That’s why for Brunetti, there’s such a sense of satisfaction when he is able to bring a crime home to the culprit.

Of course, murder is a terrible, traumatic thing, and many detectives, real and fictional, just feel a sense of relief when it’s over. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is very much aware that murder throws everything out of balance. As a traditional Navajo, Chee believes in the Navajo concept of hozro or beauty; not beauty in the visual sense only, but rather in the sense of harmony and balance. So when he’s been involved in a case, especially if he’s had to take a life, Chee doesn’t really have a sense of triumph or satisfaction. After all, lives have been lost. Damage has been done. Instead, Chee often feels the need to set his own world right again, and sometimes goes through traditional Navajo ceremonials to restore that sense of balance.

It’s natural that sleuths get a sense of completion and satisfaction when they are able to solve cases and “get their man.” But often, it’s more complicated than that. How do your favourite sleuths react when they’ve “won?”

On Another Note….

So why am I going on about completing a job well done today? Because I have a few congratulations I’d like to send out :-)

Please join me in congratulating Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen and Patti Abbott. I'm pleased to pass along the word that Discount Noir is now available! It’s a new anthology of flash fiction that Patti helped edit, and contains stories by both authors.

Also, please join me in congratulating Clarissa Draper, whose Sophia Evans mystery series has been accepted by WiDo publishing. Clarissa has been working very hard on her series, and I’m very happy for her success.

And Alan Orloff's Diamonds for the Dead is now available for the Nook, and also available at Way to go, Alan!

These folks are really talented, so please check out their writing!

My sincere congratulations to all of you!!! Now go celebrate!!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Where's the Orchestra?.


  1. Congratulations to Dorte, Patti, Clarissa and Alan. Good things do come to those who wait (and as we know, working really really hard).

    Margot your post always take my mind in so many directions and look at stories from various view points that I normally wouldn't have thought of. There is a plot I remember (but can't remember if I read it or saw a show about it) where the detective got the criminal, but as it turned out had also fallen for them before realizing they were the killer. That to me would be a bitter sweet ending.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Adding my congratulations to Dorte, Patti, Clarissa and Alan.
    I just finished Peter James' Dead Like You, which fits Margot's theme very well. Det. Supt. Roy Grace experiences a sense of satisfaction with having apprehended a vicious predator. But his satisfaction is tempered with the knowledge he failed to save the life of at least one victim and can't protect everyone.

  3. If I want to learn new things and see my favorites stories differently this is the place to come.
    Thanks Margot.

  4. Mason - What a kind thing for you to say - thank you :-).

    And I agree, all of those fine writers have worked very hard for their success and they're talented, too :-). Good for them :-)!!

    You're right about your other point, too. It would be very bittersweet if the sleuth falls for the person who turns out to be a killer. I know that's happened in more than one murder mystery, and if it's done well, it can add quite a layer of suspense to the story...

    John - Thanks for mentioning that Peter James novel. It's exactly the kind of thing I mean. I think it must be very hard for detectives to realize that they can't save everyone and that, no matter how hard they work, even if they catch the killer, somebody died...

    Mary - *blush* Thank you :-). I'm so glad you feel that Confessions.... is worth a stop on your blog rounds :-).

  5. Congrats Dorte, Patti and Alan. I'm so happy that things are working out! I want to buy your collection of shorts.

    Thank you, Margot for all your kind words. Honestly when I started blogging, I never thought I would gain the friends I have and you are one I really feel close to. Thank you.

    I loved today's post. I especially love reading novels where the detectives don't like the outcome so much that they decide to do nothing about the outcome. Like in AC's Murder on the Orient Express. Or when the killer had such a horrible life because of the victim that the police give the murderer a break. I like that.


  6. Clarissa - Oh, I very much consider myself the lucky one :-). I'm very proud to be your friend, and I feel close to you, too :-)

    You know, it is interesting when a sleuth doesn't feel at all happy about the outcome of the case. On the one hand (as in your example of Murder on the Orient Express), the sleuth wants to find out who committed the crime. There is satisfaction in that. On the other, though, there are times when the sleuth feels no joy at bringing the guilty one to justice. Those do make for fascinating plots, don't they? It gives us an interesting perspective on the murderer...

  7. I read The Blue Carbuncle when I was about twelve- a time when righteousness and self-justice ruled. And yet, Sherlock Holmes lets the man get off free. It took me a few weeks of pondering to realise that justice took several forms, and that lesson has stayed with me a lifetime.

    And congratulations Patti Abbott (who I don't know), Clarissa and Alan. Couldn't be happier if it had been myself.

  8. Rayna - Oh, yes - The Blue Carbuncle! Thank you for reminding me of that. You are right that it's a very good reminder that justice doesn't always mean that the cop or sleuth catches a "bad guy." It's a much more complicated concept than that. And I think it 's so interesting that literature teaches lessons like that...

  9. Hi Margot-- Congrats to Dorte, Patti, and Clarissa. Well done! And thanks for the shout-out. A small clarification. DIAMONDS is available on-line at, not in the stores. At least, not yet!

  10. Alan - Whoops! Thanks for setting me straight. I've gone back in and fixed that. It's a coup and I'm very happy for you. I'm now telling everyone that I know you :-).

  11. And congrats right back to Alan, Clarissa and you, Margot for such a wonderful blog. Some day you need to tell us how you are able to sort through all the books you're read to find perfect examples of your topics. Great memory or great notes. And DISCOUNT NOIR is an ebook requiring a reader to read it.

  12. Patti - *Blush* That's awfully kind of you! Thank you :-). What can I say; I am a crime fiction addict. I must be stopped. And thank you for mentioning the format of Discount Noir. That's an important thing for folks to know.