Friday, October 15, 2010

You Should Have Seen the One That Got Away...

There’s an old expression - “a Mountie always gets his man.” There’s a similar one about the FBI. The meaning, of course, is that criminals don’t get away with their crimes. The fact is, though, that they do, both in real life and in crime fiction. No detective is perfect, and criminals are sometimes very good at not getting caught. Most detectives could probably share stories about “the one that got away,” because they’re bothered by the crimes they didn’t solve. Some are even haunted by the memory of cases that they weren’t able to crack. That’s especially true if the criminal strikes again. When that happens, the detective can feel an even greater sense of urgency about solving a crime. Even when it doesn’t, real-life and fictional detectives are often especially bothered by murders that weren’t solved.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one for letting a killer get away, and he has an outstanding record for finding out whodunit. But even he can be stumped at times, and we can see how it bothers him. In The ABC Murders, for instance, a series of murders takes place over a summer. Before each murder, Poirot gets a cryptic note warning of the killing. Despite these warnings, he’s not able to catch the murderer, at least at first. First, the elderly owner of a tobacco/news shop is killed. Then, a young waitress at a café is murdered. The next victim is a wealthy retired surgeon. As time goes on, Poirot is haunted by the killings. Finally, he gets the clues he needs to figure out who is responsible for the deaths, and even though Christie doesn’t say so outright, we can’t help but get the sense that Poirot is especially satisfied when the murderer is finally caught.

A similar thing happens in Dead Man's Folly, in which Poirot works with Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story author. In that novel, Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt (a sort of scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Oliver begins to believe there’s more going on at Nasse House than it seems on the surface, and she asks Poirot to investigate. He visits Nasse House under the pretext of awarding the Murder Hunt prizes. On the day of the Murder Hunt, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim, is actually strangled. Then, Lady Stubbs disappears. As time goes by and neither mystery is solved, Poirot feels the blow keenly:

“He, Hercule Poirot, had been summoned to prevent a murder – and he had not prevented it. ... His ego was seriously deflated even his moustaches drooped.”

Once Poirot makes an important connection between things people have said to him, he figures out who the murderer is. He also discovers that one person has known all along – or suspected, anyway – who’s responsible. When he confronts that person, he finds out he was right.

Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn finds that an old case returns to haunt him in The Shape Shifter. In that novel, Mel Bork, a former colleague of Leaphorn’s, sends him a clipping from the magazine Luxury Living. This particular issue of the magazine features the home of wealthy Jason Delos, who has somehow acquired a beautiful Navajo weaving called Woven Sorrow. Years earlier, Bork and Leaphorn had investigated an arson case that they thought was committed by Erwin Totter, who owned a trading post on the Navajo Reservation. Leaphorn also thinks Totter may have been responsible for a series of murders. However, Totter subsequently died in the hospital before he could be brought to justice. At the time, Woven Sorrow was hanging in the trading post, and it was believed to have been destroyed in the fire. Leaphorn has never forgotten the case, and now that the weaving seems to have re-appeared, he wants to find out the truth about it. He’s even more determined when he tries to contact Bork only to find that Bork has disappeared. With help from Jim Chee and his bride, Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, Leaphorn re-opens the trading post arson case and finds out what really happened to the weaving and to Erwin Totter.

Michael Connelly’s Echo Park tells the story of a case that haunts Harry Bosch. Years earlier, he’d been assigned the case of Marie Gesto, a young woman who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one day and never made it home. At the time of the investigation, Bosch had a suspect in mind for the crime. He was never able to get the evidence he needed to make an arrest, though. Now, Raynard Waits has been arrested for two particularly gruesome murders. He was found with grisly evidence in his car, and there’s no real doubt about his guilt in these two cases. Waits offers to trade information about other unsolved cases in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. One of those cases is the Gesto case. Bosch has always been haunted by that case, so he meets with Waits to find out what he knows about that case. In the process of uncovering the truth about what happened to Marie Gesto, Bosch also has to come to terms with the fact that he missed an important clue long ago that could have led him to the real killer.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, a case comes back to haunt Superintendent Malcolm Webberly. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies, a violin virtuoso, suddenly and terrifyingly finds himself unable to play a note. He begins the process of psychoanalysis to uncover the reasons for this block, and it seems that block may lie in his family’s past. Then, Davies’ mother, Eugenie Davies, is killed by a hit-and-run driver one night. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers are put on the hit-and-run case and in the process of investigating it, they discover its connection to Gideon Davies’ inability to play, and to the long-ago death of Gideon’s disabled sister Sonia. When Sonia Davies was two years old, she drowned in the family bathtub. At the time, Webberly investigated the case, and the result was that Sonia’s nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and jailed for the crime. Now, Katja’s just been freed and with Eugenie Davies’ death and Gideon Davies’ search for answers about his past, it looks as though the Sonia Davies case has not really been solved.

The long-ago strangling murder of Elsie Carroll haunts Inspector Reg Wexford in Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box. In that novel, Wexford has to come to terns with “the one that got away” when Eric Targo, who lived in Kingsmarkham long ago, returns. Years ago, Wexford was convinced that Targo was responsible for Elsie Carroll’s death. He was never able to get a conviction, though, and Targo moved away. Now, Targo has returned. What’s worse, he seems to be taunting Wexford. His van’s been seen parked near the Wexford home, and then one day, the Wexford’s new gardener Andrew Norton is found strangled in the same way as Elsie Carroll was. Wexford is convinced Targo is responsible despite his partner’s skepticism. In part, Wexford plunges full-tilt into this new investigation because he is still haunted by the Carroll murder.

Several of Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries feature unsolved cases that haunted the detective. In The Coffin Trail, for instance, Ben Kind and his partner Hannah Scarlett investigated the murder of Gabrielle Anders. At the time, it was believed that Barrie Gilpin was responsible for her death. Gilbin died shortly afterwards from what was believed to be a terrible accident. Neither Kind nor Scarlett really believed that Gilpin was the murderer, but there was no real evidence, so the case was left alone. Kind’s son Daniel, who’s taken the cottage where Gilpin lived, never believed Gilpin was the killer, either. Now, Scarlett has been tapped to lead a Cold Case Review team. So she decides to re-open the Anders case. With help from Kind, who remembered Gilpin from holiday visits to the area, Scarlett and her team look into the case and slowly discover what really happened to Gabrielle Anders and Barrie Gilpin.

Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence also focuses on a case that haunts a detective. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen was raped and murdered, and her body dumped in a lake. The murderer was never caught, and the case has haunted detective Antsi Ketola ever since. Now, he’s reached retirement, and is about to leave the police department. Ketola tells a younger detective, Kimmo Joentaa, about the case before his departure. Then, six months later, another young girl disappears, and her bloody bicycle is found at the same spot where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. Joentaa believes that the same man killed both girls, and enlists Ketola’s help in solving the crimes. I confess that I haven’t read this novel yet, but it was such a good example of an unsolved case that haunts a detective that I couldn’t resist including it. Here is an excellent review of Silence by Norman at Crime Scraps and here is an excellent review by Maxine at Petrona.

Cases that haunt the detective can also haunt readers, so it’s no surprise that these plots can be especially absorbing. Which ones have you enjoyed?


  1. I think detective fiction often has it's super villains that often get away. For example, Sherlock Holmes has his nemesis Moriarty who is always behind the major crime organization but Holmes can never reach him. I love it when there is a super villain!


  2. You've featured books on four of my favorite detectives who almost always get their man (or woman)-Leaphorn, Bosch, Lynley and Wexford.

  3. Clarissa - Oh, yes, super-villains and nemeses can add a flair to a series or a novel, can't they? And Moriarty is definitely a great super-villain!

    John - Those really are top-notch sleuths. And what I think is so interesting about them is that they are all quite different. They have different personalities, backgrounds and so on. It's a good lesson that there isn't a "recipe" for a good sleuth.

  4. Another thought provoking post. When an author hints or shares that the protagonist has a case that haunts them, it's like having a mystery inside of another mystery. Sometimes that haunting emotions causes the sleuth to do things they wouldn't do otherwise because the current case reminds them of the past.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - Thank you :-) You put that quite well, too, that being haunted by a case from the past can affect what the sleuth does now. It also, I think, lends depth to a sleuth's character if s/he has to cope with a case like that, that was never solved. It can, indeed, add an air of mystery, too.

  6. James Patterson has his supervillains for Alex Cross. Super villains are great as readers don't want them killed off. They want to see them again.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. Stephen - Interesting point. Sometimes, the "one that got away" can add a lot of interest and tension to the next novel, as readers wait to see whether the sleuth will get the villain this time.

  8. I think the one that got away makes the detective more diligent, determined, dangerous, wise-all good qualities in a crime story.

  9. Patti - Oh, well-said! No doubt that it hones the sleuth's skills, and that does make for a good crime novel.

  10. I love Agatha Christie.
    Murder on the Orient Express I loved because I couldn't work out who did it. I was confused the whole way through it.
    The Mirror Cracked because it was the most obvious.

  11. Elaine - Oh, I am very much a Christie fan, myself :-). The first time I read Murder on the Orient Express, I had no idea how the murder had been committed and by whom; I was completely taken in. Chrsitie stumped me on that one ;-). When I first read The Mirror Crack'd, I think what drew me in was the history behind the crime...

  12. Thanks for an interesting post. The "one that got away" is not really that unusual, especially in some countries! I think they re-inforce the fact that even the best of detectives are human after all. Besides, they leave the reader wanting to know more about what happened eventually to him/her and the writer wanting to meet that need with a sequel.

  13. You can almost sense the satisfaction when most detectives finally find the killer. It it often not just a case of brinign them to justice- it is justifying their own existance to themselves.

    Am I going insane, or is that really a typo- Cards on the Table was the book where Shaitana boasts of collecting murderers isn't it?

  14. Rayna - Please forgive me for not responding to your comment sooner *blush of embarrassment*! Also, you were not going crazy; I made an embarrassing blunder. I'd been thinking of Cards on the Table because, as you say, it's about an eccentric man, Mr. Shaitana, who "collects" murderers who've gotten away with their crimes. However, I opted to mention Dead Man's Folly instead, and just never changed the title. Thanks for mentioning this; I have fixed it now, but - how embarrassing!

    At any rate... I think you are right that sleuths do feel a special satisfaction when they finally bring a murderer to justice who's eluded them. It's quite cathartic.