Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is “one of the good guys.” But he’s certainly broken the law in order to solve a case. For instance, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes and Watson commit a few crimes. Holmes gets a visit from Charles Augustus Milverton, a well-known blackmailer. Milverton is there to discuss the case of one of Holmes’ clients, Lady Eva Blackwell, whose impending marriage is threatened by some letters she wrote to another man a few years earlier. Milverton’s gotten hold of those letters and will send them to Lady Eva’s fiancé unless she pays him a large sum of money. When Holmes isn’t successful at persuading Milverton to give up his blackmailing campaign, he and Watson break into Milverton’s house to steal the letters. While they’re there, they witness another crime, and do nothing to stop it, nor to report it. In this case, Holmes and Watson do behave criminally. But there’s an argument that their behaviour is justified.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is basically a law-abiding citizen, too. He says more than once that he “does not approve of murder,” and he has a great respect for life. But for the law? Well, not in every case. For instance, in The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Hastings hears the extraordinary story of the Robinsons, a young couple who’ve seemingly done the impossible – find a nice flat in a nice neighbourhood of London at a ridiculously low rent. Poirot suspects something more is going on than it seems, and takes another flat in the same building. He soon discovers that the Robinsons are unwitting pawns in a very dangerous game of theft and international espionage. Instead of leaving the case to the “usual channels,” Poirot and Hastings break into the flat to catch the criminal.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels frequently explore this kind of dilemma. For example, in The Black Ice, Bosch investigates the death of Calexico “Cal” Moore, a member of a specially-appointed narcotics squad. Moore was involved in an undercover operation to stop a dangerous drugs ring, and the official police department explanation for his death is that it was a suicide. The L.A.P. D. story is that Moore “crossed” – went “dirty” and killed himself. Bosch doesn’t think that’s true, and the forensic evidence suggests, too, that Moore was murdered. So Bosch looks into the case. As he traces Moore’s last weeks, he finds that nothing is really as it seems. Some highly-placed members of the L.A.P.D. have some dirty secrets to hide, and some people one would think of as criminals are victims more than they are anything else.
In The Overlook and Echo Park, Bosch gets help on his cases from people who’ve committed crimes. In The Overlook, Bosch is looking for the murderer of prominent physicist Stanley Kent. He and his partner Ignacio “Iggy” Ferras get some unexpected help from Jesse Milford. Milford’s a stalker who’s been caught trespassing on property owned by famous entertainer Madonna. Milford isn’t exactly the most sympathetic of characters, and stalking is a scary crime to commit. But it turns out that Milford witnessed Kent’s murder, so Bosch and Ferras work out a deal with him.
Bosch also gets help from a criminal in Echo Park. In that novel, Raynard Waits has been arrested for two brutal murders. Grisly evidence of his guilt has been found in his car, and he is slated to be executed. Waits has other plans for himself, though. He offers to help the police solve some other cases in exchange for commuting his death sentence. One of those cases is the disappearance and presumed death of Marie Gesto, who left a Hollywood supermarket and never returned home. Bosch was assigned to the Gesto case, but couldn’t get the evidence he needed to arrest the criminal. In fact, he overlooked an important clue at the time. When Bosch finds out that Waits may have knowledge of the Gesto case, he decides to work with him.
Hugh Pentecost’s Pierre Chambrun is what you’d call “one of the good guys.” In fact, that’s what’s so hard for him in The Fourteen Dilemma. Chambrun is the manager of New York’s excusive Hotel Beaumont so he is ultimately responsible for showing the lucky Watson family a wonderful time when they win an all-expenses-paid trip to New York that includes a stay at the Beaumont. One day during their visit, beautiful, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson wanders off and disappears. Her body is later found stuffed into a wastecan. Now, Chambrun and his staff work with the police to find out who’s responsible for Marilyn Watson’s murder. They’re soon able to narrow down the list of suspects to the other residents of the posh fourteenth floor where the Watsons were staying. When the killer is discovered, Chambrun and his team are put in the position of having to “stoop to the level of the criminal;” at least that’s how Chambrun sees it. He is, in fact, terribly upset at what he has to do to make sure the criminal doesn’t kill again.
Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is a brilliant detective. But he doesn’t always obey the law. More than once he’s been suspended for overstepping the limits of what he’s allowed to do as a police officer, and he’s no respecter of department policy. He commits what most people would consider illegal assault, among other things he does that are, quite honestly, criminal. And yet, he’s very much “on the side of the angels.” In fact, quite often he loses control because of corruption he sees among the very people who are supposed to be upholding the law. He’s also dead-set against highly-placed people who take advantage of others. Rebus sees the things that he does as justified.
Rebus frequently finds himself up against Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, a well-known Edinburgh crime boss. Make no mistake; Cafferty is not a nice person. He’s committed numerous crimes, even while in prison, and he stops at almost nothing to further his aims. And yet, Cafferty works with “the good guys” in Mortal Causes. In that story, Rebus teams up with the elite Scottish Crime Squad to investigate the brutal murder of Billy Cunningham. Evidence suggests that Cunningham’s death may have been the work of IRA terrorists who are seeking to get a foothold in Edinburgh, so it’s hoped that the pooling of resources will help catch the terrorists. It happens, though, that Cunningham is Cafferty’s son. When Cafferty finds out about his son’s death, he wants to settle the matter in his own way. Rebus is aware, though, that if that happens, there could be all out gang war in Edinburgh. So he grudgingly persuades Cafferty to work with the forces of law to solve the murder. Cafferty isn’t any happier about than Rebus is, but he agrees. In this novel, as in other Rebus stories, it’s sometimes hard to tell who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” really are.
That’s also true of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. Allon is an art restorer by background. He is also a killer. He’s a paid assassin who works for a very shadowy Israeli Intelligence group called The Office. On one hand, Allon is a murderer. He also commits other, less serious crimes. In that sense, he’s a criminal. And sometimes, his targets believe they are justified in the acts they do. On the other, his targets are also often terrorists or others whose crimes are usually horrific. So in these novels, it’s sometimes quite difficult to tell who’s a “good guy” and who isn’t.
Novels that blur the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” can be intriguing and often contain fascinating characters. They can be quite realistic, too, as no-one is really “all good” or “all bad.” But they can also be confusing when readers are trying to decide whom to “cheer” for, and they can be convoluted. What do you think? Have you enjoyed novels that blur this distinction? Which ones?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.