Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Every Cop is a Criminal, and All the Sinners Saints*

There’s a very fine line sometimes between right and wrong. That’s why ethical dilemmas can be such a challenge for people. Most of us, for instance, would say that taking a life is wrong. And yet, as we all know from real life and from crime fiction, there are times (for instance, self-defense) when the taking of a life can be justified. Breaking into someone’s home is a crime. But what if that someone is holding a hostage and the only way to free the hostage is to break into the home? That, many people would say, is quite a different story. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that explore this sort of question. In some of them, the cops actually commit crimes in order to solve a case. In others, someone we think of as a nasty person turns out to be “on the side of the angels,” you might say. Novels like this can be fascinating because they don’t give the reader easy answers, and they do give the reader “food for thought.” They can also be very realistic. On the other hand, there’s also something to be said for most people’s wish for the “bad guy” to “get his,” and for the “good guy” to be, well, good.

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.


  1. In Murder at the Savoy, which sounds as it is very English but is written by those well known Swedish left wingers Sjowall and Wahloo. ;o) The victim is a "rotten capitalist" and even Martin Beck is not happy when the case is solved.
    Another two books I really enjoyed were Borkmann's Point and Woman with Birthmark both by Hakan Nesser in which the victims are not very nice people, and one feels empathy with the murderer.
    In Walter Moseley's Easy Rawlins books his sidekick Mouse is not "all good."
    I think this quirkiness adds enormously to the fun of reading crime fiction, as you never know what will happen next. Two other series in which you never know who is good are John Lawton's Troy series, and Marek Krajewski's eccentrically weird Eberhard Mock novels. If you like your heroes 100% good you won't like the Mock books, but they are great fun.

  2. Well, even though I like Rebus, I do prefer detectives who only bend minor laws ;D

  3. Most of the cops I have met were pretty dicey characters in their teens. I think there is a pretty narrow line to walk in many cases.

  4. Norman - Oh, you are so right about Woman With Birthmark. The victims were really nasty people and we can see why the murderer kills. The same is true for Murder at the Savoy. As you say, that one's a good example, too, of how Sjowall and Wahloo used their novels to share their political views as much as anything else. I confess I haven't tried the Mock series, but it sounds interesting, eccentric and fresh, so I'm going to have to give it a go, I think.

    Oh, and thanks for mentioning "Mouse." I like that character but you are right. He is most certainly not all good!

    Dorte - LOL! I know what you mean. I like Rebus very much, too, but - er - moderation is not his strength ;-).

    Patti - Very interesting point. You're right that it's a very fine line to walk between "cop" and "criminal" at times. That's one reason I would never succeed as a cop. I don't know if I would want to walk that line...

  5. Such an interesting point you make, Margot. And one that applies not just to crime fiction but also to real life.
    One of the first mystery stories I read was Sherlock Holme's Blue Carbuncle, where he lets the "criminal" go free. Now I understand why he did so, and why he was right in doing so, but at 14, I just could not make sense of it. Now when I read that book, I realise that in almost all the cases, there is a thin line between what is "right" as described by a Lestrade, and what Holmes perceives as a right. I happen to agree with Holmes, but you could argue it both ways.

    Have read only one book of Borche, but I am sure he will not think twice about breaking more than a few laws if it is going to get him closer to finding justice. Even in Black Ice, he bashes up the other police officer- not something that I would think a "responsible" police officer should do.

    The way I see it, if you are not blinded in your perception of Right and Wrong, and are willing to admit your mistake, it is okay to bend a few laws for the sake of a greater 'right'.

  6. Rayna - You pointed out something very interesting in your comment about The Blue Carbuncle. Many people have very "black and white" views of what is right and what is wrong when they are young. It isn't until they are older that they can see the shades of grey, so to speak. At some point, according to some theories of moral development, we move from "right is what the law says is right" to something perhaps harder to define but more humane, if that's the word. Your different views of the outcome of that story really show that.

    I think you're right, too that it takes a willingness to see beyond one's own point of view to get to what is the greater good.

    And yes, I think you could say of Harry Bosch that he's not afraid to go against just about anyone if that will lead to the greater right.

  7. Ah, dear Gabriel Allon or 'kills with impunity boy" (as he's known in my house) and Rebus, who can be a touch over-zealous in his pursuit of the bad guy! I shall always be more interested in a character who is grey than one who is clearly good or bad.

  8. Elspeth - Oh, I like that moniker for Allon! And yes, I guess you could describe Rebus as - er - overzealous..;-). I agree, too: characters who neither all good nor all bad are so much more interesting that characters that are unidimensional, aren't they? Now to try and keep that in mind as I write...

  9. Recently I've been watching a series called "Identity" on ITV and it's about a newly formed identity-theft unit and the main character is a former undercover cop who is dealing with his past. In the show, he's had to be a bad guy to keep his cover.

    Also, I believe in the book by Agatha Christie "Curtain" Poirot had to take matters into his own hand.


  10. Clarissa - Right you are about Poirot in Curtain. He certainly does face an ethical dilemma in that novel and as you say, takes matters into his own hands.

    I haven't seen Identity, although I've heard of it. It sounds intriguing, and it certainly fits right in with the point I'm making here. We don't get ITV where I live; I'm going to have to look for the DVDs or something...

  11. I've been watching Blue Bloods, a new TV cop series, and there's an ongoing debate within this cop family about how far they can stretch the law to make sure a bad guy gets what's coming to him. Since one of the family members is a DA instead of a cop, the arguments are very interesting.

  12. Patricia - Oh that does sounds interesting! I've not seen that show, although I've seen ads for it. That debate reminds me of similar debates on Hill Street Blues in the 80's. It's really an interesting question: how far should cops be allowed to go?....