Friday, November 5, 2010

I Just Might Have a Problem That You'll Understand*

Even the most talented and intuitive detective doesn’t solve cases alone. In real life and in crime fiction, detectives depend on help that they get from all kinds of sources. I’m not talking here about fellow police offers and staffers (although they are, of course, invaluable). Rather, I’m talking about connections that sleuths have with people in all sorts of walks of life who have special information that sleuths depend on when they are investigating. It might be a journalist, a banker, a technology expert or someone else; whoever it is, wise sleuths know how to tap experts. They depend on those people.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes often depends on information he gets from a surprising group of experts, the Baker Street Irregulars. That’s a group of young boys who live mostly on the streets. Led by their eldest member Wiggins, they go everywhere in London and see everything. Most people don’t give much notice to these boys, so they can overhear things, find things and see things without calling any attention to themselves. In essence, they’re Holmes’ “eyes and ears.” Interestingly enough, Holmes treats the Baker Street Irregulars with a great deal of respect, especially considering the era and the class differences between Holmes and this team of experts.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not exactly self-deprecating when it comes to his investigative skills. But he relies heavily on the expertise of others too, and admits it. In fact, he sees no reason why a sleuth should have to do all of the work of a case when experts can do the work better and more quickly. We see this in several novels. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot relies on valuable information from theatrical agent Joseph Aarons. Aarons knows more than just about anyone else about the theatre and performance business and is only too happy to give Poirot information about all of the theatre people he knows.

In The Mystery of the Blue Train, Poirot also relies on help from M. Papopolous, a very discreet dealer in jewels. In that novel, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, the only daughter of wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin, is strangled while she’s en route from London to Hyères on the famous Blue Train. When Ruth’s luggage is searched, it’s discovered that a very valuable ruby necklace is missing. Rufus Van Aldin doesn’t think the police are going to find the culprit, so he hires Poirot to investigate. Poirot begins to look into Ruth Kettering’s background and finds more than one suspect in the murder. At the centre of the murder is the ruby necklace that contains the Heart of Fire, a very famous ruby. So Poirot visits M. Papopolous, who’s the most likely person to know if those jewels have been bought or sold. In the course of their dealings, we learn that Poirot once did a favour for Papopolous and his daughter Zia, and that Papopolous is only too happy to return the kindness. Poirot uses what he learns from the dealer (and, for the matter of that, from Joseph Aarons) to track down the killer.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti depends quite a bit on the connections he has. Very often, he gets valuable information and help when he taps his wide circle of friends and acquaintances in various businesses. For example, in Blood from a Stone, Brunetti is investigating the shooting death of an illegal Senegalese immigrant who just happened to have a valuable cache of diamonds in his possession. Brunetti himself is not an expert on jewels, so he visits an old friend of his fathers, wholesale jeweler Claudio Stein. Stein helps Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello establish how much the diamonds are worth and, just as importantly, where they came from. That information is essential in tracing the dead man’s murderer.

Brunetti also depends on information he gets from journalists. For instance, in Suffer the Little Children, he gets valuable information from Elio Palusso, a journalist friend. Brunetti is investigating allegations of a baby trafficking ring that’s operating in the area, and he uses what he learns from Palusso to get information on a group of people who are arrested by the Carabinieri in connection with this ring. And in About Face, Brunetti and Maggior Felippo Guarini are trying to decide whether to trust each other. They’re both investigating the death of the owner of a trucking company and that death’s connection to illegal hauling of toxic waste. Neither trusts the other, so neither gives the other any information at first. Then, they decide to contact Beppo Avisani, an investigative journalist whom both know and trust. It’s through that relationship that Brunetti and Guarini establish a working connection. In fact, Avisani serves as a sort of liaison between them, and later in the novel, when Guarini is killed, Brunetti makes use of Avisani’s perspective to try to find out who committed the murder.

One of the recurring characters in the Brunetti series is Signorina Elettra, assistant to Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta. She’s much more than just an assistant, though. She’s a technology expert who’s able to find out a great deal of information just from skilled use of the computer. What’s also interesting about Signorina Elettra is that she seems to know just about everyone in Venice. She often uses her wide circle of friends, former schoolmates, dates and acquaintances to get useful information for Brunetti and Vianello.

Two of Robin Cook’s sleuths are medical examiners Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They often get involved in mysteries through their work, and do quite a lot of their own investigations. But they also rely on others’ expertise, too. For instance, they don’t have police clearance. So one of their sources of a lot of assistance is Lou Soldano, a New York City police detective. Soldano, Montgomery and Stapleton frequently exchange important information about the cases they’re working on, and are often able to help each other put the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak.

Peter Robinson’s DCI Alan Banks frequently has to deal with crimes that have as much a basis in psychology as they have in anything else. So he gets expert information and help from forensic psychologist Jenny Fuller. In novels such as Gallows View and Aftermath, Fuller helps Banks use, if you will, psychological clues to find out who’s responsible for the crimes he’s investigating.

One of the most unusual sources of help to a sleuth comes from Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. Cafferty is an Edinburgh gangster and crime boss. There’s long-standing animosity between him and Inspector John Rebus, but over time, each develops a grudging respect for the other, although they do not trust each other. And in novels such as Mortal Causes, Rebus and Cafferty share information and, in an odd way, work together to solve cases. Rebus gets useful information on what’s happening in Edinburgh’s underground through his relationship with Cafferty, so although he neither likes nor trusts him, Rebus does work with him when it’s necessary.

A sleuth who’s an expert on everything would probably be boring, and would definitely be unrealistic. So it adds to a novel when we see the sleuth tapping the expertise of friends and acquaintances. Which novels with that plot point have you enjoyed?

On Another Note…

Writing is a lot like sleuthing in that writers benefit greatly from expert advice and information and the support of others. I know I do. So a special thank-you today to all of you who’ve taught me so much.

Thanks, too, to Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere for kindly featuring Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… as her blog of the week. It’s a real honour, especially considering what a fine blog Rayna has. Do check it out; it’s a treasure trove of cultural information, “food for thought,” and fine writing, too.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers' Lean on Me.


  1. Rayna's blog is wonderful, isn't it?

    I love the topic of this post. It's one of the reasons I love reading Val McDermid and Martin Edwards because both detectives rely on (a) a physiologist and (b) a historian/writer to help them solve crimes.

    I do like mysteries with only detective or agents as well but when we have a bit of variety, it spices things up a bit.


  2. As always, an interesting post. Not only do you keep finding more good books for us to read, but also more fascinating blogs such as Rayna's. Thanks, Margot.

  3. Clarissa - Oh, yes, Rayna has a wonderful blog!

    Thanks for mentioning Martin Edwards' Lake District series. I agree that those novels are all the more interesting because Hannah Scarlett relies on the expertise of Daniel Kind, as well as her own skills, to solve crimes. It's a really fine example of a series where the sleuth taps others' knowledge. And Val McDermid's series are quite good, too, for that same reason.

    And yes, variety makes for a better series, I think.

    John - How very kind of you - thank you :-) *Blush.* And I do hope you'll check out and follow Rayna's blog. She's got quite a lot to offer on her blog. It's one of my daily must-visits.

  4. A detective that gets help from others to solve a crime is more realistic. I agree with your point that a detective that solved the cases by himself would be boring. The interaction between the sleuth and the various characters that help him makes for interesting reading.

    Congrats on being featured on Rayna's blog of the week post. I learn so much from both you. Put you two together and we could have a most interesting book.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - Thanks :-). That's awfully kind of you, and trust me, I learn a lot from Rayna, too!

    You're right that it's just simply more realistic if the sleuth gets expert advice and help from other people. Nobody can do everything, and a sleuth who could wouldn't really engage the reader for long. We get much more caught up in stories when they're realistic.

  6. I'm here from Rayna's...

    Lovely post - I guess it just goes to show that we all need and rely on other people in real life (and fiction).

  7. Ladyfi - Thank you for your visit - and your kind words :-). You're right; we do need others, in real life and in fiction. We can't do everything ourselves, so a novel in which the sleuth gets expert information from others is just more realistic.

  8. Very good post, as ever, Margot. I think you put your finger on one difference between books and TV/film adaptations. Not that I watch many, but Mankell's Wallender series is a case in point. In the books, the author is quite explicitly showing that working on a crime is a team effort - Wallender is by far the most rounded character in the books, but he does not get anywhere without his team. In the UK version (Ken Branagh) the team is reduced to a brief cliche, and Wallender himself does absolutely everything.

    This "movie star" treatment has ruined many a good, tight, realistic novel - and possibly accounts for why so many TV adaptations have to end up with a manufactured car crash or chase, as there are only so many things you can do with one man or woman solving a crime (P D James and Ruth Rendell were recently very amusing on TV adaptations).

  9. Maxine - Why, thank you :-). And you know, I hadn't thought before about the difference between book and television versions of stories, but you do have a very well-taken point. For some reason, television shows very often try to make the protagonist the hero who does everything. Not only is that not reality, it's not even interesting. Your Wallander example is an excellent illustration of what you mean, too.

    And I had to laugh when I read your description of the unfortunate result of just having one hero(ine). Shows like that really do end up relying on car chases, people being thrown through glass windoes and all sorts of "shock factor" scenes.

    Thanks, too, for reminding me of what Rendell and James have said about this; I got a good smile from that :-).

  10. Margot, thank you for your kind words. And it was an honour for me to feature you on my blog. Yours is not a blog, it is a library of crime fiction.

    Thank you too for introducing me to Micheal Connelly- finished Black Ice in record time given the circumstances under which I read it, and it was a brilliant book. Have already ordered the next book in the series.

    And information does come from all sources, doesn't it? My favourite source is the Irregulars, though Holmes has a huge network of people he goes to all the time.

  11. Rayna - Oh, there is no need at all to thank me :-).

    I am so glad - so glad - that you enjoyed The Black Ice. Harry Bosch is a friend of mine, and it's so nice to know you like him, too. I think Connelly is a truly fine writer, too. Even his less-than-best novels are better than lots of other stuff out there, so I hope you'll like The Concrete Blond, too.

    You're right, too, about Holmes. The Irregulars are far from his only source of information; they are my favourites, too, though :-).