Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one to pass up an interesting case. However, there are times when someone else does most of the investigation. For instance, in the short story The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, Poirot and Hastings get a visit from Roger Havering. Havering has received a telegram from his wife, telling him that his uncle, Harrington Pace, has been murdered. Poirot isn’t able to take the case because he has influenza. So Hastings goes in his stead. They arrive at Hunter’s Lodge, Derbyshire, where Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is already at work. Together, Hastings and Japp work the case and stay in touch with Poirot only via telegram. It turns out that not very much at Hunter’s Lodge is as it seems, and that the murder has to do with uncovering what’s beneath the surface, so to speak. Although it’s Poirot who puts the pieces of the puzzle together, it’s interesting to see how Hastings works when he’s on a case.
In Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Special Agent Colin Lamb, who’s on the trail of a spy ring that seems to be operating in the town of Crowdean. He’s in a particular Crowdean neighbourhood one day when a young woman rushes out of a house screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. Lamb helps the young woman calm herself, then goes inside to investigate. Sure enough, she’s discovered the body of an unidentified man. The police are notified and soon, Lamb works with Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle to find out who the dead man is. The mystery deepens, and Lamb decides it might be interesting to his father’s old friend, Hercule Poirot. So he visits Poirot and tells him about the case. In fact, he challenges Poirot to solve the case just by thinking, as Poirot has always claimed it’s possible to do. Poirot gives pointers and hints, but interestingly enough, it’s Lamb and Hardcastle who take “center stage” here. We follow along as they interview neighbours and other witnesses and get the clues. Poirot makes sense of the clues and figures out who the murderer is, but Lamb and Hardcastle do the work. And it’s Lamb, not Poirot, who tracks down the spy ring which is an important sub-plot in this novel.
Although the vast majority of the Ellery Queen novels feature Queen as the sleuth, there’s at least one instance in which his father, Inspector Richard Queen, takes “center stage.” In Inspector Queen’s Own Case: November Song, Inspector Queen has reached the police department’s mandatory retirement age. He’s not coping with it well, since he no longer feels useful, so he decides to spend some time with an old friend of his who retired earlier and is now the police chief in another, very small, town. One day while walking on the beach, Inspector Queen meets Jessie Sherwood, a nurse/nanny who’s been hired by wealthy Alton and Sarah Humffrey to look after their adopted baby. The two slowly begin a relationship, but the peace and calm of the small town is shattered when tragedy strikes the Humffrey family and Jessie Sherwood is accused of a crime. Inspector Queen works to solve the case and in this novel, the spotlight is definitely on him, rather than his more famous son.
Sometimes, an author allows a “regular” sleuth to take a more minor role so that another major character can be introduced and developed. That’s what happens in Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict. In that novel, Harry Bosch, who’s taken “center stage” in many of Connelly’s novels, doesn’t have as much of the limelight. This time, he shares it with attorney Mickey Haller, whom readers meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. In The Brass Verdict, Haller is left with several cases when fellow attorney Jerry Vincent is murdered. One of those cases is that of Walter Eliot, a producer who’s been charged with killing his wife and her lover. Bosch is investigating Vincent’s murder, and he thinks that it may be related to the Eliot case. So he and Haller work together to find out the truth behind both of the murder cases. In this novel, Bosch certainly plays an important role, but he’s not “onstage” during the entire case in the way he is in other novels.
In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse, who is usually the focus of the Dexter novels, doesn’t take “center stage” in the way he typically does. In that novel, the police re-open the two-year-old murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison when anonymous tips suggest that her killer was Harry Repp, who’s just been released from prison after being convicted of burglary. Morse is, strangely for him, not disposed to investigate the case, but Superintendent Strange wants the case closed, so Sergeant Lewis does most of the work. He discovers that several people besides Repp might have had a motive for murder. Yvonne Harrison had a sexually-obsessed private life, and more than one of her “friends” could have been guilty. The same is true of her family members. In the course of the investigation, Lewis also thinks he has discovered the shocking reason Morse isn’t as keen on this investigation as he usually is. In the end, Morse does provide valuable assistance, but this is really more Lewis’ case.
Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is definitely not one to yield the limelight when he’s on the case. It’s not so much that he’s looking for fame or credit, but he is obsessed with this work. There are times, though, when he has to allow others to do most of the work of a case. That’s what happens, for instance, in Resurrection Men. Rebus and several other police officers have been sent to Tulliallan Police College to try to redeem themselves and start over. All of the men have been in serious trouble on the force, mostly because of trouble working with others. So the “Resurrection Men,” as they’re called, are given a cold case to solve in which they have to work together. The idea is to teach them how to work as a team. While Rebus is sidelined, so to speak, Siobhan Clarke takes up the investigation of Edward Marber, an art dealer who was brutally murdered outside of his home. That’s the case that Rebus had been working on, and now, Clarke’s got to take over and find her own way to untangle the threads of the case. And then it turns out that the Marber murder may be connected to the case that Rebus and the “Resurrection Men” have been assigned to investigate…
In Rankin’s The Falls, Rebus is under department suspension, and it’s Clarke who does quite a lot of the work in the mysterious disappearance of university student Philippa Balfour. Balfour was a member of an Internet gaming group, and Clarke finds several clues to her disappearance through that group. Rebus takes a role in this novel; he’s following up a line of inquiry about some macabre clues left behind in a series of other murders. But this novel is really as much Clarke’s show as it is anything else.
There are lots of other cases, too, where the “regular” sleuth steps offstage and someone else is at the forefront. What do you think of this plot strategy? Do you enjoy these novels? Or do you miss the “regular” sleuth too much?