Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It's Never What, But Who it is You Know*

Whenever there’s a criminal investigation, real-life or fictional, there’s a routine and a set of procedures that the police and other law-enforcement authorities follow. But that routine and those procedures can be slow and frustrating. It doesn’t always accomplish much, either. So many detectives “shortcut” the process by “pulling strings.” In fact, you could even say that for some crimes, it’s not what, but whom one knows that helps to solve cases.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who was killed while she was en route to Hyères to meet her lover, Count Armand de la Roche. Ruth had with her a valuable ruby necklace that’s been stolen and in order to track down her killer, Poirot wants to find out what’s happened to the necklace. He knows that it could take a very long time to do that, if it’s even possible, by going through the usual procedures. So instead, he contacts an acquaintance, M. Demetrius Papopolous, a well-known dealer in jewels. Poirot did M. Papoplous a favour many years earlier, so Papopolous is happy to be of service. Without directly saying anything, he tells Poirot what he knows about the jewels, and with that information, Poirot is able to trace what’s happened to them. That information helps him catch Ruth Kettering’s killer.

Poirot uses his social connections, too, when he investigates cases. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he’s investigating the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was convicted and imprisoned for the crime, and with good reason. The evidence incriminated her and she had reason to believe that her husband was going to leave her for another woman. The Crales’ daughter Carla believes that her mother was innocent, though, and asks Poirot to look into the matter. In order to find out the truth, Poirot meets and talks with all five of the other people who were “on the scene” on the day of the murder. With several of them, that’s easy enough, but not with Meredith Blake, one of Crale’s close friends. Blake’s old-fashioned and Poirot knows that he can’t “barge in” announced. So he brings with him two letters of introduction. Interestingly, one of them is from Lady Mary Lytton Gore, whom we meet in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Once Blake reads these endorsements, he slowly unbends. It’s a really interesting example of investigation being a matter of whom one knows.

We also see examples of how important “who you know” is in Dorothy Sayers’ novels. For instance, in Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who’s been charged with poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey is immediately smitten with Harriet and wants to clear her name so that he can marry her. Wimsey gets help and information from several people he knows in order to find out who really poisoned Boyes. For instance, one of his acquaintances, Miss Katherine Climpson, runs an employment agency, and Wimsey uses that connection to place a “mole” in the office of one of his suspects. Wimsey and Inspector Charles Parker use their friendship to compare notes and get evidence that wouldn’t be easily available to either of them otherwise, and together, they solve the case.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is well aware of how things really get done in his city of Venice. Very little actually gets learned through official procedures, so much of his work is accomplished through his and others’ connections. For instance, in About Face, he’s approached by Maggior Filippo Guarini of the Carabinieri. Guarini wants Brunetti’s help with an investigation into illegal trucking and shipping activities. Brunetti has no love for the Carabinieri, and he has no reason to trust Guarini. So at first, the men’s conversation is more a “fencing match” than it is an actual exchange of information. Then, the two men realise that they’re not getting anywhere, so they hit on the idea of finding a mutual acquaintance who will speak up for each man. They agree on Beppe Avisano, a well-known journalist. It’s not until Avisano vouches for both Brunetti and Guarini that the two men agree to work together. In this novel as well as several other of Leon’s novels, we see quite a number of examples of using connections in the work of Signornia Elettra Zorzi. She’s the assistant to Brunetti’s boss Guiseppe Patta, and has connections all over Venice. She often finds out important information from friends, family members and acquaintances.

Sometimes, “who you know” becomes a hindrance to detectives, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch goes up against highly-placed people. In Angels Flight, for example, he’s investigating the murder of well-known attorney Elias Howard. Howard has a track record of prosecuting lawsuits against the L.A.P.D. and in fact, was on the point of starting a new trial when he was killed. This case was on behalf of Michael Harris, who was convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris claims not only that he was innocent, but also that the police tortured him to make him confess to the crime. Since Howard was championing Harris’ cause, the most likely suspects in his murder are highly-placed members of the L.A.P.D. So now, Bosch has to contend with powerful opponents at the top of the L.A.P.D “ladder” who know all sorts of influential people. He’s also up against Stacey Kincaid’s killer, who also knows enough of the “right people” to have remained “hidden.”

We also see a case of “who you know” in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack and Melissa McGuane are the happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Their lives are shattered when Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, decides to exercise his paternal rights. He’d never legally waived them, so what he’s doing is, technically, legal. Still, McGuane can’t imagine why he would suddenly take an interest in Angelina since he never had before. The McGuanes resolve to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina, but they are up against formidable opponents. Garrett Moreland’s father is a powerful judge who will do whatever is necessary to support his son. Besides that, Garrett’s got other, much less respectable but equally powerful, friends who will support him. In the end, Jack McGuane goes to lengths he would never have imagined to try to keep his family together.

In Shona McLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, grammar-school undermaster Alexander Seaton is shocked when the body of Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s assistant, is found in his classroom one morning. It turns out that Davidson’s been poisoned, and Seaton’s friend Charles Thom is accused of the murder. Thom’s got a motive, too, since he and Davidson were rivals for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom begs Seaton to clear his name, and Seaton agrees. He’s up against some powerful forces, though. Davidson’s killer makes good use of highly-placed friends to “hide.” In the end, though, Seaton discovers who the killer is.

The network of people one knows often plays an important part in real life, and certainly in crime fiction, too. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature that plot point?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Marx’s Don’t Mean Nothing.

19 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting point, Margot! I like it in many books when the plodding detective who works with the upper-class one and it is the plodding one who turns out to know someone! I like being surprised. In my Kitty MacDonald novels (all one and a half of them!) Kitty hates that she is from a posh family but in both, her slightly mindless social butterfly mum makes connections for her that turn out very valuable. Hmmm...I didn't even know that I did that until I wrote this!

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  2. Jan - Thanks :-). I agree with you that it's an interesting twist when the person you'd least expect is the one with the right connections. It is, as you say, surprising and can add an interesting layer to a story. And I must say, I'm really eager to read your Kitty MacDonald stories; the more you hint about them, the more interesting they sound...

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  3. I love cutting corners. In my novels, my MC works for MI-5 so she enlists her assistant (who has the ability to hack into computers) to gather the information. It's bad, but I don't think my MC cares. As long as she gets to business faster.

    Sidenote: I'm really glad you liked my post. I was actually wondering if you could prepare something for this series. Maybe how you used linguistics in your novels to help solve the crime?

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  4. Clarissa - Oh, I really did enjoy your post. Folks, do check out Clarissa's post about forensic linguistics. And it'd be an honour to contribute to the series - thank you :-). I'll get in touch with you about it.

    I think it's interesting, too, that your MC does whatever it takes to get the job done, even if "what it takes" means cutting corners and tapping people she knows. My guess is that more than one detective does that in real life...

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  5. Like Clarissa, I use computer hacking by the good guys and the bad guys. Its necessary not only to stay one step ahead of the other, but for survival. Unfortunately, this is the world we live in.

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  6. Stephen - You are right about that. The "bad guys" certainly do their share of computer hacking, to sometimes, the "good guys" have to cross that line, too. And if they, themselves, aren't expert at it, they have to call in someone who is...

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  7. I like having characters call in favours, or have a spot of insider knowledge. I've done it in my books, when normal police channels can be slow and unwieldy, why not let em use their wiles, side-step the system and chat to those in the know. No one wants a protagonist who sits back and does their knitting while they wait for the results to come in!

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  8. Lovely post, as ever, Margot. And a characteristically unique one!

    I just read A Not So Perfect Crime by Teresa Solana (which I highly recommend). One character has recreated himself and has a network of friends using his new personality. This is amusingly done, particularly when one of them turns up on the list of suspects for the murder he is investigating - so he has to find out why she is on the list - without blowing his "cover".

    Another "networked" novel in this way is Val McDermid's A Trick of the Dark - a piece of commercial fiction if ever I read one. The networks there are between lesbian Oxford alumni and are directly relevant to motives and the crimes described. I am still wondering how to react to this book!

    Best wishes
    Maxine.

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  9. Vanda - Well-put! Calling in favours and making a 'phone call or two is a lot more useful than sitting around. More interesting to read about, too. And it's real-life. When people want to get something done, they often go to their own networks if that'll make things go faster.




    Maxine - Oh, thank you :-). You know, I've had that Teresa Solana on my TBR for an embarrassingly long time - I absolutely must read it. And your example from it is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind so I'm glad you shared it.

    Folks, do read Maxine's excellent review of A Not So Perfect Crime


    Thanks also for mentioning that Val McDermid. You're right about the networks; it's one of the themes in that book. About the book itself? Yes, I think commercial fiction is a good way to describe it...

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  10. I think it's who you know throughout life.

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  11. Patti - Good point. We all look at our personal "phone list," so to speak, when we're trying to get things done...

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  12. It's a brutal truth; whether in life or in fiction. And then it leads to owing a favour to Who You Know. This might not be a good thing.

    Another fantastic post, Margot!

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  13. Elspeth - Why, thank you :-). You're right that asking favours means owing them, too. And that can lead to all sorts of complications. Good for plots. Bad for people, at times...

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  14. I approve of the idea of having a network and using it to solve crime, but though it happens, I so dislike the idea that having influential friends should enhance your chance of winning a court case. Everybody should be equal for the law.

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  15. Dorte - You put that very neatly, I think. People do use networks to solve crime in crime fiction, and I'm sure it happens in real life, too. That's one thing. Using networks to get out of trouble is a different matter. It's unfortunate that it happens; I agree that it shouldn't.

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  16. When the detective using whatever connections he has to solve a crime, it adds a little more realism to them. In every day life we ask others to help us in small endeavors. With the detectives, they just sometimes have to cut a few corners that we thankfully don't. Wonderful post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  17. Mason - Thank you :-). You're right, too. In real life, we really do ask people we know to help us. We have "connections" that we use for everything from getting a car fixed to looking for a new job and just about everything in between. It makes sense that sleuths would do that, too, and it makes sense that they'd be motivated to "cut corners," because catching a criminal is at stake.

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  18. It definitely doesn't hurt to have powerful friends lurking in the background for those sleuths who tend to get themselves into trouble. Think of those amateur sleuths who just happened to be married to the sheriff (or maybe a cop or judge).

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  19. Pat - You are so right! I can think of a lot of fictional amateur sleuths who've got friends in police departments, or who are married to someone in law enforcement. It makes for a plausible connection in crime fiction, and it could happen in real life, too.

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