Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sometimes I Feel as Though I'm Running on Ice*

Not all murder cases are solved neatly and easily. And even in a straightforward murder case (if there is such a thing), there are myriad details involved in the investigation, any one of which could go wrong. And then there's the fact that murder itself is an ugly, horrible thing; even the most jaded detectives can be stressed by it. It's no wonder that many detectives spend a lot of time "running on ice - " making what seems to be little progress on a case despite working as hard as they can. In crime fiction, those complications and the stress they induce can add a layer of suspense and interest to a story. They can make a story more realistic, too. And they can make a sleuth more appealing and human. After all, we all have those times when we seem to be "running on ice," being held back by all sorts of little complications.

We see a case of "running on ice" in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders. Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of a crime that's going to take place in Andover on a certain date. At first, the letter is put down to the work of a crank who likes to write anonymous letters. But sure enough, the day arrives and elderly shopkeeper Alice Ascher is murdered. At first, her husband Franz is the most likely suspect. He's an abusive alcoholic who was on bad terms with his wife; he's threatened her more than once. But the anonymous note seems to clear him, and there is no concrete evidence that he was in the shop on the day of the murder. Before there can be a thorough investigation of Franz Ascher and his whereabouts on the day of the murder, Poirot gets another warning, this time of a murder to take place in Bexhill. Thus begins a long and difficult involving months of time, many hours of work and more murders. Throughout the case, Poirot finds himself "running on ice" more than once. First, there's the media frenzy that follows the second murder. The victim this time is a young and pretty woman, so there's a lot of public interest in the case, especially after the first two murders are linked in the public's mind. Then there's the fact that the murderer is choosing places where there's a lot of summertime activity, so it's harder to spot a stranger; the killer thus remains elusive. In fact, one of the murders takes place in Doncaster on the day of the running of the St. Leger, when the town is full of race fans who congregate everywhere - a perfect "cover" for a murder. But despite these complications, Poirot puts together the pieces of the puzzle and finds out who's behind the murders and why that person has killed. We feel some sympathy for Poirot and the police detectives on the case, though: they certainly do their share of "running on ice" and it frustrates them. Their reaction makes them more human.

We also see a case of "running on ice" caused in part by media hype in Mark Richard Zubro's Another Dead Teenager. Chicago detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick are assigned to solve the brutal murders of high school students Jake Goldstein and Frank Douglas. Both are the children of wealthy, high-profile Chicagoans who are well-regarded in the local community so on two important levels, there are complications. First, the media is immediately drawn to this case and Turner and Fenwick have to do quite a lot of work squelching rumours, answering questions and justifying what the police are doing. Fenwick in particular gets very frustrated with what he sees as the media interfering with the police doing their jobs. As though keeping the media at bay weren't enough, Turner and Fenwick find themselves dealing with police and political bureaucracy because this is such a high-profile case. They're put under intense political pressure to solve the case as soon as possible.

We often see police bureaucracy making Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch "run on ice." It's a theme that runs through several of the novels, so I'll just give two examples. In The Black Ice, Bosch is investigating the death of fellow police officer Calexico "Cal" Moore. First, he's not notified that Moore's body's been found, even though it's found on his beat, on his watch. Then, he gets to the scene only to be told it's a suicide and he's off the case. Bosch persists in asking questions, only to given eight cases left unsolved by a fellow officer who's taken a leave of absence and told to solve those cases within a week. Then, he begins to make some headway on the Moore case, only to find that the fellow police officer who's taken leave can give him very valuable information - but has disappeared. In the end, and despite the obstacles, Bosch finds out the truth about Cal Moore.

In Angels Flight, Bosch and his team are put on the case of the murder of prominent attorney Elias Howard. Howard's a thorn in the side of the L.A.P.D.; he frequently litigates cases against the department, chiefly based on race, and even Bosch doesn't care much for Howard's way of going after police officers who are just doing their job. In fact, at the time of his death, Howard was about to begin a very high-profile case; he was going to sue the department on behalf of Michael Harris, who's been convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris claims the police tortured him and forced him to confess to the crimes. The police have every reason to want Howard dead, so with careers on the line, many of Bosch's own colleagues keep him "running on ice." What's more, the case against Harris really was tainted. So whoever really killed Stacey Kincaid also has every reason to want to block Harry Bosch and allow Michael Harris to be the fall guy. Every bit of progress Bosch tries to make seems to be matched with a step back. Finally, though, he's able to find out the truth about Stacey Kincaid's death. He also discovers who killed Elias Howard.

Andrea Camilleri's Commissario Salvo Montalbano does his share of "running on ice," too. In The Snack Thief, for instance, Montalbano and his team get news of two murders on the same day. In one, a Tunisian boat fires on an Italian fishing boat, killing one of the sailors - who happens to be Tunisian. In another, retiree Aurelio Lapècora is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. Montalbano is getting ready to investigate both cases when the higher-profile case - the fishing boat incident - is given to his deputy and rival Mimì Augello. The case is eventually transferred to the Harbor Office of Mazàra, but that means that Montalbano has to deal with other authorities. He no sooner begins to get that matter straightened out when he finds that the other people who live in the apartment building where Lapècora lived have not told him everything they know about that death. So now Montalbano and his team have to work extra hard to find out the details about that death. Then, it turns out that one person may have important information about Lapècora's murder, but she's disappeared, leaving behind her eight-year-old son. Montalbano finds out how the two cases are related, and what's happened to his missing witness, but not without a lot of "running on ice."

Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti often has to "run on ice," also when he's solving cases. For instance, in Fatal Remedies, he's called to an early-morning vandalism scene. It turns out that the perpetrator is his own wife Paola, who was throwing rocks through the window of a travel agency. Paola wanted to call attention to the fact that that travel agency books sex tours through Thailand and covers up its activities. No sooner does Brunetti begin to resolve the matter of his wife's arrest then his boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta puts him on administrative leave to punish the family. Brunetti manages to begin investigating the travel agency, only to find that the agency is connected to high-level crime business, and those people are in no hurry to be found out. Then, Paolo Mitri, who owns the agency, is murdered. Now, Brunetti finds himself investigating a killing, Mafia connections and Paola's allegations.

All of us feel at times that we're "running on ice," and it makes sleuths more appealing when they have those times, too. Adding those complications can also make a story more realistic and add to the suspense. So long as the complications aren't contrived, the way a sleuth handles "running on ice" can add layers of interest to the story, too. But what do you think? What do your favourite sleuths do when they "run on ice?"

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Running on Ice.


  1. I love the running on ice photo you have there. You're so creative with your camera.
    I agree that the protagonist needs to run on ice to add tension and suspense. Often that happens when killing and murders pile up but the detective just seems to hit brick walls. Both with the witnesses and the evidence.
    Have a great week. I arrive home tomorrow and can't wait to get my life back to normal after five weeks of traveling.

  2. Clarissa - Thanks :-). I really do enjoy taking those 'photos.

    And no doubt about it; the running-on-ice feeling really does seem to increase when there are more murders and the sleuth just isn't getting anywhere with the case. That does ratchet up the tension.

    Have a safe trip home!

  3. Hi Margot .. I loved the words running on ice and as Clarissa says the picture matches exactly - I can imagine slip sliding away.

    I can't remember the ABC murders .. but in those days the 1920s- 30s .. Andover to Bexhill would have been a fair car journey - perhaps 6 hours+ and I hate to think how long to Doncaster from either place ... no motorways etc - or direct routes .. getting from Andover to Bexhill today would take a while!

    Running on ice - we can feel scared and anxious .. Have a good New Year .. Hilary

  4. I love the running on ice and setbacks that detectives can face. It makes mysteries more believable and also gives us insights into their personalities when we see how they handle it.

  5. Hilary - Thanks for the kind words, and I wish you a good New Year, too.

    Also, thanks for the real-life perspective on the distance among those places. There's also a murder in Churston in The ABC Murders, so the detectives "run on nice" just getting round among the different places, let alone trying to catch the murderer. A very well-taken point!

    Elizabeth - You're absolutely right. It's not just the setbacks that add to a plot (although they do). When we see what the detective does about it, this, too, adds to the interest. We get to see another dimension of the sleuth's personality.

  6. Running on ice forces writers to become more creative and not just write a story as a series of events. We need to be challenged and this makes the story more interesting. My characters are in their mid-twenties and at a place they are taking on responsibilities and leaving the free spirited life style behind. So there are lots of opportunities for them to run on ice.

  7. Stephen - You're absolutely right about the way that running on ice challenges authors to weave character development into a story. Stories should involve more than just a series of things that happen and a series of things that characters do about those things. Running on ice puts characters on their mettle. And I agree; characters of the age yours are not only have to deal with whatever events happen in the story; they also have to deal with growing up and maturing and that does, indeed, give the author plenty of opportunities for them to run on ice.

  8. I'd never thought of sleuths 'running on ice'; but what a wonderful way of looking at it! I'm all for it - in moderation. After all, if you run in place on ice for too long, the ice tends to crack. Cracking ice is not good. Falling into freezing water is even worse.

  9. Elspeth - Ah, what wisdom. You are quite right that too much running on ice is not good. Not for a person, not for a plot, either. Quite honestly, I think that just about anything can be very effective in moderation. And anything can ruin a plot of it's overdone. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. "Running on ice" feels like an unsatisfactory alternative to good tension building in a mystery or thriller. It makes me feel uneasy instead of excited.

  11. Patricia - Interesting point. There is a difference, isn't there, between feeling excited (i.e. "I want to know what happens next!") and feeling uneasy. Readers want to feel excited about what's to come, but uneasy is different...