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.